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Bill Telepan: The Cafeteria Craftsman

Executive chef of Telepan, New York City
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 Bill Telepan

A graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, Bill Telepan jumped on the fast track to success, apprenticing under Alain Chapel in his three-Michelin-starred restaurant in France. On his return to New York in the early 1990s, Telepan worked with the likes of Daniel Boulud and Gilbert Le Coze. As he continued his work in New York, he authored the cookbook Inspired by Ingredients and, in 2005, launched his restaurant, Telepan. He serves on the Chef’s Advisory Board of the Institute of Culinary Education and works regularly with Wellness in the Schools.

Like plenty of dedicated parents, Bill Telepan just wanted to help out at his daughter’s school, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. He started out by volunteering in the kitchen. Next thing he knew, he was working at the school cafeteria once a week, rewriting menus and partnering with Wellness in the Schools (WITS), an organization dedicated to nutrition training in public schools. When First Lady Michelle Obama took on school-lunch reform as a personal crusade, Telepan found himself in the capital, where he lobbied for more money for school lunches and urged parents to find out what school cafeterias serve.

“We found a way to feed the hungry, and we’ve been feeding them so badly that they are now obese,” says Telepan. “And that’s exactly what we’ve been doing in the schools.”

Telepan has taken on a leadership role at WITS, now in 20 public schools in New York City. He’s hired young and eager culinary grads who are working against tough odds to inject some “snap-crackle-fresh,” as Telepan calls it, in their assigned cafeterias.

Sometimes replacing chicken nuggets feels like moving mountains, Telepan says. He cites the bureaucratic red tape, limited repertory of ingredients and tight budget—$2.80 per child, per day—as roadblocks as well as the kitchen equipment, which varies dramatically from school to school.

“One school in Brooklyn has a state-of-the-art kitchen—but not a single pot to cook in,” says Telepan. His daughter Leah’s school, P.S. 87, boasts two convection ovens, a single burner and a microwave—to create lunch for 300 kids. “We’ve learned to make chili in a convection oven. It’s amazing what you can do with a convection oven.”

Telepan has developed a template for three weeks’ worth of lunches—seriously slashing the intake of processed foods. “It would be great if every school cafeteria had the involvement of a professional chef. But being a chef is a demanding job as it is.”

Despite the obstacles, Telepan says the work is rewarding. “Just like in a restaurant kitchen, there are so many hours of hard work before you get to the gratification in the dining room,” he says.

“But both are great buzzes.” —Pascale Le Draoulec

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Pascale Le Draoulec is a James Beard Award–winning author who has written about food and restaurants for more than 15 years.

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