Stories / Interviews

Bill Telepan, Part II: From Blubber Burgers to Boot Camp

Maggie Borden

Maggie Borden

May 21, 2015


Photo c/o Telepan

In part two of our interview with Bill Telepan (read part one here), the celebrated chef tells us how he addresses issues outside the cafeteria, how our Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change made him uncomfortable, and why his ultimate goal is to become obsolete. 


JBF: Wellness in the Schools (WITS) covers more than just than the food served in school cafeterias. What else do you address? 

Bill Telepan: Right now, only about three-and-a-half to four hours per year are spent on food and nutrition education in schools. We started WITS Bits, which are 20-minute classes where we teach kids nutrition through real examples. Some things we do include are building a “blubber burger” to show with lard what goes into a fast food cheeseburger, and showing them how much sugar is actually in a serving of soda. And since we’ve found that one of the best ways to get kids to eat healthier is to teach them how to cook, we’ve developed what we call the WITS Labs, where we take over the science lab for a week. We hit about 500 kids in a week and teach them seasonal cooking lessons. We’ll talk about tomatoes and make tomato sauce. We make applesauce, different kinds of bean dishes—we have about 10 lessons that we do now. A few years ago we brought in a fitness element where we go into the recess yard and try to encourage the kids to be active—which also addresses bullying. 

JBF: WITS is now 10 years old. What do you see as the future of the organization? 

BT: Right now WITS is expanding 20 percent every year in New York City, and hopefully that will continue. As far as growing nationwide, I could see us doing the full program that we do here, or just helping people who want to do the program by bringing them to New York to see what we do, so they can take it back home. We already partner with a lot of places like the Vetri Foundation in Philly and School Food Focus, a national organization. I mean, really, the ultimate goal is to be obsolete: when the food is healthy, the kids are active, we won’t be necessary.

JBF: What’s the first step that a non-WITS school can take towards improving their healthy offerings for lunch? And what does it take for a school to become a WITS school?

BT: I think there are many things they can do. They can look at their current menu. We encourage parents to go eat school lunch with their kids and see what they’re being offered. With a WITS school, you have to have the principal, the school administrators, and the food service director behind it, because it’s a lot of work. But there are little things you could start with. Eliminate chocolate milk right away. Look at doing one day where lunch is a scratch-cooked meal. Offer a salad bar, or focus on vegetables. You may not be able to do everything perfectly, but it’s all in the little steps. I always tell people, “Why don’t you pick one day a month where you guys develop a recipe?” Let’s do this one day and get everybody behind it, and then do it again in a few weeks or so, and keep adding to it, building the menu up. It’s going to take time. Or like a salad bar: the salad bar doesn’t have to be as big as the one we do. It could just be offering lettuce with a couple of vegetables and homemade dressings. Our website has a resource area with a whole list of things that schools can do.

JBF: Telepan has been open for a decade now—what do you think is the restaurant’s role in the neighborhood? In the New York City dining scene at large?

BT: Well, this is my neighborhood, too. Being part of the fabric of the neighborhood is something I’ve always wanted to do and I feel it’s important. And now, through my work with WITS, I’m able to sort of help with the restaurant, sort of talk about that important work. Customers are interested and people know that I do it. Their kids go to the schools that WITS is in, so it’s just been a great experience.

JBF: You are an alum of one of our newest programs, Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change. Can you tell us about your experience?
BT: There are a lot of chefs who want to help others through charity work, starting a foundation, or just by getting involved in issues that are important to them. What’s great about the Chefs Boot Camp is that it creates this support system. You can call another chef who participated and say, “Hey, I need your help with this.” Or I can find out who’s in my region that I can work with on an issue. During the camp itself, we were sometimes put in uncomfortable situations. For example, we had to create a campaign and present it to the group. We had to explain how we’d talk to our audience, what events we would create for people to rally behind, what Twitter hashtag we’d use. It really was a great experience in those terms, because even though I’ve talked a lot about WITS, how do you talk to somebody who has no idea? How do you convince them that it’s important? That’s hard to do. You can do it over and over again, but it’s still hard to do. It was a great time, too. 

JBF: Who are five people to follow on social media who are good resources on this issue?

BT: Well, I'd say the First Lady, Michael Pollan, Senator Gillibrand, Sam Kass, Michael Moss, and Michel Nischan of Wholesome Wave.


For more information about how chefs are using their voices to advocate on issues they care about, check out or follow them using #chefslead on Twitter @chefaction

Find out more about James Beard Foundation’s Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change program here