David C. Felton said his dream job, described as such in his senior college thesis for Johnson & Wales University, looked like this: “A restaurant on top of a hill with a farm and a hotel.”
Ten years ago, when Felton learned that Bob Wojtowicz had been working since 2003 on creating just that, at Natirar in Peapack-Gladstone, he made the call.
“We used to go to The Pluckemin Inn in Bedminster, where David was executive chef, quite a bit,” Wojtowicz said. “It was our go-to place, since we loved the food.
“So, when David called (in 2007) and said, ‘You are building my dream job,’ I said, ‘I’m flattered, but we are at least two years away from opening.’ ”
Felton was undeterred.
“I said, ‘I’ll be the dishwasher and I’ll retire as the bellhop and I’ll be happy somewhere in between,’ ” Felton said.
Felton now works “in-between” as the executive chef of Ninety Acres at Natirar, the award-winning, upscale, New American restaurant that has since become a well-known staple of the farm-to-table culinary movement in New Jersey.
The restaurant and farm, as well as a cooking school and private club, were just the start for Wojtowicz, founder of Natirar and Ninety Acres, in 2009.
His vision for the more than 90-acre lease at Natirar, a scenic and secluded setting on nearly 500 protected acres in Somerset County, was to include not only a restaurant, but a full collection of luxury amenities.
While the estate is well on its way to completion after recent restorations for a grand ballroom and catering hall, Natirar has been a long time in the making.
Nearly two decades ago, Wojtowicz — then a CPA and co-founder of an insurance underwriting firm specializing in commercial liability coverage — was seeking new opportunities.
“As a New Jersey native, I was primarily interested in creating something that did not yet exist in the area,” he said. “I’m not a restaurateur; I’m not in hospitality; but to me, this was an opportunity to create something that was just not in New Jersey at the time.”
Wojtowicz therefore pitched Natirar — a reverse spelling of the Raritan River that winds through the grounds — as a resort property to Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group, in 2000.
“I didn’t know Richard — it was purely a cold call — but I was hoping he knew the royal family, which he did,” Wojtowicz said.
Wojtowicz pursued discussions with Branson and traveled to Morocco to negotiate purchasing the entire 500 available acres in Somerset County then owned by the family of the recently deceased King Hassan II.
That’s when Wojtowicz said he learned that the Somerset County Park Commission also was pursuing the property to preserve it as open space.
“My concern was that we would then be perceived as this ugly developer that came in to buy and take this beautiful parkland away,” Wojtowicz said. “So, I went down to the county and talked to them about what their plans were.”
That conversation led to Wojtowicz backing out of the deal entirely.
“I thought it was a better idea to let the county buy it and try to strike a deal with them by pursuing a public-private partnership,” he said.
Somerset County Park Commission purchased the property for $22 million in 2003, while Wojtowicz and his partners, including Branson, signed a 99-year lease for the 90-acre portion on the elevated hilltop.
Wojtowicz’s original plan was to build his entire project all at once in 2007. Financing, however, ultimately fell through.
“So, I said, ‘Let’s start with something, and build that success into getting the whole project going,’ ” Wojtowicz said. “I said, ‘Let’s do the restaurant first.’ ”
Felton came on board in 2009 to help with the planning for both Ninety Acres and the cooking school.
“I was involved with every single thing, from the kitchen design to the drink coasters, from the beginning,” he said.
Built in the estate’s restored carriage house, Ninety Acres now employs more than 100 and has the ability to seat more than 200 people at a time between its main dining and bar areas, its outdoor terrace with fire pits, its private dining and lounge areas, and its wine cellar.
Most importantly, Ninety Acres is, quite literally, a table at the farm.
As much as 80 percent of the produce used in Felton’s kitchen is sourced in season from Natirar’s 12-acre sustainable farm, with more than 150 available varieties of fresh, organic fruits and vegetables, herbs and flowers.
Additionally, the farm houses more than 250 chickens for fresh eggs, beehives for pollination and honey, sheep for grazing and fertilizing, and occasional Berkshire pigs who consume the kitchen’s scraps.
“I want to know where all of my food comes from,” Felton said. “I’m not a huge fan of organic labeling, because I don’t think it’s fair to everyone. The small farmer has to pay a lot of money to get that label.
“When you know where your food comes from, you can have organic food, it just doesn’t have a sticker on it.”
All other ingredients are meticulously sourced for best practices and availability, Felton said.
“Meat, dairy, produce — we need to be able to tell the story,” Felton said. “Such as, this black bass came fresh off the boat from a ship in Long Island. Some people really want to know that story, and, at the end of the day, the food tastes better.”
Plenty of locally sourced items, such as the ancho-rubbed Long Island duck, the roasted Griggstown chicken and the Barnegat Lighthouse scallops and pork belly, are available on the a la carte menu for between $15 and $40 per dish, and on the three-course prix fixe menus, which typically cost around $75 per person.
What many diners have found unique, however, is Felton’s “Bring Me Food” tasting concept, in which patrons peruse a list of the night’s fresh-from-the-farm ingredients, discuss their dietary preferences with their server, and are created a five- to seven-course menu on the spot by the culinary team for around $100 per person.
Kim Wojtowicz, Natirar’s agricultural director, said it is a concept made entirely possible by having the farm on-premises.
“What’s beautiful about having a farm is, right now, you can go to the grocery store and get spring peas,” she said. “But, with our farm, we also have the shoots and the different parts of the plant that David can use.”
And he does.
“For example, we see only about 10 percent of the harvest of bananas,” Felton said. “There are starving people in the world, yet, because a banana may not fit what we think a banana should look like, we toss it.
“That’s strange to me. So, we use everything. We figure out ways to work with the ugly carrots and the blemished tomatoes.”
Kim Wojtowicz said that also allows the farm to cut down on waste.
“We have an extensive composting program,” she said. “At least three barrels a day are fed to the animals or used in the gardening around here as soil.
“It’s full circle on this farm.”
While Felton said farming on-site can be and usually is expensive, that hasn’t yet been an issue for Ninety Acres or Natirar.
“The restaurant has hit capacity on the weekends: Saturday reservations for eight years have sold out six weeks out,” Felton said. “So, for the first time, we are opening up on Mondays this summer.”
Bob Wojtowicz said the restaurant has had more than 25,000 unique visitors since opening.
“Everybody that comes to this place are all people who have been to Ninety Acres,” he said.
That is how, Kim Wojtowicz said, the restaurant has helped save costs elsewhere when restoring the 40-room, 33,000-square-foot, 1912 Tudor Mansion, which will now serve as Natirar’s new grand ballroom and catering hall.
“Our reputation precedes us and allows us to succeed without huge marketing campaigns,” she said.
Together, the new spaces will accommodate up to 225 for weddings, galas and corporate retreats, with ample areas for small meetings and executive roundtables.
“A family booked their wedding months ago off a piece of paper and a concept,” she said.
“That blows my mind. There wasn’t even a floor down or a window up.”
Now, with weddings at the Mansion costing between $250 and $325 per person, most of this year’s weekend weddings are booked, she said, with only one or two available dates next year.
The Wojtowiczs plan to continue Natirar’s success by building a 66-room boutique hotel and 24 private luxury residences.
“When the hotel piece is added, that will draw additional outside money into the state of New Jersey,” Bob Wojtowicz said. “And if we can help create jobs, that’s exciting.”
When all is said and done, he said, there will be more than 200 employees for the entire estate.
“I’m proud of the culture that we have here,” he said. “We’re family.
“Most of our senior management team are people that have been here since Day One, and even our staff in the restaurant.
“That is rewarding when you have that kind of continuity.”