The subject: Chef Bill Telepan, sat across from us as we nervously shuffled our recording device, pen, and paper. This was our first interview, and Chef Bill is intense. As we fumbled he went into boss mode, swooped up my phone and downloaded the recording app I swore I’d never deleted. He looked at us expectantly through sensible, round glasses, his jovial grin daring us to ask him something stupid. We forged ahead and got an inside look inside Chef Bill Telepan’s active mind and found what makes for a good kitchen culture, how to be a “successful” chef, and the signature spring dish that old and new customers still get excited about.
The irony of a chef sitting at his own Chef’s table was not lost on me. I thought of mentioning it but the twinkle in our subject’s eye let me know that he was ready for a verbal display of his quick wit and perpetually present sense of humor. I decided to stick with the script of questions Marissa and I had prepared to ask.
The Chef’s Connection: I’m just going to jump right in… What it is like to essentially trust your whole legacy to a group of young adults every night? How does that feel?
Chef Bill Telepan: Well the key word is adults. If you worry about every little thing, well, I would die very early. And in the scheme of things what we’re doing is not preventing nuclear war or saving lives, we’re just cooking food. And there’s a human factor anyway, so there’s always going to be mistakes. So why not trust it to a group of eager individuals? And if they’re not here to learn, and just to make money, that’s another motivating factor. What’s great is that I can let my sous chefs run the kitchen with line cooks who want to learn and grow. To me those are the best people.
TCC: So you’re able to remove yourself from the whole equation?
BT: It actually makes my life easier if I do that. I don’t have to stress about everything. But when I owned my own restaurant I had so many other duties. I wanted to let people run the kitchen. Then you can allow yourself to market the restaurant by being at events or on TV or going to food festivals. And if you didn’t let go you wouldn’t be able to do any of that stuff.
TCC: Which brings me to my next question, somewhat. You see this group of eager young adults, what was it like for you as a line cook in your early twenties and how has the kitchen culture changed?
BT: I don’t think it’s changed much. (laughing) I still act the way I did when i was 20. I still tell the same jokes. The great thing about it is that you can tell the same jokes because you’re always getting a new batch of people. It’s still a work hard atmosphere. I think that now you have to be more, I’m trying to think of how to say this, I would work for $100 dollars a day for as many hours as I’d work and that’s illegal now. We were exploited more in my times, but you know, I didn’t mind. There was a point in my career when a restaurant I was working at asked me to join a union, and I said no, that’s money out of my pocket. So that’s all stopped, you have to pay everyone hourly, allow for breaks, and you know the whole harassment thing. I was never for that anyway. It’s more like, how you speak in the kitchen. Even I’ve had to calm myself down.
TCC: There’s a fine line.
BT: There’s always a fine line but that line has gotten thicker. Which is good in a way. It may be less fun (laughs) because the jokes aren’t as crude jokes.
TCC: So the culture is just, different. Not really worse or better?
BT: Well yeah, it is but it also depends on where you are. All of the changes that have happened in our business have been for the better, which I’m happy about. Work may have a few extra steps but it’s all good.
TCC: So back in the young Bill Telepan days. What would you say was a pivotal or defining moment in your early career, before you became “Bill Telepan”?
BT: When I left cooking for a few months, after I graduated high school, that was pivotal because I missed it so much and it made me go back. There was another point when I took a job at Gotham blindly, because I’d never heard of Gotham Bar and Grill and not knowing what I was getting myself into working in this 3 star New York restaurant that at that time had the brightest spotlight on it. The mayor was coming in, all these movies stars…
Another point was working in France and that sort of defined how I wanted to cook in terms of seasonal great products. And then from there it was just a series of forks in the road, between taking this job or going to work at Le Cirque and Le Bernardin and Daniel or going back to Gotham as a sous chef. Then getting fired from the job after that, but everywhere I learned something. To become a chef you go work with these great chefs that have their own ideas, and you go and learn from all of them and take what you think is the best idea and they all sort of become your own. And a lot of that will be your personality and where you grew up. Without realizing food was really import in my life growing up and I didn’t even know it until I became a chef. I never dreamt I was going to be here today doing what I’m doing. I never dreamt about owning a restaurant. It all sort of came to the point where I’d been a chef for several years and I thought “maybe I could open my own restaurant.” So I think when people say “I have this passion, I’m going to open a restaurant in five years.”
TCC: But you don’t really know what’s going to happen in five years!
BT: You don’t know what’s going to happen!
BC: Especially in this business
BT: And it’s so volatile, the margins are so small. It’s hard to predict bad weather, or a power outage or your mother dying, or a family member needing you or you getting injured. All this stuff can happen and has happened, and you don’t really know what’s going to happen. I think what you should do is, if you really love what you’re doing, like I do you just do it to do it. You do as much and learn as much as you can. I don’t have the right answer, I rely on everybody. I rely on the management team when I have a question. Sometimes I might have an idea, and I’m a little stubborn, so if I feel like I have a great idea I won’t listen to anybody I’ll sort of just do it. (laughs)
But sometimes it’s wrong! It just about making sure you’re in a good place, and you like what you’re doing. I’ve worked in a miserable job for 3 months so every time I would come home, I’d tell my wife I’m going to quit tomorrow. Just be in a place that you like a lot and work with people you like a lot. That’s what I try to build here. There used to be such a bad culture here when the old chef left and before I started. There were just a lot of people coming through and it was difficult because some of them were not good people. And when there’s one bad seed, you have to get rid of it.
TCC: So you sort of touched on it before. But did you always want to be a chef when you were growing up or did it just sort of find you?
BT: I cooked. I got a job to pay for a car when i was 15. I worked in a deli and when my friend left I took his job.
TCC: What kind of deli was it?
BT: A shit hole! It wasn’t even really a deli, it was more like a place where you go buy cigarettes. It was so gross and meat would stay there so long that every once in a while I’d have to check the meat and wash off the slime. The owner was a drunk. I used to steal cigarettes. My friends would come because they had all the video games you could want like Galaga, Pac Man, Mission Control and they’d give me a dollar and I’d give them three dollars in quarters and say I was buying a pack of cigarettes so I could just jingle the change drawer.
I was getting paid under the table like slave wages (laughing) but I occasionally cooked a hamburger or made a sandwich or heated up some soup. So after baseball season my friend was working at an Italian restaurant and said they needed a dishwasher. I did that for a few weeks and then they needed a part time cook so I told them I used to cook, because I hated dish washing. My friend was so mad but it was true. So I’d cook twice a week and dish wash twice a week. So to this day he sees me post my work on Facebook he always says “that coulda been me!”
TCC: Geez that must sting a little bit.
BT: No! I think he’s joking. (laughing)
TCC: He’s totally serious. (laughing)
BT: So that’s how I started. I realized from there to the time I graduated and worked other jobs, there was one job I worked at that was glorified Friday’s where the chef was a CIA grad and he hired a CIA grad as chef when he became a general manager, and they convinced me to come back and work with them and they’d help me get into CIA. Although it’s funny, I just learned this recently from my sister that my parents really didn’t want me to quit the local community college I was going to so I could attend CIA, but my sister convinced them.
TCC: What a good sister.
BT: Well they talked about it because they weren’t sure and they’d only talk to her about it, they wouldn’t talk to me about it! And so she finally told me 30 years later.
TCC: Well she believed in you early, that’s good!
BT: Well I don’t know if she believed in me, it wasn’t that. It was more like “What else is he gonna do? It’s either this or the military!” (laughs)
TCC: So I’ve got about two more questions. Who’s your biggest influence?
BT: My parents.
TCC: Well that’s precious.
BT: Well they’re the hardest working people I know, and I never wanted to fail for them.
TCC: That’s extremely real.
BT: And when you talk about successful people, my father was a laborer at General Motors in various factories and my mother cleaned banks. They raised four kids who are not in jail, drug addicts, and who are all married and have given them five grandchildren. So if I’m defining success, they are some of the most successful people I know. They don’t have a lot of money but they have a lot of happiness.
TCC: Do you find it challenging to constantly innovate?
BT: Yes. It’s like there’s ups and downs and sometimes I hate it and sometimes I get inspired, and sometimes its like “Aw, here we go again, it’s fucking spring. I have to come up with a menu, and I don’t want to put out the same thing, but I do want to put the same thing because last year I thought it was so awesome and if I put it on again what are people gonna think? The thing is, I love learning stuff. That’s why I love being surrounded by cooking school students. I was just having a conversation with the guy that runs Natural Gourmet Institute and you guys are learning things that I’ve never even thought about. I remember a couple of guys that worked with me at Telepan made these little beads and shit of balsamic and I didnt know how to do it. I’m better at someone showing me something than reading a direction. And that’s part of my problem is that I never read. I’m just like “shit, I’m just gonna do this.” And it doesn’t work. (laughing)
So in terms of innovating, it’s challenging because you want to stay current. You want it to be tasty. I want to [make] things that make sense and stay true to myself. Sometimes I’ll veer out because I want to try something new, and sometimes I do try something new and it works for a little bit. Sometimes I’ll take something that wasn’t quite awesome, and try to make it awesome. So there have been things that I’ve been doing for the past 20 years as a chef and just making them better.
TCC: Like reiterating them over and over?
BT: Yeah, and there are just somethings become better and there are some things that are really fucking good that you just bring back every year. Everybody wants my pea pancakes.
TCC: Pea pancakes? For springtime?
BT: Yeah, and you can’t change them. I don’t mind, it makes my life easier and it makes people happy. So in the end, you want to sort of innovate to please yourself and give the cooks something to get excited about. You never want your cook thinking, “Oh my God, this sucks!”
TCC: So speaking of your cooks, what do you suggest to your cooks that are just starting out?
BT: Take the best things that you learn in every place you work, and then when you have to put a menu together you decide what you want the menu to be. Decide how you want to cook. Go out to eat, read cookbooks. What place do you keep going back to and why? What do you believe in in terms of where your food is coming from and what kind of food you buy? So when I first started writing menus, was probably around 1992 as a Sous Chef at Gotham, I had to create specials every day.
TCC: Every day?!
BT: Yeah, and also soups.
TCC: That sounds stressful.
BT: It was stressful, but it was great. Like when I was a cook at Le Bernardin, the cooks were thinking about dishes. We were talking amongst ourselves about dishes. It was that kind of environment. So I actually created two specials at Le Bernardin, this was a four star restaurant, that the chef approved of.
TCC: What were they?
BT: One I do remember but it doesn’t matter. The point is that, we would put the effort in, and I don’t see that in a lot of cooks today. They want things handed to them. I remember saying to my dad, “I’m gonna go to France for I don’t know how long, to work for nothing.” He could not grasp the working for nothing. Just to learn. I didn’t think of it at that time, but now when I think about it, it was like I was going for my masters degree in cooking. If you’re a cook, you gotta want it. Nobody’s gonna hand you anything. And I wanted it. I wanted to be a chef, and I was working with a group of people who wanted to be chefs and we’d go out to eat cheaply or just talk about it.
BT: Yeah! Dream! When I left CIA, and wanted to go work at Gotham I didn’t know how long I wanted to work there. What I wanted to do get a solid foundation on how to cook. Tom Colicchio talks about the craft of cooking and it’s true, you gotta learn how to cook. But these times nobody is patient. Everyone wants to be on television or be on chopped. I refused Iron Chef. I didn’t want that stuff. I don’t mind doing television, like I would do Top Chef Masters because there’s a charity component. So it’s “charity.” (laughs)
Truth is, I’ve worked to a point where I’ve been doing this for so many years so if I want to do it, it’s okay. But kids coming out of school, all they wanna do is get on TV. They get tattoos and buzz cut their hair and they have these wacky personalities but you don’t know how to cook. They wouldn’t make it here. The want to be famous instead of being a great chef, and a great chef means something different these days. You have to promote yourself but you can’t be bullshit. The thing that made me “successful” – that’s in quotes – for the last 20 plus years has been cultivating the kitchen culture, being there for your cooks. Whether its teaching them something or being a shoulder to cry on or being sympathetic because their parents died. And you’re a cross between a big daddy, a preschool teacher, and a coach, and also a friend. You have to realize when you can fuck off with your cooks and when you draw the line. But in terms of cooking: you still gotta know how to cook. What’s gonna make my job easier: retaining staff, giving them freedom to be in charge, letting people make mistakes and just having a good kitchen culture. If I do all these things that selfishly get my kitchen running smoothly, I can go visit colleges with my daughter, I can take time to go work with ICE (the Institute of Culinary Education). I can have a life. My culture is 6 days a week, 12 hours a day. I had to be at work at 6 in the morning and I wouldn’t leave until 6 or 7. And I was married! I missed so much shit. So many birthdays, so many graduation parties. And my friends. I lost touch with friends. And you realize life sucks, but I wanted to do it.
TCC: Would you say now looking back that it was all worth it?
BT: Well yeah the only regret i have is that i smoked too much weed in high school and i was a dummy. I was a smart kid but “I coulda been somebody! I coulda been a contender!” (imitating brando) You went from engineering to being a cook!
TCC: I went backwards?
BT: You went backwards, you’re dumb!
TCC: Well my dad tried to tell me.
BT: Noooo! I’m kidding it’s a wonderful business. My wife says she hates me for one reason, well she doesn’t hate me but she “hates me” is because she sees that every day I go to work happy. I may bitch about little things but I never bitch about the job or my life. I’m not one of these people who are upset or hates my existence. Yeah, you miss out on a lot. You sacrifice a lot of family shit to hang out with the fry guy 5 days a week. So if I’m gonna hang out with the fry guy 5 days a week, I better have a good time doing it.