July 7, 2011

Chef Bill Telepan and Friends Cook for Tohoku

Telepan, center, and event volunteers.
Photos courtesy of  Bill Telepan

I happened to speak with Chef Bill Telepan yesterday, who was full of news about his recent trip to Japan. He was one of eight New York chefs who traveled to Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, one of the areas most devastated by the March 11 Greater Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. The team's mission was to cook a heartwarming Fourth of July weekend lunch for an estimated 1,000 people in this city.

“It was an amazing event, and it went perfectly,” said the chef, whose eponymous Upper West Side restaurant is known for its artful presentation of seasonal and local ingredients. “The day before, we were told that only 400 people might show up, and we felt really bad for the people who had organized the event,” he said. In fact, the visiting chef delegation, which cooked their version of Japanese and Western comfort foods, ended up serving between 2,000 and 2,500 guests.

The plan for the dinner was first hatched in May, when two businessmen, one from XCoal Energy & Resources and one from Nippon Steel, were dining at restaurant Daniel. XCoal, explains Telepan, provides coal to Nippon Steel, which has longstanding ties in Kamaishi. When chef Daniel Boulud stopped by to chat, the men discussed the trials residents of the quake- and tsunami-wasted area were still facing and decided that this goodwill gesture would not only lift the spirits of a community that has suffered much, but also show off the safety and quality of Japanese ingredients.

The all-star chef team
Boulud rounded up his all-star team of chefs, which, besides himself and Telepan, included David Bouley, Floyd Cardoz, Craig Koketsu, Tadashi Ono, François Payard, and Michael Romano. Telepan recalled one woman at the event who came up to him and told him that she had not been able to afford a cake for her daughter’s birthday; this lunch was their celebratory meal. Another guest told Telepan that the event provided the first reason for her to put on make-up since the disaster. About 20 percent of community residents are still homeless, the group, which also toured the area to witness the damage first-hand, learned.

The chefs sourced their ingredients with the help of chef Patrice Martineau, a Boulud alumnus who now cooks at the Peter restaurant at Tokyo’s Peninsula Hotel. “I made miso stir-fried vegetables and a miso- and kasu (lees that result from the production of sake)-marinated hamachi and tuna that we seared,” reported Telepan. “It was fun, because I haven’t cooked Japanese food since I was at the CIA (Culinary Institute of America).” Telepan, who graduated from the CIA in 1987, figured out the recipe beforehand, tested it in New York, and also consulted with another chef on the trip, restaurant Matsuri’s Ono.

Patiently waiting in line.
“The truth was, we weren't going to serve a high-end dish, we wanted comfort food with a twist,” Telepan explained. Pastry chef Payard brought 3,000 macarons with him (a favorite of Japanese diners), sourced some “incredible peaches,” for a peach tart, and baked an equally awe-inducing chocolate roulade made with tofu. Another dish that Telepan liked was one made by Chef Craig Koketsu of The Hurricane Club, a fresh summer salad of tomatoes cucumbers and corn. Except for the macarons, the food was all from Japan, Telepan added; “Part of the deal is that we were there to let people know that Japanese ingredients are still good.” For local residents, still reeling from the loss of family, friends and property, the meal must have been a soothing balm to their psychic wounds.

The t-shirt to prove it really happened.
Telepan was amazed by the Japanese guests’ famously rule-abiding natures. The community facility where the event was held was the size of a football field, he says, “where I was about midfield, and the line went around the track. It stayed that way for about half an hour, and at one point people thought there was not going to be enough food. So they told everyone they were only allowed one dish. It was insane,” (here he let out a bemused laugh) “because they listened, and nobody complained. I had a lot [of food] so I kept telling them, it’s okay, you can have whatever you want from me. But they were reluctant.” 

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