In our current issue, Regina Schrambling profiles chef Bill Telepan and his explains why the title of his new Tribeca restaurant, Telepan Local, is redundant. I recently caught up with Bill about fiddlehead ferns, ice cream sundaes, pretension and his side job reimagining school food.
Edible Manhattan: You’ve been building menus out of local harvests since before many of today’s chefs were eating solid food. Tell me, vegetable whisperer, what should I do with fiddleheads?
Bill Telepan: I get excited when fiddleheads come in because that means it’s a great time of year — and they’re delicious. I do everything with them, they’re so versatile. Blanch ’em for salad. Quickly sauté for pasta. Or sauté with garlic and serve with steak. And they pair well with all that wild stuff that comes in around the same time: nettles, ramps, morels…
EM: How has the Greenmarket scene changed over the years?
BT: Farmers have been wiling to grow more in response to chef demand. I’ve bought seed books and talked to farmers about things I’d buy, and they’ve grown them. I brought Trevisano radicchio seed back from Italy. And customers value these things now. My first chefs job eighteen years ago, people were willing to pay a lot for, say, caviar, but not for the best peas or strawberries. Today they’re savvier, they know more about food and they know how much stuff costs. Things like morels, ramps and fiddleheads are expensive and take a lot of cleaning. But now customers value that; they understand why that makes prices higher, and why they’re worth it.
EM: With so many chefs restaurants buying from local farms, is it hard to get, say, your ramp order?
BT: Well I’m an old timer so I’m high on the list. And we pay! (laughs)
EM: Do you miss the early days when you were blazing the trail to Union Square?
BT: No, today it’s all better! More farmers are growing more things. Young people farming, which is great — they’re excited and doing cool stuff, even in the city.
I’m gonna be tasting ice cream sundaes while we talk. We did apple for winter. About to try strawberry rhubarb with vanilla and lemon verbena ice cream. (Aside: It’s really good. You think so right? I do. Have Leah try.) My daughter Leah’s 12. She ate all the ice cream and none of the rhubarb.
EM: I hear it was your birthday last week. How’d you spend it?
BT: On an airplane going to Paris. It was Leah’s first time. When I was there nineteen years ago, it was all really high end or just classic. Then Spain and Scandinavia took over for a little while. But there’s great stuff happening there now, less pretentious. I ate at a place called Frenchie and another called Spring. Young chefs, doing really wonderful food in casual settings, like Brooklyn. Pretty exciting. The ingredients there are so great — from oysters to fraises de bois.
EM: Good ingredients, cooked simply and served without pretension. That sounds like what you’re doing.
BT: The idea behind Telepan Local is small plates in a casual space. I wanted to buy more from the people I buy from. Downtown it’s those same great ingredients, more simply done. Asparagus is a great example. Uptown, we’ll blanch ’em, strip ’em with a peeler to make ’em look like fettuccine, and serve ’em with fettuccine, summer truffles and housemade truffle ricotta. Downtown, I roast ’em in the pizza oven for a simple salad with ramps and lemon ricotta. Same ingredients, different style.
EM: So you have two jobs now, on top of Wellness in the Schools. Tell me about improving the city’s public school lunches.
BT: It’s hard when you have to feed 860,000 kids every day, for a dollar each. But there are things you can do with what you have. It needs support of the people behind it to cook again. And it’s hard because a lot of cafeteria kitchens aren’t set up for cooking. But there are baby steps. Staff training. New USDA regs have made the food more nutritious. There are a lot of salad bars in NYC schools now, that component is really exciting, and the kids love it. So it’s a lot better than it was when we got involved six years. But there’s still a lot of work to be done. And we’re doing it. We’re in 50 schools, gonna be in 60 next year. We’re working in Florida now too, and we’re in talks with other parts of the country.
EM: Sounds like you’re juggling many plates. I hear you bike between your two kitchens.
BT: On CitiBike I can get from Telepan to Telepan Local in 25 minutes. I could take my own bike, it’s faster, but if I cook all night and get out at 11 p.m., I don’t want to ride back north because I’m tired. I just want to sit in a cab.
Photo credit: Scott Gordon Bleicher