"Subtly, in our own little cube here, we always push ourselves."
Bill Telepan didn't have a set career plan when he graduated from the CIA, but stints with some of the greats of classic cuisine (Gilbert Le Coze, Daniel Boulud, Alfred Portale, Alain Chapel) gave him strong roots in technique. At his Upper West Side restaurant, Telepan, he practices restraint and teaches his cooks to coax the most he can out of his ingredients. In the coming weeks we'll see the opening of his downtown spot, Telepan Local, in Tribeca, where he'll play with a fun, funky menu of small plates.
In person, Telepan exudes healthy and energy, his laugh is boisterous as he's quick to pick up on a joke. It's easy to see why his spot has become a fixture in the neighborhood, and why his staff sticks around: "You want people to like each other so that if somebody's in the shits, somebody who's not will come over and say, "Hey, how can I help?" We caught up on his uptown redesign, what's in store for the downtown menu, and how it keeps him pumped for more.
Why redesign your uptown space while crafting a new space downtown? It just felt like it was time. I always liked the green a lot—we all liked it a lot—but no one loved it. Now we're getting, "Oh my god, Bill, the place looks great!" And I think it makes the food pop more because the lighting's different and the way the customers look is different. And the staff is sort of standing up straighter, in both front and back. We opened on a Friday and brought everybody back that Wednesday to clean and cook a little, and had this sort of camaraderie. We were talking about being a little more precise, a little tighter, and thinking more. So, in that regard, it's kind of like a new restaurant in a way, where our attention is at a high level.
Did you see that change your guests at all? They're actually behaving better! The restaurant had become like their home. We have a lot of regular and repeat customers, and you know when you're at home you take your shoes off and walk around in your underwear? It's like they're going to somebody else's house now. But a comfortable house, a friend's house.
You've seen success for a while now and could choose to go a more casual route if that was your preference. Why tighten up a bit? The style of cooking we've been doing and the ingredients we use are of such a high quality that I think it warrants it. Does that sound pretentious? We offer a high level of service, our wine list is amazing and really unrecognized, and I think our bar is tops. And we still talk about making sure we continue to do it that way. Subtly, in our own little cube here, we always push ourselves.
Where is that push taking you? If you use a high-quality ingredient, you have to make sure you don't mess it up. No disrespect to outside of New York, because there are a lot of great chefs across the country, but a lot of chefs put too much into things just to get the splash effect. I like good, clean food. We use really clean ingredients that are not overly processed. And I don't use a lot of spices; it's just not my style. So it's about drawing as much flavor out of the ingredient we can with salt, pepper and cooking.
Where did this come from? I saw your incredibly fun New York Times piece full of the fried foods you claim of your youth in Jersey, so I know it wasn't always this way for you. Ha! Growing up as a kid my mom was a great cook but it wasn't this adventurous cooking. My dad worked in a factory and he wanted meat and potatoes. We rarely ate any fish, and we didn't have a lot of money to explore, so it just wasn't spiced up. But through my years working with great chefs it was about "ingredient, ingredient, ingredient," and what you could draw out from it. Like, taking a vegetable; why would you boil or blanch a carrot in water instead of blanching them in vegetable stock and then using the juice in the pan to glaze them? How do we keep the flavor in?
How does this work into what you're doing downtown? Well, it's the same thing—high-quality ingredients cooked well, seasoned properly—but not as many things on a plate. We're just going to make little dishes of food that are seasonal and yummy.
What is yummy to you? That's a good question—I've never thought about that. When I go out to eat it could be any kind of cuisine, as long as it's well seasoned and the meat is of a good quality. A slice of pizza can be great. A shrimp cocktail is one of those things I love, though a lot of people don't do it well! So I guess what we're looking to do is kind of like what we do here—take the ingredient and make it taste good, from coaxing the carrot to cooking the pork properly to making the octopus tender. We hope things will be delicious. There will be some fun snacky things...
Like what? A take on pan con tomate but Americanized with a grilled cheese. We make a sort of a cross between a hotdog and kielbasa that we may make into a pigs in a blanket or a corndog. And these little crispy thingies that are like potato chips, fried onions and fried pig skins sort of mixed together. We're going to have a lot of vegetables—eight to ten offerings of vegetables—and some fun American things, like a take on a crab cake. We have a shrimp popper that's take on a jalapeño popper. We get a lot of great chicken in, so we're gonna do a whole breast in the oven and the rest will be used for fried chicken for brunch.
You started brunch here recently too, right? I told the chef we needed a brunch dish that was sorta "wow." So I said to her, let's develop a pancake soufflé. And it just kept falling, but it tasted like we wanted it to, so we just said, "Fuck it, we'll call it a Fallen Pancake Soufflé." And it's been a signature item on brunch. It's wonderful! We're trying to develop a whole wheat sourdough English muffin, so we're gonna play around with that. And we're getting this badass waffle machine, so we're gonna do something with waffles.
You sound like you're having fun. I am. It's just really busy right now!