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PODCAST: Chef Bill Telepan Dishes on Growing High-End Food Scene on UWS

By Emily Frost | March 1, 2016 5:51pm
 Bill Telepan believes the neighborhood will only become more of a food destination, but he also hopes it doesn't start to feel like a mall.
Bill Telepan believes the neighborhood will only become more of a food destination, but he also hopes it doesn't start to feel like a mall.
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DNAinfo/Emily Frost

UPPER WEST SIDE — As a longtime local, chef Bill Telepan will tell you exactly where to get the best scallion pancakes in the city right here in the neighborhood — and for cheap. 

For many years, that was the ethos of the Upper West Side, a place "notorious for its cheapness," he said. Locals couldn't fathom paying high Midtown prices near where they lived, Telepan explained. 

But not only has that changed, it's lead to an explosion of cuisine and chef-driven places all within walking distance, he said. 

High-end restaurants are becoming the norm and making the Upper West Side a foodie destination, but with high rents, they have their work cut out for them, he said. 

Telepan spoke with DNAinfo about what he learned from past failures — Telepan Local, Ansonia — and those forced to close — Ouest — and his predictions for where the local culinary scene is headed, and where there's room for growth. 

Plus, he delves into what really fires him up — young kids suffering because of poor nutrition at our schools — and how the organization he helps steward, Wellness in the Schools, is fighting that battle.  

Emily: Bill you opened the restaurant in 2005 and you wanted it to be a Cheers style restaurant but the high-end version of Cheers. Can you elaborate on that?

Bill: We do have a Norm I guess who occasionally hangs out at the bar. The idea behind the restaurant — there's a restaurant in Florence, Italy that I went to in ‘01, right before my daughter was born, my wife and I were in Italy. I was doing a bike trip in Tuscany, it's kind of this once in a lifetime event where you know, I got asked to cook at it and it was kind of fun. In Florence, everybody told me, "yuou've got to go to Cibreo. You've got to go to Cibreo." When I went to Cibreo, I walked in in a great mood, obviously, and I left happier. The thing was, it wasn't the greatest, like ‘Oh my God, the be all end all in food’ -

Emily: Like once in a lifetime meal.

Bill: Yeah. It was just the whole setting, the food was terrific, the wine was great, the service was amazing. They were really nice and friendly, knowledgeable and I looked at her and I said, "I want a restaurant like this." You could just tell there were a lot of regulars in there, there was people -

Emily: Have you been back since and kind of measured it against Telepan?

Bill: I have not. I have not. That's actually a good question because we have a 14 year old now and one of the places she wants to go to is Italy. Obviously, I have to take her to Florence to see the museums and stuff, so we will have to eat there, of course. Without a doubt. I would like to see.

Yeah. That was the idea. It was sort of this ... you know there's a six-month crowd that goes out to eat at all the new restaurants and I knew we were going to get a lot of attention.

Emily: You mean come in the first six months ...

Bill: First six months and you never see them again.

Emily: Yeah.

Bill: The six monthers. Back then there was no Twitter or Instagram or anything like that …

Emily: Right, right.

Bill: Then they'd gone and they go to the other restaurants. Eventually you build your regular client base. Knowing that this is a residential area and knowing I fit the demographic, as we were discussing before, someone in their 40s who has a kid who likes to go out to eat and drink really well, but we don't want to take the $30 cab ride round trip to go to a place and spend a ton of money and then add an hour or so onto the babysitter fee.

Emily: And be so far away.

Bill: And be so far away. We get those people, we get a lot of you know, a lot of wonderful people who live along Central Park West and all on the Upper West Side, Lincoln Center, so we do have a regular clientele who come to the theater and come eat here with us and we've gotten to know over the years. Yeah. I've seen babies born or heard about babies being born, I've seen some people die. We get to know people and it's really what it's about for me. I love cooking and all that, but I also love the whole getting to know people and learning about them and feeding them and making them happy.

Emily: Locals are very important. It sounds like Lincoln Center is also important.

Bill: Yes.

Emily: Was that part of your decision to be on 69th Street?

Bill: Yeah. I ran a restaurant called Ansonia back in ‘96, ‘97 and it was on Columbus between 75th and 76th. The thing about it was it felt like 72nd street was the wall of whether you could get Lincoln Center people or not. That restaurant, we would barely do any business until 7 o'clock. 7 o'clock hit, it filled up. I have a 120-seat restaurant that - you have to pay rent on it.

Emily: Right.

Bill: To get that first seating early, it was just a bonus. In the beginning, there weren't a lot of options. We were packed pretty much every night. Now, a lot of places have opened up over there. There's probably been 4,000 seats plus that have opened in that area since we've opened, which is good and bad. The good thing is I live in the neighborhood, as you know, and it's good because I don't have to go out to eat far.

Emily: The Lincoln Center area has changed a lot, but how do you think the Upper West Side food and restaurant scene has changed overall?

Bill: It's been great. I live on 86th and Columbus so we got a Momofuku Milk Bar on 87th and Columbus and then there's a Birdbath, now there's three of them on the Upper West Side. There's one right by me. There's a Joe Coffee by me. Places like Mermaid Inn, Celeste have been around. It's sad to see Ouest go, but there's always been some really great options. Now we're seeing new places, like we got a Meatball Shop, Crave Fish Bar just opened. I'm looking to check it out. The biscuit place is kind of good for if I was 25, but it's big portions of food.

Emily: You mean Parm and -

Bill: Not Parm. Well, there's Parm and then Parm. I forgot about Parm. Dovetail opened, Lincoln opened, Café Luxe has always been great. The options are great. Daniel [Boulud] owns that corner. It's really wonderful, the food.

Emily: Did you anticipate that when you opened in 2005?

Bill: I don't know because when I opened Ansonia, which was the name of the place on Columbus and 76th, everyone was just, oh, I remember getting like people would be like, "Oh my God. It's pricey and I don't know how it will work up there." The reason it didn't work was because we tried, the owners wanted it to be a really nice sort of fancier restaurant than they usually did, but they wanted a cigar bar and to be a late night place. There was no real identity.

That was my first chef's job, so my head was like this and I was cooking what I wanted to cook and they were happy with that, so we got a really great review by Ruth Reichl in the Times and we were packed, but the problem was is that, so you had this older crowd that was paying $60, $70 dollars a head to have this great meal and they were 10, 15 feet away from some 25-year-old Wall Street kid smoking a cigar. The 25-year-old kid didn't to hang out with the older crowd and the older crowd didn't want to have smoke [in their face] so within many months, quickly we realized that nobody wanted to come back because of it, no matter how good the food was or whatever. We tried to make some changes, but again, it was too late and in the end it was great for me because I got a lot of exposure.

I remember at that time, in ‘98, I started looking to buy an apartment and what was happening at that time? You could just tell that the demographics were changing because I just couldn't keep up as fast as the apartments were going up so I couldn't really afford it. If I'd known then what I know now, I would have totally jumped on it because my mortgage would be much smaller than it is now.

Yeah, I mean, I've seen the change in the people that came up here to live. People like me who had kids. It's a great place to raise kids. The reasons we moved up here are the reasons why people move up here. You have great subways. You have access to two parks. You've got Zabar's and Barney Greengrass. What other reason do you need to live up here?

Emily: There you go.

Bill: There you go. That sold me.

Emily: Yeah. Then you said you saw a shift. There were people like you, but then also ...

Bill: Yeah. You just saw a different, you saw people who were interested in going out to eat and interested in food. The Upper West Side was notorious for it's cheapness and I don't know about that but, -

Emily: Like cheap food, cheap take out, fast -

Bill: And cheap clients. They didn't want to spend any money, apparently. They were like, "Oh. It's too expensive. Or whatever." It's just like, "Oh, that's expensive."

Emily: Like they'd pay for it in Midtown or Downtown but not up here?

Bill:Totally. It's like they didn't want to leave their house, walk to a place, and spend that kind of money as if they were leaving their Midtown job and spending money. I don't know.

Emily: Interesting.

Bill: That's what everybody would say, that they're cheap, they're cheap, they're cheap. I saw that it wasn't really the problem up at Ansonia. I knew what the problem was at Ansonia. It was the way we ran the restaurant.

Emily: Too many things to too many people?

Bill: Too many things to too many people. If we had stuck to it and that's why when I came here, I was clear on what I wanted to do because it was several years later. It was almost 10, five, eight years later and I knew it was shifting, but I was. And Tom had opened Ouest in ‘01 and he had some success. He built a regular great clientele base. It's funny because I called Tom before we opened and I said, "I know you have a great regular clientele base. What did you do? How did you do it?" He just said to me and we've been friends for years, he just said, "Always keep tables open in the beginning for the locals. Make sure you do that. Book two thirds of your room out because you're going to get a lot of people wanting to come there."

Emily: That six-monther crowd, as you said.

Bill: Yeah. Leave some tables open and we did. We got to meet people, got to know people, and I was very present in the dining room, shaking hands and all that and saying hi to people. People would ask for me and I got to know people and we were in the front of the house, a lot of the wait staff and now you get a lot of people requesting certain waiters, which is great. That's when you know you've got some people coming who've been here before and everybody's doing their jobs.

Emily: That's really nice. It sounds like you were a little apprehensive about opening a high- end restaurant given the culture of expectations?

Bill: No. I wasn't. I was not. I was not.

Emily: You were ready.

Bill: I was ready. Well, I think Lincoln…the big reason was Lincoln Center. We weren't that expensive. I mean, we're not that expensive. I think we give a good value. The products we buy are the same as the total high-end restaurants. I'm buying the stuff that Thomas Keller buys. I'm buying the stuff that Daniel [Boulud] buys. I'm buying all of this stuff. Same thing, same people, and it's not as expensive. You come in here and get a $79 four-course menu and now we're doing $125 seven-course menu that's off the menu stuff. It's a pretty fair value.

Emily: Now, there've been a lot of stories and trend pieces that have come out about actually the Upper West Side does have good food and restaurants. What is your reaction when those come out?

Bill: Well, I think the cool kids like to write about, because all of the cool kids can't afford to live up here, so they only talk about the places they can go to, which is closer to their homes, which is Brooklyn and Downtown. I've talked about it for a few years. You can eat really well up here. I did a piece for Serious Eats two, three years ago about, maybe three years ago on your favorite places to eat. You can eat very well up here. If you count the Upper West Side as 60th Street or above, we have many Michelin stars but we have the high and low end. I've been eating the same Chinese food for 30 years and it's still delicious.

Emily: Where do you go?

Bill: The Cottage on 77th and Amsterdam. They don't know. I give them so many plugs, man, I should be getting free food from them all the time. Listen to me: their scallion pancakes are the best in the city.

Emily: Wow.

Bill: I'm just saying.

Emily: Okay. I'll order that and I'm going to say, "Bill said ..."

Bill: Bill says scallion pancakes.

Emily: Do you think that the Upper West Side could become this destination for eating that maybe Downtown or TriBeCa is known as?

Bill: Yeah, easy. The thing we don't have a lot of is the mid-priced, kind of like what I was trying to do in TriBeCa with Telepan Local. That sort of good, chef-driven, quality mid-priced place. We can go and eat pretty casually and not spend a lot of money, but really get great products. It would be good to have a couple of things like that up here. That's what we don't have.

Emily: For maybe a younger crowd?

Bill: Yeah, yeah. The thing with Jacob's Pickles is that it has that, it's not chef driven, but it's about beer and fresh food. It's fried chicken. It's a lot of heavy food and I walked by there and I see the plates ... I went there one night and got chicken and pancakes and the pancakes were the size of hubcaps. How could you eat all of that food? Then, when it's so cheap, I question quality, but anyway, it's decent. It's a decent place, don't get me wrong, and they do bang. They do make a lot of money, but whatever.

Emily: We could use more places in that mid price range, but food driven.

Bill: Definitely. There's a couple decent wine bars that are run well like Bin 71, Barcibo on Broadway and Tangled Vine does a good job. We need that sort of idea where a mix of those ideas, the wine bar-slash, but, like the Ribbon is up here now. They do a decent job. Those guys always do a quality job, so it's nice to have that place here. I always forget about that. I've eaten there once. I don't get out much.

Emily: Do you have any predictions for the next five years, food wise, restaurant wise, up here?

Bill: It's getting harder to open a restaurant up here because rents are super high. The thing with Parm, it’s their fifth location or something like that, so they don't have a lot of overhead in terms of management. They have a central management office or something, a big white building at this point. They don't have the overhead so they can afford the rents. Harry's Burritos, which was here for 30 years, is gone and now it's some high end fashion place called Iro. I thought it was another sushi place opening up here. The rents are too high and it's harder and harder to -

Emily: But you're right. It is the places that have had other locations that have been opening like Red Farm, Parm, Meatball Shop.

Bill: I always forget about Red Farm and they're packed all the time. That's high-end Cottage food. If you want to spend a lot of money, you go there. It's very good. Cottage will fill the need unless you want Pac-Man dumplings or something like that, which were tasty.

Emily: You mentioned Ouest. Were you surprised that they closed? Do you know why that happened?

Bill: Listen. They've been around for 14 years. You have to stay fresh and I'm sure they tried. The rent, their lease was up and inevitably my lease is going to be up soon, too, so I'll have to figure that out.

Emily: Is that coming in the next five years?

Bill: Yeah. I think it ends up in 2020. We're working on figuring out what to do around that. I'm young enough to want to do it for a long time. I love it up here. I love this spot. I love the hood and I love what we're doing and I think people appreciate it. I hope people appreciate it and we work very hard. I think that's what happened. I don't think there's anything other than their rent went way up too high and margins are slim and you saw that unless they had something change to get more people in the seats, then they weren't going to make it.

Emily: So you're anticipating 2020, are you going to try to negotiate ahead of that?

Bill: Yeah.

Emily: You're not going to wait until the last minute.

Bill: No. I've got to make plans. I'm a planner.

Emily: You have a daughter.

Bill: I have a daughter.

Emily: Telepan Local in TriBeCa. Do you think something like that can work up here?

Bill: Oh yeah.

Emily: Also, what were the lessons you learned? For people who don't know, you had it, it opened, it didn't stay open very long.

Bill: We didn't do it right. We got nailed for it.

Emily: Was it going to be a casual version of Telepan?

Bill: Originally it was going to be a gastropub and then we decided to do tapas and the whole tapas thing, we did it wrong.

Emily: Okay. Maybe if it had been a gastropub?

Bill: We'd still be there or if I opened it up here, we'd still be here.

Emily: Really?

Bill: I just think the density of the population on the Upper West Side would have overcome the things we did wrong because what we did was after we got reviewed and we got nailed in the review, we made some changes and it was going in a good direction. We had a lot of structural issues in the restaurant, we didn't have enough gas. There was a problem with that. The landlord messed it up with us. We were operating on very little gas. I only had the big pizza oven and one other oven instead of the three ovens I had in there. We had an electric grill instead of the gas grill, which was a nightmare to work with. It was just hard. After we opened, we had a menu that we wanted to do and we had to make some changes to adjust to it. We just didn't do it right and so once I cleaned it up and we were heading in the right direction, it was too late.

That's why I keep saying ... what happened was by the time we were at the point about cleaning it up, the summer hit and it's a ghost town down there. Literally, it is a ghost town. Here it's not so ghost town-y. I do obviously less business because people do leave but I think it would have been one of these things where we would have sustained enough business early on to get through the summer, but when the summer hit down there, it really hurt. By the time we got to September, is was like ... yeah. I didn't see the holidays being as lucrative as I anticipated and I was spending too much of my own money.

Emily: You talked a little bit about the Twitter, social media, foodie scene where everybody's a critic these days. Did that factor into opening a restaurant in 2005 versus 2013?

Bill: Even now with here you get Yelp and Open Table reviews and they're actually good tools. Open Table's I like really watching because you know the people came in and they have to review it within a week or so so if there is an issue and if you see a consistent issue, you can fix it. I'll read a Yelp review that will be posted today and they'll talk about something that hasn't been on the menu for three years so I'm not really sure how that works.

Emily: They just woke up one day and decided -

Bill: Exactly.

Emily: Oh, I'm going to write a review.

Bill: It's like, they pick this is the day they write reviews and once a month they write a review and I'm not sure. Unless there's a complete disaster on Yelp, we'll go after it, but Open Table reviews are good and the whole social media thing is a lot of fun. Seeing people posting selfies of your self. Yeah, you think about that because the things is, everybody's taking a picture of something that day. They're in your restaurant, they take a picture, it's on Instagram. Even sometimes while they're there. Sometimes I'll check my Twitter feed in the restaurant and I'm like, "Hey. I just checked in at Telepan." And you go out and you're like, "Oh, shit. This person's on. Let's go find out where they are and make sure because you know they're going to be posting."

Emily: Wow. You see a lot of phone cameras coming out?

Bill: Yeah. I'm like ‘eat it, please. It's getting cold.’

Emily: Enough with the lighting. Does appearance…that obviously mattered to you before the advent of all that.

Bill: Yeah. It's just a matter of making sure they have a good time so when they do write it's not like ‘eh.’ There's one time years ago where somebody wrote, "Yeah, the food was great but the service was bad," and you're like "Oh, my God." Yeah. Everybody's a critic. Listen, everybody was a critic before but now they can write about it. Before you always were concerned that if someone had a bad time, you just lost 10 new people or if somebody has a great time, you gained 10 more customers. If they have a great time, they come to your restaurant, they go out again and "Oh, yeah. I went to this place Telepan. It was great. You should go." Whereas, "I went to Telepan. I had an awful time. Don't go there." Meanwhile, it's because it could be many factors on why they had a bad time. None of it's our fault, though.

Emily: Maybe a Telepan Local up here?

Bill: I'd love to do something like that. Sure.

Emily: Yeah. What are your future plans at this moment?

Bill: I don't know. Just make sure my kid gets to a good college after high school.

Emily: TBD. Well, she's old enough to be doing all of the social media. Does she help you?

Bill: No. No, she's not on. That's not a good thing for 14-year-old kids to be on. I believe. Why? So she could take a picture of a Frappuccino or selfies of her in a bathing suit or something? Sorry. She doesn't need it. She checks mine to look at her friends but there's no reason -

Emily: That works. She still gets to be ...

Bill: Yeah. It's funny because there's a hashtag among her friends called #LeahDoesntHaveInstagram. I'm proud of that. I don't see a reason why a 14-year- old kid should be on social media.

Emily: Well, I wanted to talk to you about another passion of yours, which is Wellness in the Schools related to your daughter. How did you start that and what's happening with that?

Bill: It's kind of like a full time job at this point.

Emily: Can you describe it to people?

Bill: The elevator pitch is basically we go into public schools in New York City with a cook that we hire, a culinary graduate, that we hire to work along side the cafeteria worker bringing a healthy lunch, teaching them how to cook, also doing cooking classes in the classroom and we hire coaches to go into the recess yards to create this active recess and prevent bullying. The kids get a healthy lunch and they have this active recess and they are ready for the second half of the day alert, asking questions, willing to learn.

Our concept is thinking that kids will do better in school and also learn about food and nutrition and be able to take better care of themselves, do better in school. We work in a lot of high poverty schools and that's what we want to, though we originated in a few low-poverty schools, one of which is P.S. 87 where my daughter did go to school. That's where I met Nancy Easton, the founder and now the executive director. I asked to see if they had a cookbook. They did so I wanted to look through it. I looked through the recipes and I picked a few that I could make better.

Emily: Yeah.

Bill: The idea was that the food was so highly processed and how do we get rid of it? You scratch cook. How do we scratch cook for 700 kids daily? That's what I worked on. I did a couple of days. I did a vegetarian chili. I took those sandwiches. We made some more, we did a sandwich day. We did an enhanced salad bar because the salad bar at that point wasn't that awesome. From there, we were in two other schools, so I did them at the other schools and the following year, they added five more schools and I ended up having 40 volunteers and I would go to all of the schools, create these dishes, and create new ones and do these café days introducing them. At the end of the year, we had a monthly menu. At that point, Nancy decided like, "Hey. Why don't we do something like Teach for America, grab these culinary graduates?" so we went into almost 20 schools that year with our own menu and we were allowed to do it and just build. We basically built 20 percent a year.

Now we're in the 2015-16 school year, we're in 75 schools in New York City, 40,000 kids in our program. The thing about it is it's not something that's going to be an instant success. What I see is it changes the culture of the school. Everybody gets involved from the principals to the teachers to the kids. By the third year, they're thinking about food. They're interested in food. There is a cooking class that was happening and the teacher asked, "What's the benefits of olive oil?" Everybody knew the answer. This is a 4th grade class. The benefits of olive oil. That's the great thing about it. We're going national with it, so we're working in Fort Lauderdale, Miami, now. We may be in D.C., Trenton, Detroit. There's a lot going on.

Emily: Are you flying around to all of these places?

Bill: Yeah. I haven't done the Trenton, Detroit thing yet, but when it gets to a point I will. We also bring in chefs like myself to partner with other restaurants. Michael Anthony, Alex Guarnaschelli, Jonathan Waxman had in the past. We asked those chefs to two or four times a year, to go into a school and do these café days where you do tastings, you can do demos in the cafeteria and it's wonderful to be a part of the school.

Emily: It's exciting for the kids -

Bill: Yeah. The kids love it. They see us all come in with our whites on, I'm signing autographs for third grade girls and fourth grade ... we won't go into a school unless we have funding, so a lot of the high poverty schools cannot afford it because basically, it's $100,000 over three years. We end up getting sponsorship that way.

Emily: Yeah. Will this be in every school in New York City, do you think?

Bill: That’s the goal.

Emily: I mean -

Bill: How do they do it? Hashtag goals.

Emily: Yeah, yeah.

Bill: There's no burgers. There's no chicken fingers and fries are gone. Sometimes it pisses the kids off, but after a while, they get used to ... and a lot of these schools that we're in, 75 percent of the kids in New York City get free or reduced lunch. A lot of these kids, it's the best meal they can have. Why not give them the best possible healthy meal they can have because they might go home or their parents are gone working two jobs or something like that or is a single parent and there's no real time to cook.

Emily: How do you stay sane? You're running a full time restaurant and -

Bill: Exercise. Booze.

Emily: Really?

Bill: Exercise in the morning, wine at night. No, I love both of them. That's the thing that keeps me going. I love both of them. I love the restaurant, I love doing this work with wellness in the schools. It's important. When I saw a fourth grader come out of the nurse's office after getting an insulin shot six years ago, that fucked me up. That was fucked up. Nobody sees that and nobody cares about these kids. If kids are eating well and kids can think and learn, then they have the opportunity to get themselves out of poverty and do better.

Emily: Coming back, just to finish up, what do you think is coming for the neighborhood?

Bill: I have no idea.

Emily: Next five years. What do you think it will look like?

Bill: I just hope it doesn't look like a strip mall.

Emily: What do you hope it will look like?

Bill: The thing is, we're losing a lot of the old places that are just being pushed out because of rent.

Emily: Well, you talked about Zabar's and Barney Greengrass being two of your favorite reasons for living here.

Bill: Yeah. They'll be around for a while. I love Central Park. I love having access to Central Park. I love Riverside Park. I love the group that takes care of the gardens there. It's great to ride a bike there.

Emily: Oh, the Garden People.

Bill: Yeah and be there. I love what LANDMARKS WEST! does and how they preserve the neighborhood. I'm very lucky for 69th Street is probably the prettiest block in New York and there's a point when it snows, it looks like a snow tunnel. There's a point when it's blooming, it looks like a flower tunnel. There's a part when it's green, it's green. In the winter when everything's, it's just gorgeous. I think the architecture up here is great. We've got the Museum of Natural History, which was just awesome raising a kid ... it's a great place to raise a kid because I have two giant back yards that I don't have to mow.

Emily: Or mulch, or ...

Bill: Or mulch or do anything like that.

Emily: Rake leaves.

Bill: It's great. My daughter was basically sick of the Museum of Natural History by the age of seven. There's a Children's Museum up here. There's a lot of great things. We have two subway lines unlike the Upper East Side. It's easy to get to places.

Emily: So, Upper Best Side?

Bill: Upper Best Side. Definitely. It's totally the best.

Emily: Well, thank you so much for talking with me.

Bill: A pleasure.

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