David C. Felton stands at the helm of the kitchen and farm at Ninety Acres Culinary Center, the restaurant situated on ninety gorgeous acres in Somerset County, New Jersey. He attended Johnson and Wales University in Rhode Island, and after graduating with a degree in the Culinary Arts headed across the country, picking up flavors and techniques as he went along.
After working his way around the country, and traveling around the world, he set his sights on New York City, working with top-notch chefs before assuming his executive chef position at Ninety Acres.
Recently I had the opportunity to speak with Chef Felton about his inspiration in the kitchen, his passion for seasonal produce, and how he manages to integrate the kitchen and the farm into a seamlessly elegant restaurant.
Elizabeth Palmer Starnes (EPS) Did you grow up cooking with your family?
David C. Felton (DCF) I’ve been cooking with my mom as long as I can remember. She was, and still is one of the best cooks I know. My parents really don’t go out to eat dinner, because my mom always cooked a great meal at home every night.
EPS. Do you have any particular culinary influences?
DCF. My travels are my biggest inspiration. I’ve been in most of the United States, forty-seven of the fifty states, most of Europe, a lot of Central America. So I draw inspiration from cultural and regional cuisine, but then try to work New Jersey cuisine into it.
EPS. Do you have a favorite style of American cooking?
DCF. I am a huge barbeque fan. Eating it, making it myself, learning about the different schools of barbeque, like Carolina versus Texas versus Kansas City, so that’s kind of my cooking passion on the side.
EPS. How do you coordinate the garden and menu at Ninety Acres?
DCF. We work in conjunction with what's happening on the farm. This year, it’s been a crazy spring into a very early summer, so the strawberries showed up really early; you kind of play with that, since you have an idea of what’s happening on the farm a good two weeks before it happens. That’s what we base our menu around. It’s always changing and evolving with the farm.
EPS. How often do you change your menu?
DCF. The menu is constantly in flux. We don’t say: this is the summer menu, the produce comes and goes and that’s when the menu changes. We try and keep it consistent in terms of there's always a salmon dish, there's always a scallop dish, but it’s the garnishes that go with those dishes that change with the season.
EPS. What produce are you most excited about for this summer?
DCF. I love our access to herbs. We grow sixty different varieties of herbs in the garden here, and kinds of herbs that you’d never find anywhere else. The lemon basil is just starting to sprout. The flavor is so intense, its amazing. You're never going to go to the grocery store and buy lemon basil. So it’s the access to things like that, the varieties of basil, which we used a lot in the past, that went out of fashion and out of people’s gardens.
EPS. Do you do research as to what kinds of produce you’d like to grow in the Ninety Acres garden?
DCF. My executive sous chef and I work closely with the farm. People don’t realize how early it starts, but January/ February is when we’re placing our orders for the next growing season. So in the dead of winter we’re taking about summer tomato varieties, peas, herbs, and the like.
EPS. That’s amazing! That takes so much planning and forethought- you really have to stay on top of it.
DCF. It does, it’s a lot of work, but the rewards, I think, are great. Your end product speaks for itself. Things that you can't buy, we can grow here and use in our kitchen.
EPS. You must be tempted to take all that great produce home! Do you have a garden at home as well?
DCF. I do have a garden at home, I grow fig trees, I have a couple berry bushes, and I’m actually thinking of planting some apple trees this fall. I'm the crazy guy with tomato plants in his front yard. Instead of flowers I grow all kinds of perennial herbs. If I’m cooking at home, I just walk out to the front gardens and pick whatever I need.
EPS. I’d want to be your neighbor! If you could open another restaurant anywhere in the world, where would it be?
DCF. I love New Jersey, I’ll be honest. I was born in London, and moved here when I was eight, left again when I was eighteen and then came back in my thirties. It really has everything you could want. Its got great agriculture, you’re close to New York City, you can be in the mountains, and you can be on the beach all within a few hours. Anyone that has anything negative to say I’ve got ten times more positive things to say about New Jersey.
EPS. That’s a great answer! And very true. So you grew up with British parents? Did they cook any British specialties for you growing up?
DCF. No my mom is more of a French trained chef, so me and my mom compare recipes and notes and she's always calling me and asking if I’ve tried this or that. We just love food, so it’s not necessarily just a certain type of food that we cook, we just cook good food. Why label it?
EPS. Growing up my dad would always cook the English classic roast beef and Yorkshire pudding for Christmas dinner.
DCF. We do always cook roast beef and Yorkshire pudding for Christmas as well - there are some food traditions that you can’t get rid of.
EPS. Do you like to cook at home?
DCF. I absolutely do, I have a one-year-old son and we make all his food at home, so right now he's eating pasta primavera. And my wife, she loves to cook but gets nervous in the kitchen. But at least one day a week we try and cook something together so that she learns a new recipe.
EPS. Do you plan on teaching your son how to cook?
DCF. Yeah I’m going to teach my little guy how to cook but I don’t want him to follow in my footsteps. I want him to do whatever he wants to do.
EPS. Where do you like to go out to eat in New Jersey and New York City?
DCF. In New Jersey I love Arturo’s in Maplewood. New York City just has so much that it’s almost overwhelming. One of my favorites is DBGB, just such a great place to meet with friends. But I love Jean Gorges, I love Danielle, I recently got to go to 11 Madison Park, and that was wonderful. Then there are just some great little hole in the wall places that friends and family go to, that no one really knows about, but they have great food.
EPS. So I’m sure you don’t have very much free time, but is there something you like to do on your day off?
DCF. My wife and I love to kayak. Around here we’ll go down to Cheesequake National Park, or just wherever we can. It’s just nice to be out on the water, its very relaxing, good exercise.
EPS. What would you want your last meal be?
DCF. My last meal; bit of a depressing thought. I think my last meal, the actual food I don’t know what it would be but I would want to eat lunch at the Jean Gorges restaurant. I think the best bargain in New York City is lunch, and you can lave a nice leisurely lunch, finish up, then usually we’ll take a late reservation for lunch and then go meet some friends for cheese at Artisanal at the end of it and then call it a day.
EPS. Are there any special events coming up this summer at Ninety Acres?
DCF: We do walk around wine tastings, coming up we have “Drink Pink,” where we focus on pink wines with a farmer’s lunch, and we do them once a month during June, July, and August. Then in September we do a lamb roast, pig roast, lots of great things.