Local, Localer, Localest: Bill Telepan Takes TriBeCa

At his new location, Bill Telepan kicks it down a notch.

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Earning its name. Telepan Local is steps from the TriBeCa Greenmarket and for the chef, you could say proximity is destiny. His first big job, at Gotham Bar and Grill more than 25 years ago, was just strides from union Square.

The name of Bill Telepan’s new restaurant sounds redundant: Telepan Local. This is one chef who has been cooking what grows locally for so long he remembers when Greenmarket carrots came in only one color and tomatoes in only one type (hint: not heirloom).

And it was partly thanks to his prodding farmers to grow more, better, that so many home cooks now have access to such an amazing cornucopia, from purple peas to “purple haze” carrots, not to mention goat meat, duck liver and caught-yesterday cod.

Telepan Local is mere steps from the TriBeCa Greenmarket and for the chef, you could say proximity is destiny. His first big job in Manhattan, at Gotham Bar and Grill more than 25 years ago, was just strides from the Union Square Greenmarket. But the elfin-faced chef, who has a raucous laugh and rocks it often, also jokes that his origins in the Garden State destined him to take the path most local.

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Something old, something new. The longtime locavore bills his downtown menu as American tapas: fried watercress with chili oil, a buttery play on patatas bravas and pizzas whose 18-year-old sourdough is a canvas for whatever’s ripe.

Over a long lunch, and many rocks, at his eponymous-sans-adjective restaurant on the Upper West Side, he recalled starting out in the late ’80s when American cuisine was basically “diced red peppers and a squeeze bottle,” when Alice Waters would bring salad to a Rockefeller Center event and “people would be up in arms that ‘this is not cooking.’”

Today, emphasis on ingredients, rather than elaborate technique or saucing, has come so far he can sell a $19 entrée out of only seasonal vegetables: raw, fermented, pickled and marinated.

Telepan, now 48, got hooked on the high energy of restaurant kitchens while in high school in Sayreville, New Jersey, working as a dishwasher and cook in an Italian restaurant run by Greeks. His next job was in a neighborhood restaurant, “kind of a glorified Friday’s,” that nonetheless had a chef who had graduated the Culinary Institute of America and encouraged him to enroll rather than go to college. His mother was not happy when he told her — but presumably she was this spring when he was invited to speak at graduation at the Harvard of Food.

He himself graduated in 1987, and one of his instructors sent him to interview with Charlie Palmer, then at the River Café in Brooklyn, who passed his resume on to Alfred Portale at Gotham Bar & Grill in Greenwich Village. He had never heard of the place, but it had just snared three stars from the New York Times.

While working there for a couple of years, he caught the France bug that was going around New York — Palmer, Portale and lesser mortals in the Gotham kitchen had all cooked there. So Telepan wrote to 30 chefs overseas. “Twenty didn’t respond. Five wanted me to pay to work for them.” Four said no.

Alain Chapel said he could come.

It was a transformative experience because European chefs have been doing farm-to-table since before Pilgrims even landed on a certain rock. Chapel would build his monthly menus around what was in the market in Lyon and by whatever foragers or farmers turned up with at the back door, from rabbits to truffles. Telepan learned a lot just by unloading the truck every day.

Back in Manhattan, Telepan worked with Daniel Boulud at Le Cirque and then at Le Bernardin before returning to Gotham in 1992 as executive sous-chef, creating lunch specials and doing all the ordering, as much of it as possible from Union Square, just a tomato’s toss away.

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“We were right there, and Alfred encouraged me to buy from there,” he said. Portale may be known for vertical assemblages on dinner plates, but, more important, he “was in tune to what was available, and he bought that way. I was the one going to the market with a couple of guys with a hand truck. I got to know [now soil celebrities] Rick Bishop and Ron Binaghi and Alex Paffenroth. I would buy as much as I could from there. But at that time there wasn’t the variety.”

Over the years, that changed. As Telepan observes, “Chefs push each other, and farmers push each other.” Farmers who started out with little more than onions and corn eventually began growing everything from salsify to shiso to celeriac. A breakthrough came in 1996, when Telepan was chef at Ansonia, an ambitious, and short-lived, restaurant on Columbus Avenue.

“I remember the day my friend Charles Kiely [now of the Grocery in Brooklyn] called me and said, ‘Dude, you’d better come down — this guy has 50 varieties of tomatoes.’” Now, of course, “Tim Stark is a god of heirloom tomatoes, and peppers, too.”

Telepan got the Ansonia gig by answering a classified ad in the Times (remember those?) and the paper soon took note. “We got this really wonderful review from Ruth Reichl” — she raved about “the quality of the ingredients and his deep respect for flavor” as well as his seasonal focus — “and we were busy as crap.”

But the four partners had differing concepts, and the gig was soon up — “I was the opening chef and the closing chef.” Luckily, partners in Gotham came by to try his food after the closing was announced, and lured him to their Judson Grill in Midtown. He had a six-year run, earned three stars from the Times and in 2004 published a cookbook, Inspired by Ingredients, an ahead-of-its-time concept with a title that could be his epitaph.

And then, wanting his own, smaller restaurant, he went eponymous, opening on West 69th Street in 2005, its scene set with wall-size photos of the farms supplying the kitchen: enormous images of the Hudson Valley’s rich black dirt and tree limbs heavy with fruit.

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Exactly 59 days later, the restaurant was awarded two stars by Frank Bruni. Telepan observed that “we’re a whole different restaurant eight years on.” Certainly Michelin agrees — he holds one of its rarefied stars.

The restaurant recently got a facelift but the menu remains rooted in the Greenmarket. This time of year that means pastured duck from Garden of Spice Farms with rhubarb and black pepper, fresh pasta with asparagus and housemade ricotta, and the pea pancakes that have been a spring staple since he opened. Lobster Bolognese has also been on the menu since day one, as has house-smoked brook trout with buckwheat-potato blini.

In February, Telepan expanded to TriBeCa, a neighborhood he had test-sautéed with a pop-up a year before. His downtown menu is those same ingredients, now served as what he calls Americanesque tapas: fried watercress with cashews and chili oil; Buffalo-style quail with celery root and blue cheese; pork belly with kohlrabi. When Cherry Lane Farms digs its first potatoes this year, he plans to cook a buttery play on patatas bravas.

Unlike uptown, the dining room has a relaxed vibe, and lower prices (a meal of five dishes plus a bottle of Rueda was around $100). And the kitchen boasts a pizza oven, inherited from the previous occupants, that will allow more playtime with vegetables; the starter for the dough dates from Ansonia days, 18 years ago.

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Seasoned to perfection. Telepan’s 2004 cookbook, Inspired by Ingredients, was an ahead-of-its-time concept whose title could be his epitaph.

These days you don’t see Telepan at a Greenmarket very often, not least because cooks who work for him do so partly for the pleasure of connecting with farmers themselves, as he did a generation ago. Saturdays more often find him taking his 12-year-old daughter, Leah, to a soccer game or dance class than prowling Union Square. But he still ventures out for discoveries, like the kale sprouts he found at the Greenmarket at 77th and Columbus, which he bought to try at home and wound up going back to buy in a 20-pound box to showcase as a side dish.

But mostly it’s because he puts in 14-hour days with essentially three full-time jobs: two with the restaurants and the third with Wellness in the Schools, a nonprofit program he joined (as the first chef to volunteer) because he has a daughter in the public school system and other parents prodded him to get involved. Among other pushes, it pairs restaurant chefs with lunchroom cooks to teach them how to create more nutritious meals from scratch.

In New York City, “we went from 3 to 8 to 18 to 50 schools,” he said. Next year the total will be 60, plus Florida is soliciting his advice on recipes.

“If anything changes the culture of a school, it’s the way people think about eating.” He credits Michelle Obama with combating obesity in kids and says his big thrill was being recruited by the White House chef, Sam Kass, to help plan Chefs Move to Schools, another program that connects chefs to school cafeterias. Through that he has recruited the likes of Michael Romano, Jonathan Waxman and Aaron Sanchez.

For all his farm fame, though, Telepan is probably best known for another attribute, and Portale sums it up well: “He’s such a likable guy, for all his talent. He has such positive energy, and he’s such a nice man.”

Farmers would call it a can-grow attitude.

Read our conversation with chef Telepan about fiddleheads, Paris and CitiBike here; Watch  a Potluck Video with Telepan Local about how to prepare snails at home here

Photo credit: Scott Gordon Bleicher

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Regina Schrambling is a longtime food writer who left an editing job at the NYT to train at the New York Restaurant School, freelanced for magazines for 15 years, returned to the NYT for 46 months as deputy editor of the Dining section and then happily returned to freelancing. Her cat eats extremely well.