How a Weekly Volunteer Gig Turned into Bill Telepan’s Other Job

On a recent weeknight the dining room at Telepan was crowded: Diners savored duck eggs with fava beans and green garlic; halibut with chanterelles; heritage pork with wilted frisée and housemade charcuterie with farro, radishes and watercress. The chef, Bill Telepan, left the restaurant near midnight, but the next morning he dropped his daughter at school, rode the A train all the way to 207th Street, and by 9:30 was in the kitchen of Muscato/Amistad Public School cooking vegetarian chili for hundreds of public school students—from a recipe he hopes will be replicated in cafeterias citywide.

“We all know that school food is a hot issue right now,” says Nancy Easton, one of the founders of the not-for-profit Wellness in the Schools, of which Bill is a startlingly active member. “There are conferences, seminars, special events. Obama even spoke about it when he addressed the American Medical Association. But other than Bill, no chef in this city has taken on this issue from a grassroots, bottom-up level.”

If you know Bill Telepan at all—if you dined on his farm-forward fare when he manned the stoves at Judson Grill, or more recently at his eponymous Telepan, or if you know his gorgeous, aptly named cookbook Inspired by Ingredients—you probably can’t imagine him cooking anything that’s been out of the earth for more than a few hours. He’s been a Greenmarket regular since 1991, when, as sous-chef at Gotham Bar & Grill, he was one of a then-small coterie of chefs, including Peter Hoffman (Savoy, Back Forty), Michael Romano (Union Square Café) and Jean-Georges Vongerichten (Jean Georges) who were early devotees of fresh, local ingredients. He remains a beloved regular at Union Square, a longtime best customer and personal friend of scores of farmers who sell there.

Running a restaurant is more than a full-time job, and running a restaurant that showcases local food is even harder (just ask him what it’s like to haul all those bags of eggplant and escarole to the Upper West Side, and how much simpler it would be to have industrial ingredients delivered to his door). But over the past year Bill has somehow found the time to take on New York City school food, too. And while it’s become commonplace for star chefs to criticize what passes for lunch in school cafeterias, with the most dedicated leading an occasional group of students on a tour of the Greenmarket or donating food for a fund-raiser, Bill has dived headlong into the belly of the bureaucratic beast, leaving his restaurant stoves several days a week to meet with school lunch officials, develop recipes and literally work the lunch line in the cafeteria, all in an effort to improve the meals New York City feeds to over 850,000 students a day—including his own daughter. But unlike so many culinary glitterati who criticize from afar, Bill isn’t talking about students savoring heirloom lettuces grown out back. Like the man who made soup from a stone, this three-star chef is determined to apply his white-tablecloth skills to the stark, fluorescent-lit realities of the cafeteria tray.

Which are these: The USDA reimburses public schools roughly $2.57 for each free lunch they serve, $2.17 for a reduced-price lunch and 24 cents for a paid lunch. The USDA also provides schools with commodity foods: precooked and frozen fare is the norm, like chicken nuggets, fish sticks and heavily breaded mozzarella sticks. Few schools have what anyone would consider a working kitchen.

Bill’s daughter, Leah, attends P.S. 87, an elementary school on the Upper West Side; through fellow parents he started working with Wellness in the Schools last fall, and decided to volunteer one day a week in his daughter’s cafeteria. Where other advocates see only horror on a hamburger bun, Bill, as if channeling Saul Alinsky, found opportunity to change the system from within: He says he quickly realized that while the system as a whole is in dire need of reform, a lot could be done at the local level.

“They’re using a mixture of ketchup and grape jelly for barbecue sauce and the peanut butter is full of corn syrup,” he says. “And, let’s face it, what can you do for 94 cents a day? But I realized people weren’t working well with what they have. Why open canned green beans first and wait for the [fresh] cauliflower to get old? Why steam canned ravioli for an hour? Take something as simple as a salad bar. If the lettuce is brown and all you have with it are some chopped onions, the kids aren’t going to eat it.”

So he set out to create meals they would. The first, he resolved, would be Salad Day. Thus began Telepan’s introduction to the frustrations of school food procurement and delivery systems (lettuce didn’t arrive on time; tomatoes were hard and flavorless); limited equipment (P.S. 87’s ancient stove has only one working burner) and an unmotivated staff whose culinary feats were limited to taking food out of the freezer, heating it and putting it on trays.

Give up in exasperation? Not Bill. Undeterred, he set to work, teaching the staff to make wraps filled with chicken or beans and outfitting the salad bar with fresh iceberg, romaine, cucumber, celery, corn, onions, cheddar, even whole-wheat pasta salad. It worked: 679 students ate lunch as opposed to the normal average of 350. “Dad!” said young Kyla Keating, running over to her father Kernan Keating, one of the day’s volunteers, “I cleaned my whole plate!”

“Bill,” said Keating, “is the best thing that has ever happened in this school.”

Next, Bill declared Hormone-Free Milk Day and invited Sam Simon, the doctor-turned-dairy-farmer who founded Hudson Valley Fresh. The school’s everyday chocolate milk cartons, which list high fructose corn syrup and cornstarch as ingredients, took the day off. Instead the kids drank fresh milk from cows that live on pasture up in the Hudson Valley.

But when Bill planned Grass-Fed Beef Day he received a flat “no” to cooking fresh meat—even though he offered to pay for it himself. Without an Ansul Fire Suppression System, school officials feared fire from sizzling fat and cited food safety concerns when handling fresh meat. Sure, Bill was uninspired by the “safer” standard frozen feedlot meat, but where ingredient ideologues would find themselves in a stalemate, he compromised with Vegetarian Chili Day.

By now Bill was spending several days a week at the school, working with the kitchen crew to prepare better tasting, better looking lunches and going up the bureaucratic ladder in search of training for kitchen crew and real ingredients for them to cook. He and his fellow Wellness parents were in regular touch with Stephen O’Brien, Manhattan Regional Director for School Foods, the man responsible for the food service in 220 cafeterias throughout the borough. The day I met him, O’Brien had been following the school lunch menu for Sidwell Friends, the private school the Obama girls attend: “Organic spinach, roasted local vegetable melts, organic blackbean nachos,” he said wistfully.

In April, Bill and the Wellness crew traveled to NYC School Food’s Long Island City headquarters to meet with executive chef Jorge Collazo and present two goals: swapping out what they called “The Top 10 Bad Foods” (peanut butter, jelly, breaded chicken products, cereals, french fries, burgers, meat sauces, Jamaican beef patties, canned ravioli and cold cuts with nitrates) and introducing training so staff could cook more—and “heat and serve” less.

It wasn’t an easy meeting. Collazo said his priority was to get high school students to eat school food instead of going out to neighborhood fast food places. Bill’s answer? “Forget them. It’s too late. They’re probably going to go out no matter what you do at this point. We should focus on the little kids.”

“He’s approached this the way he runs his restaurant,” says Easton of Telepan’s mix of idealism and realism. “You get the best of what you can and you do the very best with it that you can.”

In keeping with that spirit, Telepan sent Collazo a follow up e-mail: “We can provide fresh and nutritious food very easily if we work at it. I know it will be hard to change overnight, but we can take steps together and eventually it will be easy.”

It’s not easy yet, but Telepan and the group have expanded their program into two more schools, P.S. 84 and Muscata/Amistad in Inwood. For Muscata parent association president Shannon Park, it wasn’t a moment too soon. “We heard over and over that there was not enough food,” she recalls. “The kids who had lateperiod lunches were just getting cold cheese sandwiches and milk. The way the school food people were responding, you would have thought we were asking to have a cow in the dining room. Then we went after the salad bar. It was just brown lettuce and whatever else was around. Only two of the eight trays were used. We heard about Telepan and the Wellness in the Schools Program and they agreed to help us.”

“Bill is a child advocate,” continues Park. “He was able to answer questions about policy, school food politics, calories, sodium— all the things we really didn’t know. He could communicate effectively with the school food people. He believes you don’t need to dumb down to children. They deserve to have their palates inspired and they understand good-quality food.”

Bill held a training session at his restaurant, worked to place French Culinary Institute students in the schools and now heralds the Muscata lunchroom as a success story. “We won’t know until next fall whether we are really making a difference,” says Telepan, “but it’s a start. This is not just about our children at this particular school. It is for the greater good.”

Bill will continue to work his recipe-developing, salad-baroverhauling magic while helping Wellness roll out programs in eight more schools, aided by students from the Culinary Institute of America, French Culinary Institute and Careers in the Culinary Arts Program who will “intern” in school cafeterias, following his example. Hopefully, they won’t have to work quite as many hours as he does.

“What started off for Telepan as three days over three months at P.S. 87,” says Nancy Easton, “has turned into practically a fulltime job.”

Photo credit: Roey Yoha