Chef Bill Telepan’s message is simple. We all deserve to eat better. When he’s not personally making sure the customers are well fed at his eponymous Upper West Side eatery, Telepan, he’s in a few unlikely places—New York City public school cafeterias and Capitol Hill—seeing to it that good food is something that everyone grows up with access to. In part one of our series on James Beard Foundation Boot Camp Alumni, we talked to Bill Telepan about how he gets kids to eat salad, how to convince politicians in D.C. to take up a cause, and how some of his famous friends are joining him on the front lines of the city’s school cafeterias.
JBF: You’re known for your passion for improving school food. How did that issue capture your attention in the first place?
Bill Telepan: Nancy Easton started Wellness in the Schools (WITS) in 2005 at our kid’s school, and in 2007 she was handing out sandwiches to parents during the parent-teacher conferences. Of course, as a chef and big eater, I grabbed a sandwich and went up to my conference, and on my way back I asked, “How can I help?”
JBF: How did you end up cooking yourself?
BT: There were meetings with parents, children, and school administrators, and they would talk about the school lunch program—what they’d like to see more of, how we can make it better and healthier. So I sat in on a few of those meetings and I had this idea: "Why can’t I cook at a school?" So we came up with WITS Café Days, where I would come and cook on three days. The first day I did an enhanced salad bar, with two different types of lettuces, three raw vegetables, two composed salads, and homemade dressings. The second one was building on the sandwiches that they handed out at the conferences. And the third one was a vegetarian chili that I made for the 600 students in the school—all three were great successes.
JBF: How many schools have the WITS program?
BT: At the time I got involved, WITS was in three schools, and I did Café Days at the other two schools before the year’s end. Then we went into five more schools the next year, and I did those same things at the other schools, all the while developing new recipes with the help of volunteers. Word got around about it, and by the end of the year we had enough recipes for a full monthly menu. We went from eight to 20 at that point. Nancy then had the idea to bring culinary graduates into the schools to help train the school cooks, work with the manager in making sure the food was ordered properly, and maintain the salad bar. And here we are now, ten years, 60 schools, and 25-plus cooks later. [Click here for a WITS recipe Telepan shared with us.]
JBF: Are there other chefs involved?
BT: Well, I brought a lot of my buddies onboard who are also fathers and mothers: Alex Guarnaschelli, Josh Capon, Michael Anthony, Jonathan Waxman, Jehangir Mehta, and Mary Cleaver. They know that their kids are getting fed well, but they want to help other kids. It’s an easy ask for me to go to somebody and say, “Hey, do you want to help with our program?” We don’t really burden them with too much to do. We tell them we want them to do three café days where they come in they do these little tastings with kids, be part of our gala, and also spread the word about helping. A lot of them take it further. It’s just really wonderful to see how the chefs get involved and love it. I mean how could you not? You’re sitting there and cooking for all these grammar school kids and they come up to you, they high-five you, they taste things, they talk to you, they’re interested. It’s wonderful.
JBF: In addition to your hands-on work in the schools, you’re also involved at the policy level in issues like the Childhood Nutrition Reauthorization that’s coming up this fall. Can you speak a little bit about what you’re doing, and then what the average person can do to get involved?
BT: The Childhood Nutrition Act is reauthorized every five years. It’s the dollar that goes towards school lunch, to the Summer Meals, the Breakfast in the Classroom, the WIC programs. It gives people access to healthy meals throughout the day. It’s been pretty underfunded for a while. So, in 2010 Nancy and I connected with Kristen Mancinelli, who engaged me to help get chefs involved. So basically, I got the James Beard professional directory, and we reached out to chefs in the areas with Congressional representatives who were on the fence or opposed the reauthorization. We sent the chefs letters that said, “Hey, you need to go write a letter to your representative, tell them how important this CNR is.”
I was basically in the office here, with like four volunteers, creating the letters, licking the envelopes, putting the stamps on them, and sending them out. And then we put together a day of action where we went and lobbied the Senate with the help of José Andrés down in D.C. He gave us a room to be our headquarters and people like Ken Oringer came down from Boston, we had some D.C. chefs, and a couple of other people from around the country. We prepped the chefs to be able to talk about the issue, because it’s tough. I still have trouble talking to a Congressperson. But it’s so great that you’re able to go talk to them and tell them what’s important. And I think it’s so important that as a United States citizen we have the right to do that. I mean, I went down recently to talk to Senator Gillibrand’s people and you could walk right into the Senate Building, right up to your Senator’s door and speak to their aides without an appointment. You can say, “I’m here because of this reason. I want to speak to an aide or Senator Gillibrand if she’s there,” and you can sit there and have these conversations. It’s amazing. It’s a little scary, but you don’t have to know all the ins and outs from top to bottom of every little point. The idea is that you go in there with a passion. If you’re passionate about they’ll listen.
We’re going to do that again this year. We’re telling the chefs, “write a letter to your Congressperson and tell them how important it is.” If they receive 10 letters on something, all of a sudden it becomes an important agenda item. And I think it’s better to write that physical letter than it is to do a mass email signed by 50,000 people. The Congressional aides told me how important it is that people actually take the time to write a letter, put a stamp on it, and send it to them.
Check back tomorrow for part two of our interview with Telepan, where he talks about blubber burgers, his restaurant as a part of the neighborhood, and steps to take toward healthier school lunches.
For more information or to get involved with CNR activities, follow @WITSinSchools, @ChefAction, and @NYC4CNR, or email firstname.lastname@example.org for updates on upcoming programming and volunteering opportunities.
Find out more about James Beard Foundation’s Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change program here.