All David C. Felton ever wanted to be a really good chef. “The best.”
From all appearances, the 46-year-old Fanwood resident had succeeded.
Felton was voted Food & Wine’s Best New Chef (People’s Choice) in 2011; his cooking at the legendary Ninety Acres in Peapack-Gladston earned him a place on New Jersey Monthly’s annual Top Restaurants list 7 out of the 8 years he served as executive chef; and his culinary skills led to an “excellent” rating from the New York Times when he headed the kitchen at the fine-dining restaurant Pluckemin Inn in Bedminister. He also helped launch Hudson House in Jersey City.
“Cooking is a joy,” said Felton.
Still a year ago, Felton, a 1998 graduate of Johnson & Wales culinary school who grew up in Demarest, left the restaurant industry with no immediate plans to go back. Today, he is the executive sous chef of research and development at Wonder, a restaurant-quality food delivery system based in Cranford.
Restaurants, he said, “broke” him. The long hours, the high pressure, the stressful environment allowed him to ignore his mental health. “I didn’t realize that my working 16-hour days was part of my mania,” he said. “I am considered bipolar; I fight against depression.”
It drove him to become an alcoholic. “As a chef, it was normal behavior to come home and drink a bottle of wine.”
And restaurant work has caused too many of his colleagues to take their own lives. “Numerous chefs have killed themselves,” said Felton. “Big names, little names.”
Which is why on May 21, Felton will participate in the Distinguished Man’s Ride, an annual event begun 11 years ago to raise money to help support men’s mental health as well as fight prostate cancer. He will ride in Sydney, Australia, where the event begins; today rides are held all over the world. Felton has been a participant since 2016. And as is, the custom, Felton will be dressed like an “old-fashioned gentleman,” he said. “Dappers.”
He’ll wear a three-piece suit — blue plaid — brown boots, a white shirt, a brownish pocket square and a seven-fold blue silk bow tie.
He has grown a thick handlebar mustache for the cause. “It goes with the dapper look.”
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But most of the ride’s participants unlike, Felton has already been donning natty tweed jackets, crisp pocket squares, proper self-tied bow ties (“no clip-ons”), luxurious silk ties and well-polished shoes (“Brogue, monk- strap, cap toe”).
Instead of one day of dressing up, he’s going for 30 (check out his outfits on instagram). “It’s 30 days of dapper,” he said — 29 extra days to raise awareness about men’s mental health problems, a problem studies say is acute in the restaurant industry.
One study by the federal government’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration on substance use by industry, restaurant and hotel workers rank at the top for illicit drug use (19 percent) and third highest for alcohol use (12 percent), behind miners (18 percent) and construction workers (17 percent). In 2016, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention listed chefs and food service workers as one of the top 20 professions with the highest suicide rates.
“My industry is abusive, damaged,” said Felton. “You’re not a person, you’re a machine. You work, work, work —that’s all you know, all you are.”
Yet, even before he turned 14, he begged to become a part of it.
“Every day after school, I’d ask the owner of Demarest Pizzeria if I could have a job there,” he said.
He had always loved food, he said, thanks to his mom’s cooking. He quips that it’s “my mom’s fault” that he ended up loving to cook. “My mom is a super talented cook. Every night she would cook full-course dinners. I grew up thinking that everyone had an appetizer, entrée and dessert.”
When he finally turned 14, the legal age for working as a minor in New Jersey, the pizzeria’s owner Steve Renke hired him. By 16, he was managing the place. Sadly, Renke took his life five years ago, one of “too many chefs” he said he could list who had killed themselves.
While working at the pizzeria — “I loved it,” he said — he recalls being asked by a customer to make a “white pizza,” something unheard of then in New Jersey, he said. Fenton went to the library, figured out how to make one, and did just that the next time the customer came in.
The patrons were thrilled. So was Felton.
“I thought, ‘I could do this for a living’.”
By sophomore year, his application to culinary school was approved.
“I loved cooking school,” he said.
He worked throughout at local restaurants. After graduating, he traveled around the country to work and eat at as many good restaurants as he could. In 2000, then 24, he landed a job as sous chef at The American, an upscale restaurant in Kansas City, Missouri. Its chefs, Debbie Gold and Michael Smith, had won the James Beard award for Best Midwestern Chefs the previous year.
“It was great,” he said. “It wasn’t yet the high-low [bipolar] experience for me. My behaviors were somewhat normal.”
Two years later, he’d go on to help Gold and Smith open award-winning Forty Sardines in Overland Park, Kansas. He was its opening chef de cuisine. That same year he was named one of “America’s Top Ten Sous Chefs” in a nationwide competition.
“I don’t know what changed,” he said. “There was a lot of pressure. I worked from 10 am to 11 pm, six to seven days a week. I’d do whatever it took to do my job.”
What it took, he said, was lots of coffee during the day and lots of alcohol at night.
“You live a life of excess,” he said. “You try to concentrate all your enjoyment into a few hours after work.”
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He knew many of the bartenders in town. At least one would pour Captain Morgan spiced rum into a glass with a splash of Coke whenever he’d see Felton at the door.
“Most of the coloring was coming from the dark rum, not the Coke,” he said. “It was the equivalent of four regular drinks. And I would drink three or four of them in one night.”
He’d sometimes fall down drunk.
“I didn’t think anything of it,” he said. “It was just the life of a chef.”
In 2003, he returned to New Jersey to be with his girlfriend, a high school friend, whom he married in 2007. He worked for the Tribeca Grill for a short time but “it wasn’t the right fit for me.”
Felton bounced around for a while: he worked for a year at Manhattan’s The Biltmore Room, which got a coveted three-star rating from the New York Times. For one summer he taught at The Natural Gourmet, a plant-based cooking school in New York City. He worked as executive chef at Blue on Long Beach Island, which was named “Best of the Shore” by Philadelphia Magazine, but left to return to teach at the cooking school a few months later for several years.
“Something was missing,” he said. “I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t finding the same thrill that I had in the old restaurants.”
So when Pluckemin Inn called in 2006, he didn’t hesitate to say yes. He began as a sous chef and within six months he was named executive chef. Four years later, he left to head the kitchen he designed at Ninety Acres “People think if you’re a chef, it means you cook. No, you’re running a business — marketing, advertising, hiring, designing, budgeting, training — as well as cooking.”
“As a chef your whole world revolves around work,” he added. “Work is everything.”
Especially if you want to be “the best chef,” he said. “I was so driven, so motivated. Being a chef is all I know to do.” And being the best chef is what he desperately wanted to be. “You have to be the best. You have to work for the best, and you have to work at the best and, then, when you become the best, you have to keep that system going.”
The drinking continued, but never, he said, at work.
“I have never taken a drink while working,” Felton said. “I’d finish my day, then start drinking. Then I’d catch up. I’d pack a whole night into a couple of hours.”
When he wasn’t working, he was obsessed about his work.
“I only read cookbooks. I read food magazines. And the only thing I did when I had free time was go to other restaurants. I traveled to eat at restaurants.”
If his wife complains about his hours, he’d say, “This is what happens when you marry a chef.”
“It’s narcissistic, selfish,” he said. “It works for some people, but it’s not who I want to be.”
In April, 2019, he left Ninety Acres in hopes of finding work closer to home. “I wanted to be able to serve my family dinner before I was served the public dinner. I wanted to go watch my kid’s soccer game and then go back to work.”
He also wanted to open a restaurant that would address the problems he saw in the industry. He wanted a no-tipping restaurant where there would be “equality in pay between the front and the back of the house.” A restaurant that focuses on the mental well-being of its staff. A restaurant where employees could afford to stay home sick. “It’s the constant curse of the hospitality industry, staffers come in when sick,” he said. A restaurant that gave people opportunities to grow. A restaurant that created a nurturing educational environment. A restaurant that would employ underprivileged, underemployed “kids.” He defines kids as, he said, “anyone is willing to learn.”
He almost made it happen.
In June 2019, Landmark Hospitality, the event management company that owns a host of restaurants including The Ryland Inn in Whitehouse Station, Liberty House in Jersey City and Village Hall in South Orange, hired him to design and build his dream restaurant, DJKB (short for David and Jenny’s, his wife’s name, Bar & Kitchen) and operate a small culinary school, both in Plainfield.
He was busy doing just that when COVID-19 shut down everything.
Out of work and out of hope, he fell into a deep depression.
“I was in survival mode,” he said. “Bad habits crept up on me. I was drinking too much.”
A year later, Landmark Hospitality hired him to be the executive chef of Hudson House, their new banquet facility and restaurant in Jersey City.
But he wasn’t happy.
“The hospitality industry,” he said, “had stopped being hospitable. The industry just isn’t what I wanted it to be, what I believed it could be. I don’t hate the industry. I love restaurants. I’m just upset with it right now.”
He quit in July 2022 and got a job six months ago that doesn’t involve grueling, long hours — he’s home by 6 pm — designing recipes for Wonder.
“It’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” he said. “Leaving the restaurant grind has been fabulous for me.”
He is happier than he has been in a long, long time.
“I want to be a father and I want to be a husband,” he said.
And he doesn’t drink alcohol. He did it without attending any program.
“I wake up every day and say, ‘Today I don’t drink.’ I don’t like alcohol anymore. I can smell a glass of wine across a room. It smells like vinegar to me.”
If you’d like to donate to The Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride, visit gfolk.me/dcfelton.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text “help” to the CrisisTextline at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Ninety Acres chef to protest restaurant industry culture