Bill Telepan 4

By Eileen Katz

Bill Telepan has many titles, including Michelin-star-winning chef, restaurant owner and author. He studied at some of the world’s top kitchens, apprenticed under Alain Chapel at his Three Michelin Star restaurant in France and opened Telepan right here on the Upper West Side in 2005. In 2014, Telepan received its own Michelin Star. He is also the Executive Chef of Wellness in the Schools (WITS), a non profit organization dedicated to making school food healthy. As Bill prepares for their upcoming gala, he talked about how he fell in love with the Upper West Side right from the start.

Why the West side, Bill?

I was working at Gotham Bar & Grill, living 2 blocks away with my wife, then girlfriend. This is about 1990 now and the rent was about $300 a month but it was so small! I mean I could sit on my couch, turn on the television, grab a glass, open the refrigerator and grab a beer without even moving. To wash your face you had to straddle the tub because the sink went over it. So small. And so many mice! It was so dark. We had this  shaft of light that, on a really sunny day, you might actually see for about an hour. But it was so cheap and we were so broke! I had just come back from France where I was working for nothing, just to learn, and my wife didn’t have a high paying job at the time, just starting out in NY. We lived there for about a year and half and saved some money. And then I got a raise when I became the sous chef at Gotham and my wife was like: “We’re getting out of here!” She had seen this apartment on West End Avenue that she had liked and I was like: “Where’s West End Avenue?” I had never heard of it before! So I went to go see it and it turned it to be on one of the most beautiful avenues in the world. And we were lucky enough to move into that block between 76th & 77th St. where it’s that block of all brownstones that are so beautiful. We lived on the top floor of 5th floor walk up for 10 years and then moved over to Columbus when my wife was probably 6 months pregnant. That was June of 2001.

So that’s how you ended up here. But how did your restaurant end up here too?

The truth is, I was working at Hudson Grill and knew I wanted to do something different so I had put a business plan together for a space down in Tribeca. And then I get a call from a broker about this space and it’s right in my neighborhood. It used to be Santa Fe, which I had never been to, but I kept walking by it going “this is a great space.” And when I finally saw the inside I knew it would be perfect. I didn’t think my business partner would go for it, but when I told him, he was so psyched! So it worked out beautifully. I always feel like I’m ahead of my time on certain things. And not necessarily for the best! Like my book came out in 2004. If it had come out in 2014, it would’ve been such a bigger deal with social media and all that kind of extra support. But it’s been great that my life is close to the restaurant. My daughter went to school up here – first PS 87 then The Center School. I started Wellness in Schools up here so I got to meet a lot of the people up here and it’s been a great sense of community for the restaurant and our lives.

What’s the best part of living up here?

One of the reasons my wife really wanted to move up here was because of the parks. The access to the parks. We both used to run a lot. Now she still runs, even after 2 knee operations, but I kind of gave up, though I’m thinking about it again. And then when we thought about having a family possibly, it’s very livable up here and we thought it would be a great place to raise a family. The schools are really good up here. It just seemed like a neighborhood. We liked the Village a lot. The West Village is very charming, but Fairway, Citarella, Barney Greengrass and Zabar’s are here and it’s pretty easy to get anywhere from here.

Whether you take the Central Park line or the Broadway line. It’s pretty up here. Lots of great buildings. And then we had a kid, and having access to all these parks around! You can sort of just let your kid run around the park the whole day! It’s great! And people would sometimes complain about all the strollers and not so many great places to eat, but at that time, and even now, none of that really bothered us. We’re a family that likes to eat at home. To this day, we still don’t get to go out that much. We’re a success story on how to eat well at home. Obviously we have an advantage, tipping the scale a little in our favor, with me being a chef and all, but we eat at home usually 4, 5 nights a week.

You’re home for dinner 5 nights a week??

No, no, no. See here’s the plan. Sunday is set up day for the week. You can find me most Sunday mornings some time between 9am – 12pm doing my family shopping at Fairway. I’ll run through the green market first to see what they have there, then lug it over to Fairway to finish. I’ll make a bag of vegetables, a few dishes to put in the freezer, one night I do come home and cook and then my wife and daughter will help out to prep the rest. I can set up stuff sometimes in the morning. But having me there definitely tips the scale for our family but it is a plan worth trying if you can. And then there’s pizza Friday.

Can I ask where you order in pizza from in the neighborhood?

Well, my daughter likes Pizza Pete’s on 85th. It’s not a bad slice place! And if there’s vegetables left over they’ll have that with it or I’ll make a salad. I prefer Celeste’s for pizza. They make a really good individual pie. They do a great white and arugula pizza. But I’d love like a Frannie’s or Lucali’s to open up here…but then it would be packed and you’d never be able to get in unless you want to eat at like 5! It’s like that ramen place that opened up. Jin Ramen. It’s so great but it’s always packed. So we go there for lunch instead. Which reminds me, I haven’t been there in a while and should go soon.

Any other great parts of living up here?

I love that CitiBike is here now! It’s great! I mean, how are you supposed to get to your doctor’s appointment if they’re on the East side? Cabs are a fortune and take forever. It takes 3 subways to get from here to Park and the 50’s or 60’s, but CitiBike you just grab and go! When the weather is nice it can’t be beat. I go everywhere on CitiBike when it’s 50 degrees and above.

Ready for the “Boxers or Briefs” question? Riverside or Central Park?

Wow. That’s a tough one. Central Park for running and stuff is great, but it’s hard. But Riverside is flat and that loop around the promenade is really nice. And biking in Central Park is a nightmare. So I prefer biking in Riverside too. You can go up to the bridge and down to the Battery. It’s like 20 miles which is a good bike ride. And I used to bike up with my daughter to the little red lighthouse, by the bridge (she and her friends had read the book “The Little Red Lighthouse and The Great Grey Bridge”). Now that’s a 4 or 5 mile bike ride from our house and I remember the first time I took my daughter and two of her friends on a ride there, they were like wiped! That’s 8 miles roundtrip! That’s when the Fairway on 125th or Dinosaur Barbeque comes in handy to take a break! And the clay courts in Riverside are great too. And the flowers are so nice, and that the community helps to take care of them is terrific. But Central Park has people from all over the world coming to visit it which is special. And the Delacorte theater. I really can’t decide. They’re very different. Central Park is for the world and maybe Riverside is for the locals?

Any downsides to living up here for you?

For a while, so many of the new and exciting restaurants were opening up downtown. We have The Museum of Natural History, but we don’t have a lot of the art museums, so you have to travel for that, but that’s really it. I really love living up here. Raising a family up here was great, being a couple was great, I don’t really see any downsides.

What makes somebody a West sider?

Hmm. Someone who is thoughtful, non-commercial, cultured, funny and grown up. Everybody’s really smart up here it seems like. What am I doing up here?!? People seem really well-read. A lot of writers up here. A lot of theater people, show biz people. People like to live up here. There are a lot of wonderful places to live in in this city, but there’s something special about this place. There’s a good mix of people. Areas of low income housing are here, which infiltrates in to the schools, which is great for everyone. Makes for some diversity.

Is there something you feel is totally unique to this neighborhood for you?

It’s gotta be Halloween on 69th street. How the whole street shuts down and the way people decorate! I had never gone to it until the first year the restaurant was open. We actually weren’t officially opened yet, but I had heard about it so we baked like 300 cookies to give out to kids. Now we do like 3,000! Every year. I put on a clown hat and I’m kind of like clown-chef for the day. There was that one year I had to wear the Dumbledore hat when my daughter was going through a Harry Potter phase so I was a Dumbledore-clown-chef.

When they declare “Bill Telepan Day” on the Upper West Side, how would you like people to celebrate?

That would be awesome! Buckets of margaritas for everybody. Kind of like a mix between Cinco de Mayo, Hungarian Independence Day and the Superbowl. Goulash, stuffed cabbage. A block party! Close down 69th Street, get a barbeque going and some good music!

So I usually ask this question as: “If you were stuck on a desert island and could only have one thing from Zabar’s what would it be?“ But given that you’re a chef, I think I have to ask: “If you could only have one thing from Telepan what would it be?” or you could answer both!

I think from Zabar’s it would have to be that really great cinnamon babka thing. If you asked about Barney Greengrass, it would have to be a pastrami and egg sandwich on an everything bagel. And finally, if it was Telepan, it would have to be the Lobster Bolognese!

To read all of our “Why the West Side” columns, click here.

COLUMNS, FOOD | 11 comments | permalink
    1. uwsgal says:

      awesome interview! A couple years my then-boyfriend took me to Telepan for dinner (which was very good) then afterwards, on our walk home, asked me to marry him. So I will always associate Telepan with my wonderful husband and now also with Bill, who sounds like a great guy also!

    2. Nathan says:

      Have to agree with him about the pizza at Celeste. It’s really good!

    3. Bystander says:

      Love eating at Telepan. Always a great meal and an occasional celeb sighting, all without leaving the UWS.

      Murray’s continues to be our favorite cured fish vendor, tho.

    4. stella's mom says:

      He comes across as a lovely person. Great piece!

    5. Joanne says:

      It’s so nice to hear from someone who helped turn the dining scene in the neighborhood around! He seems like a genuinely sweet man.

    6. SK says:

      We eat there and see him there a lot — he’s a very genuine guy who’s involved in the community. Great to have him and Telepan in the neighborhood.

      • Brad says:

        He is a great guy. very involved in the community and our schools. It’s great to have him in the neighborhood. Maybe we should have a Bill Telepan Day?!

    7. Jane says:

      oh, this interview really makes me miss the UWS! (i live in another state now). Several years ago, our son-in-law worked at Bill Telepan’s restaurant and it was a terrific experience!

    8. Lulu h says:

      On this interview I vow to go to Celeste pizza and telepan immediately!

    9. Jason says:

      The thing I love about this series is you truly get a feel for the people and how they connect to our neighborhood. Well done as always.

    10. JoDell Shields says:

      Telepan is my favorite restaurant. The food is relish and the Manhattans are world renowned.