Bill Telepan is a very likable guy – there really isn’t a more accurate way to describe this dynamic restaurateur. He’s become nothing short of an upper west side fixture due to the fan favorite eight-year-old Telepan, a coveted neighborhood spot. In sitting down with him, we could see why his personality bodes so well with his customers as well as his staff. In this day and age he’s a special kind of chef. While so many chefs strive for food TV, judges status or a title that includes “top” “next” or “master,” Telepan has always wanted to be André Soltner, a restaurateur who was dedicated to running and perfecting one restaurant. In this, Telepan has surely gone above and beyond. Only now are we hearing rumors Of Telepan’s upcoming TriBeCa opening, an occasion we wait for with baited breath. We got the inside scoop from this icon on everything food…and a bit of music at that.
What would be your ideal food day?
I think I would wake up in the morning and have some eggs with some cheese, potatoes, a slice of bread and good strong coffee. And then probably for lunch something along the lines of – this is barring no calories right?
So somewhere between breakfast and lunch, a slice of pizza. And then lunch would be a burger and then afterwards would be a big steak. It depends on the time of year because I like to cook seasonally, so perfect tomatoes would be great. I’d like to just take a sliced tomato with some aged cheddar crumbled up and eat it like that. I think the perfect food day would be along those lines. Then I’d finish the night off with some good pork fried rice.
What would be your perfect drink with that day?
It depends what you’re eating. With the burger and pizza I’d like to have a good beer – I like some pale ales and some pilsners. And then with the steak it would be some red wine. Actually, if I didn’t do the fried rice after – if I did a taco to finish the day – it would be a good margarita.
How would you say your Hungarian background plays into your food?
I think the way I would describe new American cuisine is an American chef who takes all the influences of his life and applies them to his food. The Hungarian stuff is always in my head. I’m a guy from New Jersey – so from there that reminds me of fresh blueberries and tomatoes. I’ve worked in France with some great French chefs. I’ve lived in the northeast. I love Italian and the way Italians play with the seasons and their simplicity. And I’m Hungarian. Whenever I’m creating a dish, something will always be generated from that matrix, so it does play a part. The bellini with the smoked trout [at Telepan] would an example of Eastern European cooking. I do goulashes and paprikash, but sort of modernize them and make them lighter.
Alfred Portale, of Gotham Bar and Grill, talked about new American cuisine, and you were at Gotham for seven years. He said Gotham gives you an experience you can easily translate to other kitchens, rather than a place like French Laundry, which is a more unique and rare experience. Would you agree with that?
One hundred percent. The thing is, you learn everything in bits and pieces from different chefs. You put it into the pot and you spit out your own cuisine. I think the one thing from Alfred that I learned – and he said it too – is consistency. That’s what makes Gotham Bar and Grill so great. I think what you learn there is how to put out high-end cuisine at a high volume. You learn how to get the food out really well and that’s the one thing I’ve taken with me to every restaurant I’ve worked at. His consistency is unsurpassed. I love Alfred; he’s great.
There was something you wrote in the Huffington Post about music and food, and in it you mentioned Tom Colicchio playing [music]. Tom Colicchio in his interview for us mentioned how food and music are similar. Do you think there are similarities between the two?
I think food and music - when done really well - both come from the soul. In that respect, they’re similar. But it’s easier to put out a record. When you create a record, it always sounds the same. It’s always consistent. With food, it’s not the case. Food is more like theater. That’s the way I like to see it. For theater, you get all jumped up for previews, which is right before you get reviewed, as you do in a restaurant. Then you get reviewed. The reviews are in - hopefully they’re fantastic – and then every night you have to do the same thing over and over again, like in a play. It’s just to please people. In a movie, you make a mistake and you flesh it out and redo it so that you put out the perfect thing. Same thing with music. Music you have a little more freedom to change things around. I think of it more like that.
Do you ever think about opening more restaurants?
We’ve had opportunities to, but they just have to be right. We were in a weird period in the world when we opened. We opened at the end of ’05, ’06 – flush years in America. Then in ‘08, the economy tanked. So it was hard. There have been opportunities and they just haven’t worked out given the timing. We do things ourselves – me, my partner and the people here. It’s not like we have this big bankroll of people. But we have had opportunities and we continue to look for other things – but they have to feel really, really good.
There’s something to be said for someone staying at a restaurant, really perfecting it for a long time, and then having it become a timeless space…
It’s true. The customers like it when I’m here – and I like being in the kitchen when I’m here. That’s why I did it. I didn’t do it to wear a suit. My whole dream when I was a kid graduating was to be André Soltner, who had that one place and did it well every day. I kind of got that in a way. Dreams do change and things happen; the pressure now is to open more and more and be on TV – stuff like that. It makes it harder to be a one restaurant chef because, for instance, when you talk to your PR company, you’ll say “Well what can you do for me?” and it’s like “Well, open another restaurant.” What happens if I don’t want to open another; does that mean that no one wants to come and eat my food and see what we’re doing? That’s bullshit. We all like to go to places that are familiar and comforting. We change our menu a lot and do different dishes. We’re still on top of our game.
Do you think that the culinary world has changed in that sense? That so many chefs are becoming more like creative directors…
That’s cool too. People like Tom Colicchio, who’ve been doing it a long time, who’s had people working with him a really long time, who can do a lot of restaurants and who has a lot of talented people he can give jobs to – that’s awesome. I think it’s cool they’re doing it. I believe hard work always pays off.
Is Food TV something you’d want to get into if it was the right opportunity?
Yeah sure, if it was the right opportunity. But I don’t want to go on a TV show and have them tell me to act like an asshole. They’d say “Oh, you be the wise ass,” and I would be like “No, I don’t want to look like a fool.” I just want to be myself. Years ago this was not an option, and now you have to think in these terms. But I’ll go on NBC with Kathie Lee and Hoda and do “Blah, blah, drinks. Blah, blah, drinks.”
Have you been on that?
Yeah totally. You go on the show, they tell you you have four minutes, and by the time you actually get on you have two minutes and fifty eight seconds. It’s good though. People see it, they recognize you and then they think, ‘I should go to Telepan.’ So, it’s helpful.
Do you prefer the competitive TV culture or the Julia Child culture?
I don’t like competitive TV that much. We always ask the question: what do they do with all the food? There are a lot of hungry people out there. Hopefully they do some good things with it. I think it’s silly if you’re going to tell me to cook something – or five ingredients – in an hour, and if I cant do well then I’m not a good chef. I like the Julia Child stuff, where people can learn how to cook for themselves. I think people don’t cook enough at home anymore and I think there is a missing element with families. My daughter is into cooking now and we get to do it together – and I think that’s great. She wants to learn how to cook and I think that’s important. Other people don’t have the opportunity for that, but they should. When Mario [Batali] did that show…
No, his old ones [Molto Mario, Mediterranean Mario]. The Chew is a talk show. It’s a frigging talk show – which is awesome, for us chefs to be able to be talk show hosts. I think with food TV there are a lot of really talented chefs who can’t come across well on TV. They’re getting left behind because some schmuck can act like a wingnut on television and then all of the sudden he opens fifteen burger joints and he’s awesome.
Do you think food TV messes with the priorities of young chefs?
Yes, because they all want to be on Top Chef; they all want to win it. When you really want to be a chef, you have to be a business man. Marco Pierre White said it perfectly: “If you don’t have the commerce, you cant make the art.” We have to make money.
I wanted to ask you about the Wellness in the Schools organization, of which you’re on the Board of Directors…
Childhood obesity. It’s a big issue. Again, I think it goes back to people not knowing how to cook anymore, so everybody is eating processed food with empty calories – a lot of things within reach that are easy to reach. It’s the same thing with hunger. Hunger is an issue but if you feed people bad food, they get obese. If you eat real food, your body is able to process it better and burn slower. So in schools, we wanted to take the processed food out and start from scratch, cooking the school lunches. But, the people in the kitchens don’t necessarily know how to cook. So, like Teach for America, we [Wellness in the Schools] go in with culinary graduates and they teach the cooks how to cook and how to run the kitchen themselves. Now the USDA regulations demand that [that they need to know how to cook] so that’s what we do. We go into schools and help train them. We also have an educational piece where four times a year we teach a recipe from the cafeteria to the kids. So then they have the chili, which they hated a week ago, but now they know how to make it, so they love it! They go home with recipes; they get excited and hopefully get their parents to cook it again. Education is such an important piece to this whole epidemic.
What did you think of the soda ban? Did you agree with that?
When you go into a movie theater, your smallest soda option is eighty ounces. You walk out with a gallon of soda. But the truth is, people should be able to tell themselves not to drink soda. I don’t drink soda. Why do you have to drink soda? It’s so bad for you. Have a glass of water. You’re pouring sugar down your throat. If you’re drinking two to three sodas a day, that’s six hundred calories that do nothing for you except add weight.
What’s your go-to when cooking for your family?
It depends what time of year it is. Right now, we cook a lot with cauliflower and broccoli. In the summer, I like to bring tomato and peas in. The one thing we love to do is ‘Taco night at the Telepans.’ We like Mexican food, so we’ll do Pico de Gallo, guacamole, seasoned meat, cheese, shredded lettuce, beans – the whole thing. Obviously pasta; my daughter made us a Bolognese sauce recently which was really good. And sometimes we’ll make our own cavatelli at home.
Do you have some favorite New York spots?
In the neighborhood [Upper West Side], I like Celeste. It’s a little Italian restaurant on 84th and Amsterdam. It’s delicious. I know the owner and he gets great cheeses in and always has some hidden wines in the back. He picks out really great stuff. It’s cheap, great, not your typical red sauce, no spaghetti and meatballs, but they do a lot of really great Italian food. There are so many great restaurants. I just had a great meal at Per Se. My go to four star restaurant is Le Bernardin. I just love the food there. I love going to Gotham [Bar & Grill]. I love all of April Bloomfield’s restaurants. Andrew Carmellini always does great things. Daniel Boulud’s restaurants are great. You could go for dumplings at the Shanghai Café which are great – the options in New York are insane. I eat here at Telepan often. I think that’s important. I try to eat two dishes a day here.
If you could swap restaurants with one restaurateur for one night who would it be?
That’s a tough question; there are so many. I’d love to see how Mari Batali functions. I’d love to spend a day in the Per Se kitchen or hang out with April [Bloomfield] for a day in her restaurant. I know I’m missing people…
If you had a dinner party and you could invite any five guests living or dead who would it be?
I like the band Arcade Fire, so I’d like to hang out with them. I’d like to have Radiohead there, and Bruce Springstein. I’d like to have Martin Luther King there. I’d like to have all the guys on Mount Rushmore: Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Teddy Roosevelt and Thomas Jefferson – who shares a birthday with me! I would love to have Will Ferrell there because he cracks me up. Alfred Hitchcock to see what goes on in his mind. I love John Steinbeck and JD Salinger. So there are a lot of people. Big dinner party.
What would you cook?
We’d have pizza and a big salad. My wife likes this one salad with porcini peppers – kind of a cross between a Greek and Italian – so I’d have her mix it up. And we’d have all these toppings to throw on all these pizzas. My daughter Lia would make a cake and some of her blondies. A good time.
What music would you play?
Well I have Arcade Fire and Radiohead there. And then I’d have Thom York take over and DJ a little.
How do you feel about new potatoes?
I like them dug out of the ground, diced up and then poached in butter, allowed to sit so the butter gets to absorb into the potato and then gently warms them. It’s like eating a little pearl of butter.
*To view Bill Telepan’s recipe for Lobster Bolognese, Click Here
*Bill Telepan, photographed at Telepan by Danielle Kosann