Bill Telepan on Making Healthy School Lunches


Bill Telepan, chef at the eponymous Telepan restaurant on the Upper West Side, is taking his culinary skills out of the professional kitchen and bringing them to school. Just recently, he was named to Food & Wine‘s Chefs Make Change, a coalition of 10 chefs from around the country that aims to raise $1 million for the chefs’ charities. Bill’s charity is the New York-based Wellness in the Schools, of which he is the executive chef. We called him up to learn more about why school lunch is a pressing issue — and how he’s going to help fix them.

How did you get involved with Chefs Make Change?

I got involved because Dana Cowin [of Food & Wine]. She knew about what we’ve been doing, and she decided to help raise awareness and money. We were just jumping up and down. Look at the people in it — you’ve got Mario Batali, Emeril Lagasse, Alice Waters, Rick Bayless. I was really glad she included us with all these great guys. The basic tagline of Chefs Make Change is to give kids a complete lunch experience with a good lunch to eat and a chance to succeed.

So how will you actually enact this change?

We do scratch cooking and eliminate fast foods from their diets and make salad bars good. Over the last few years, I’ve developed school lunch menus, and we also hire a culinary grad who spends time with [the schools] and helps train the workers. We’re also doing cooking classes with kids in all the schools four times a year. If a kid has a science class, we’ll take it over. We just did beans recently. They’ll see beans and touch them and then cook and make vegetarian chili. … It’s for kids in kindergarten through eighth grade.

What are the greatest challenges with creating healthy lunches nationwide?

There’re a couple of things. One is education. The way we look at children, we’ll say, “Oh, they’re just kids; they’ll eat anything.” But that’s when they develop taste and eating habits. If we explain eating and how bodies develop then, they can use that their whole life. Right now, one-third of kids in the nation are overweight and half of those are obese. There’s a lot of politics, and that makes it more unfortunate. So what you’re telling me is money is more important than health? It’s catching up to us now.

You’ve done a lot in New York. Do you think it’s feasible for nationwide reform?

We are thinking of expansion nationwide and putting a plan together and talking to good people, so it’s definitely in the works. The other part is access to good ingredients. They don’t need Bill Telepan ingredients in their lunches, but they shouldn’t have processed foods. Let’s take out the processed part. In Chicago, they’re using antibiotic-free chicken, which is awesome. We need more things like that, but also to start cooking again.

In light of movements like this, do you think the role of a chef has changed?

Chefs are so visible now, and people want to know them, which is tremendous for our industry. We have to be careful about what we say and how we do it and do it well and for reasons that are good and not for self-promotion. If that’s the case, then great.
You were one of the pioneers of the locavore movement. Do you think it’s lost any of its authenticity, now that seemingly every restaurant is farm-to-table?

I don’t know. I can’t speak for anyone else. For me, it was about the quality of ingredients. Especially many years ago, you got to talk to people who grew for you. That was what was important. When I worked in France for Alain Chapel, he did things this way. That’s the way you eat in Europe. It’s romantic, but true. People had gardens and raised animals. It was always like that, and I think what happened in the ’80s in the States was that it became about color: I want to get the most beautiful red pepper, so ship it to me from wherever you can get it. It was more about the look than flavor, but it’s different now.

So how would you describe your culinary point of view in one word?

Nice guy, Bill Telepan. [Laughs.] I don’t know. I’m not saying it’s complicated, but I don’t know one word. My whole theory was that I want to give a good meal. So, customer service?

Check back in tomorrow, when Bill shares his thoughts about restaurant letter grades.