Restaurateur Bill Telepan Talks Food Sustainability in NYC

Jeremy Lehrer

In his years as a pioneering chef—at acclaimed eateries including Judson Grill, his namesake restaurant Telepan, and now Oceana—Bill Telepan has consistently promoted sustainable gastronomy, celebrating the pleasures of local food and gourmet cookery while consciously limiting his restaurants’ carbon footprint. Parallel with his work as a restaurateur, Telepan has been an outspoken activist for food-related causes.

One platform for his advocacy efforts during the past 11 years has been his role as executive chef for the organization Wellness in the Schools (WITS). Founded in 2005 by educator Nancy Easton, WITS believes that public school students who eat nutritious, satisfying meals and are physically active will be healthier, able to concentrate better and more likely to succeed academically. Telepan has provided the culinary know-how and talent for the food dimension of that equation, training chefs to craft nutritious, delicious, filling meals and help shift cultures in the schools. WITS chefs accomplish these goals by working with cafeteria staffs to create healthy menus and—through classes and informal talks—fuel kids’ interest in nutrition and well-being. We caught up with Telepan to discuss sustainable food, his program’s success and the power of a good farmers’ market.

Courtesy, Bill Telepan

How much progress have you seen in terms of sustainable food in NYC? Bill Telepan: : I think we’re in a great spot right now, because things take such a long time. Think about cigarettes, for example: in the 1970s, when I was a kid, we all smoked. By the ‘90s and 2000s, none of the kids smoked anymore. Organic and [green] markets—they are now popping up all over the country, whereas 20 years ago they weren’t. Now we’re seeing the real effects of global warming. A lot of the way we’ve been growing [food] has a huge effect on that, and people are realizing that. Food plays a huge part in all of this. We basically have to eat three times a day to sustain ourselves. That’s a lot of food! There’s a lot of people. The trick is to feed everybody and to grow it properly. We’ve been in a place where we mass-produced food and livestock. It was not a good way to do it, and we’re realizing that now. So we’re trying to dial it back. It’s more difficult to dial it back than to move it forward.

How does the WITS program impact students? BT: We have this captive audience of students in the schools, and our opportunity is to give these kids a breakfast and lunch that is good for them and that will give them energy, and at least fight that part of the battle in public school situations where 75 percent of the kids are at or below the poverty line. Through teaching kids about healthy eating and how to cook, they’re going to make themselves healthier—and they’re also going to want to feed themselves different ingredients than are available to them now.

What are some of the hands-on ways that you educate the students about food? BT: Four times a year, we do a cooking class with something that’s in season, whether it’s beans, tomatoes, salad dressing, carrots, potatoes or a cauliflower and pasta dish. Ninety percent of these are served at school lunch. We say to the kids, “This is going to be on the menu Thursday.” That’s one way of teaching them how to make food with ingredients that they aren’t normally used to working with or eating at home.

What’s the sustainability dimension for the students in this program? BT: We compost and talk about the importance of composting. We talk to the chefs about waste and its cost, to make sure they’re not wasting food. For us, it’s more about: let’s get these kids fed well, get them running around and get them healthy—and hopefully they’ll do really well in school and get out. That’s the most fundamental aspect of sustainability: being able to take care of yourself. Once you’re able to take care of yourself, then you can think about other things to help with, in terms of taking care of the planet, dealing with climate change and who you’re buying your food from.

In terms of education about NYC’s food culture, what’s your top culinary tip for visitors to NYC? BT: I’d tell them to visit the Union Square Greenmarket on Monday, Wednesday, Friday or Saturday. Saturday is a great day. If you go early enough, you’ll see lots of chefs walking through there and buying for their restaurants. Whenever I go to a city, I try to visit one market—sometimes more—just to see what it’s like, what they’re offering at that time of year and the taste of the food. I’ll talk with the farmers to find out who buys from them and where I should eat.