In the late-1980s, Newark, NJ resident and chef Mark Sutton began and ended each day the same way. Before sunrise he roused himself from bed in the tiny apartment he shared with his girlfriend and young son, snatched the smelly white apron that hung on his unit’s back wall, and headed to work at the New Community Corporation’s restaurant off West Market Street. His South Ward apartment complex was tightly packed, so if people were beefing when he left, he’d hear it as he walked out.
At exactly 5pm, he’d ditch his chef duties to catch a cab to his friend Aubrey “Govener” Williams’ place in Central Newark. They’d grab food—what they ate depended upon their moods that day, the only sort of whimsy Sutton allowed his life—before getting another cab back to Sutton’s spot. But when they arrived at 416 Irvine-Turner Boulevard, cooking was the last thing on their minds. Awaiting the duo on Sutton’s front stoop, rain or shine, was always a group of aspiring emcees, camped out for the “RZA of Newark” to return to open his in-home recording studio.
Among them you could spot guys like Reggie Noble (a.k.a., Redman), Dupre Kelly (otherwise known as DoItAll from Lords of the Underground), and Jermaine “Huggy” Hopkins (who would later star in movies like Lean On Me and Juice). At that moment, when he’d sit down at his producer’s chair and spark some weed, Sutton transformed into his hop-hop alter-ego Diezzle Don, who would play a crucial role in kickstarting the careers of several soon-to-be-legendary rappers.
“I first started going to Don’s place when I was 16, because I was still going to church,” Redman says. Along with a few other guys in Sutton’s inner-circle, they formed the Revolutionary Posse of Terrorists, or R.P.T. “We were the first Wu-Tang Clan, and there were a lot of us,” says Redman. “We were going city to city doing shows, just like a real rap group. Everyone was under Diezzle Don.”
“I used to get my mom to drop me off over there. At the time, I was [Kelly’s] DJ. I wasn’t rhyming much. But we was in D. Don’s house, rocking. I learned so much off those guys.”
In 1990, it was Sutton who helped Redman secure a record contract with Def Jam, both initiating Red’s first meeting with EPMD’s Erick Sermon and constantly taking him back to demo for Def Jam executives. Eventually, Sutton quit his cooking job. But in his entire time with R.P.T., few knew about his nine-to-five career. Sutton was intentionally quiet about it.
“At the time, did I know?” Redman says. “Yeah, Don’s always been a chef to me. But the idea of a hip-hop chef was nothing—it just wasn’t possible. You’ve got to understand that when we was coming in we was still crossing hip-hop over to this world. Now the hip-hop chef is in.”
Today, most people who hear the phrase hip-hop chef think of Action Bronson, the stout Jewish-Albanian rapper whose traveling Vice show, Fuck, That’s Delicious, has positioned him as a Bourdain-like figure. Rick Ross’ affiliation with Wingstop, along with 2Chainz‘s cookbook, have given the idea even more credence over the past five years. But 99 percent of the population watching the antics of someone like Bronson doesn’t realize the deeper legacy of rap’s culinary throne, which was christened by Sutton decades ago.
“Ninety-nine percent of the population watching the antics of Action Bronson don’t even realize deeper legacy of rap’s culinary throne, which was christened by Sutton decades ago.”
That he shares no part of today’s cross-over zeitgeist is due to a combination of hardships and bad luck (starting with the simple fact that “The Hip-Hop Chef” is already trademarked by a self-proclaimed hip-hop fan and trained chef, Cookin’ Tye). Unlike Ross—who flaunts foodie bonafides solely to extend his personal brand—Sutton was the first to authentically merge the two interests.
“If I was a rock star, I would’ve just been a rock star,” Sutton tells me. “But I’m a chef, too, and I take that just as serious.”
Born on March 24, 1965, Sutton was raised with his four siblings by a single mother, Dorothy “Dottie” Sutton, a barmaid who spent nearly her entire working life in the city’s nightspots and casinos.
Growing up, Sutton played everything by the book. A quiet kid nicknamed “Sweat Pea” by his mother (the first of many), he took on a paternalistic role with his siblings and friends, playing good cop to make sure everyone was looked out for. Sutton’s deep brown eyes—now frequently hidden by a face-wrapping pair of sunglasses—were always scanning, observing everything around him.
By his teens he was working at Steeplechase Pier and handling the soundtrack for the Himalaya ride. His mother, through working at places like the legendary Club Harlem, introduced him to music, which later evolved into an obsession. Sutton turned his room into a laboratory and stocked his shelves with funk and hip-hop records. He’d spin them on his SP-12 sampler, crafting one-shot samples that eventually turned into the first beats he ever produced.
“I started out as a DJ,” Sutton says. “And once I started working on the Himalaya, I started to see the effect of the music on the people, you know? I started to take a liking to that.”
When Sutton was 16, notorious Local 54 union boss Frank Gerace asked him for his help plastering Atlantic City’s west side projects with re-election ballots. In return, Sutton was given a chance to ask a favor of Gerace. His ask? A job in one of Atlantic City’s storied casino kitchens. Atlantic City, then a dying resort town, legalized gambling in 1976, which produced an economy that gave the city’s citizens year-round employment. Gerace agreed and took Sutton down to Resorts Internationals to fill out an application. Gerace co-signed it and, using his clout, gave Sutton his first gig as a chef’s runner. “I fell in love with the gourmet food,” Sutton says. “Because at that time I was from the ‘hood and wasn’t eating no shrimp or lobsters.”
Sutton learned quickly. He mastered sautés and flambés. A chance turn at working one of Resorts’ cooking stations after a worker abruptly left to take an emergency phone call allowed Sutton to showcase his new talents.
“I remember it was this simple dish,” he says. “It was a herb-crusted chicken with some tourne potatoes and sautéd string bean amadine. I knew how to do it and wasn’t going to hesitate.” The executive chef, unbeknownst to Sutton, observed him from behind while Sutton prepared it. When the worker came back, the executive chef fired him and gave Sutton his job. Sutton eventually won the Local 54 chef’s apprenticeship program, which rotated him among Resorts’ restaurants for six months. He then made his way to The Sands and the short-lived Playboy Club. Sutton became a tournant, the kitchen’s swingman, but also could handle being the saucier and garde manger. He was a natural.
“Mark wanted to learn and he would do stuff that nobody wanted to do,” says Willie Lewis, the former executive chef of the Claridge Casino and Sutton’s cooking mentor. “I’d have him work the broiler station, the fry station. He’d even do room service. He adapted that very early, very well, and that’s why he became a complete chef.”
But cooking was only a job. Hip-hop was his passion. He put his career far from his mind when he slid off his uniform and retreated to the studio he’d built in his room, keeping his mother and siblings awake with his beat-making.
In 1986, right before he moved away from Atlantic City, Sutton created the DBL Crew, a rap collective of his high-school friends. Sutton rapped but also played the role of producer and ring-leader. The group had one hit, “Bust It,” that chopped up an Otis Redding sample and found its way to New York City DJs like Chuck Chillout and legendary hip-hop producer Marley Marl.
Demand for the young rap crew to do radio interviews and make appearances in Manhattan was building. And for a group of young emcees, the increased attention meant one thing: New York City—the cradle of hip-hop—or bust. Sutton weighed his options and knew it was time to move.
While it was hip-hop superstardom Sutton wanted, he could learn from his Atlantic City chef days and apply it directly to his musical pursuits. The Camelot, a former restaurant within Resorts, was the centerpiece steakhouse that showcased its full-fledged kitchen in the center of the dining room. Every move and preparation its chefs and cooks made were on display for customers.
Here, in gold uniform and knights pants, Sutton honed his talent as a showman and entertainer. He chopped vegetables behind his back. He whipped up hot desserts like Banana Fosters and raced each dish along the line to document its assembly. The kitchen pulsed with efficiency. When the time was right, Sutton and the other chefs would make fire dance on the open hearth, prompting many gasps and ‘whoas’ from the audience.
Even if he never cooked again, that’s how he wanted people to react to his craft: whoa. By moving north he figured he’d have his chance.
The distance between Newark and New York City is barely 11 miles. Without traffic, the drive is 15 minutes through the Holland Tunnel; the New Jersey Transit train from Newark Penn Station to New York Penn Station takes approximately 22. New York City might have had the record labels and cool factor, but Newark had its own reasons to boast. Local girl Whitney Houston was a rising star who had a number-one sophomore album. And the hip-hop scene had artists who were about to achieve mainstream success, too.
“Because we are so close, everyone puts Newark with New York City,” Dupre “DoItAll” Kelly, of Lords of the Underground, says. “That’s one of our pet peeves. We love New York City. But we feel that we are our own entity and have our own sound.”
Amid that scene, Sutton settled in a one-bedroom, ground-floor apartment around the corner from Shabazz High School. His unit’s narrow hallway dumped visitors into Sutton’s one main room. The kitchen was immediately to the left, but the prized possession curled itself along the back left wall: Sutton’s in-house studio.
“At the time, if you had a DAT machine like Don did, then you had a studio,” Jermaine “Huggy” Hopkins recalls. “Just to be able to have that, that’s what it took to feel like you had a deal. When I saw that he had [even more] in his apartment, I was like, ‘Damn, that’s unique as hell.’”
Guys like Kelly and Hopkins were introduced to Sutton through friends who had seen him at Newark venues like Sensations, and they became regular fixtures at Sutton’s new apartment. He scouted the local scene and vetted those who wound up recording—free of charge—at his studio. He had a plan: to assemble a crew of Newark-area rappers to put the city on the map.
By 1988, after two years in Newark, Kelly and his group, Lords of the Underground, and rapper Tame One joined with Sutton and his production and rapping partner Williams, also known as Tha Govenor, to create the Revolutionary Posse of Terrorists, or R.P.T. And it was through Kelly that Sutton discovered the R.P.T. member who’d go onto have the most success: Reggie Noble, also known as Redman, who considers Sutton “like an uncle, a spokesman for Newark music.”
Sutton and Williams became Diezzle Don & Tha Govener only after both had seen fellow members of the R.P.T. secure record contracts off the “Brick City” sound—which was defined by heavy, murky funk—that they helped create. Sutton claims he and Govener received interest from several labels, but only one executive decided to take a chance on the duo: Virgin/Noo Trybe’s Eric Brooks, who got linked to them through his New York A&R guy (and friend of Sutton’s), the late Mel Sessions.
While Brooks had worked with mainstream groups in the past, the deal he signed with Diezzle Don & Tha Govener was a risk. Their sound was the Brick City aesthetic taken to its grimy ends, like M.O.P. in patois. Moreover, Brooks gave Sutton and Williams leniency on their contract—an approximately $100,000 deal that allowed Sutton to join Virgin Records as a producer and give him more control over his music. Williams then signed to Sutton’s production company Izzum Man, which not only allotted him his share of the advance, but also, according to Sutton, 25 percent of anything Sutton ever made.
For Sutton, who had overseen the entire groundswell surrounding Newark’s hip-hop boom, it was a dream deal, something he’d been working his entire life for. How it fell apart depends upon whom you speak with.
Brooks thinks of it purely as a business move: Sutton and Williams’ album just wouldn’t sell. Williams claims that not only did Virgin hate what they’d recorded, but he didn’t feel that his compensation reflected the amount of work he’d put into the album. Sutton counters that Virgin cooled because Williams’ lawyers intervened to seek more money, a move that drove a wedge between the two friends.
Instead, RuffHouse Records co-founder and Sutton’s manager at the time, Kevon Glickman, picked up the LP, later named Year of the Independent, through a distribution deal on RuffHouse’s independent subsidiary, Contract. While Sutton initially claimed that this set-up was what he’d wanted, it might’ve been more of a last-ditch effort than anything.
Even that label situation quickly disintegrated. Sutton had mended his relationship with Williams, but both guys’ hearts were no longer into making Diezzle Don & Tha Govener records. Year of the Independent sold tepidly on Contract, so Sutton cut a deal with Glickman to forego the revenues he was promised for the label’s extra CDs. Sutton gave a few thousand to Govener to sell, then hustled the rest from his trunk and independent record stores.
Sutton’s solo music career peaked in 2000, when he released an album called Bonafide: Portrait of a Hustler. Compared to his work with Govener, this album actually got some mainstream recognition. Its lead single, “And You Know That,” spent a week on Billboard’s Hot Rap Singles chart in October of that year.
But there was one thing he could never shake that might’ve barricaded him from further success, a dilemma that was no fault of his own.
“A lot of people used to say that Redman and Diezzle Don sounded alike,” Williams says. “They got the same kind of voice and tone, but Red took a lot of his style from Don. So that’s what Diezzle’s problem was: You sound like Redman. He would be like, ‘No, Redman sound like me.’ And if you ask Red, he’ll tell you, ‘Yeah, Don inspired me.’”
But Don was already onto his next move: film and television.
Like music, film started as another outlet for Sutton to express himself creatively. He partnered with Jermaine “Huggy” Hopkins for a movie, I Wish I Had A House Like This, a House Party-like romp which they filmed at a property in Camden, NJ. By the end of the shoot, Sutton felt accomplished and wanted to treat his crew to a full-blown wrap party.
He tapped into his chef experience to get the best, freshest ingredients and a boatload of fine liquor, including Sutton’s preferred drink, Moët & Chandon. He set up a DJ and a hype-man in the kitchen, turning the whole cooking process into a spectacle. He worked maniacally and animatedly, bedecked in a gold Rolex and glittering chains. He chopped vegetables behind his back (his old trick from Resorts) and popped champagne bottles. But there were ulterior motives at play too. Sutton was hoping to impress fellow actress and NYU-student Robin Jones, who didn’t believe that Sutton, based on his street-wise character in the movie, had professional cooking skills. Jones was so taken aback by his off-the-cuff skills and savvy that she began filming his kitchen. She edited the work and brought it back to him.
“That idea of the hip-hop chef was new to us when she said it. So I had her Google it to see if anything came up. And I was drinking Moët & Chandon, so we dropped the n and added the r to get ‘Chef Chardon, The Original Hip-Hop Chef.'”
“When she showed me, I thought it looked like a cooking show,” Sutton recalls. “She said, ‘You look like the hip-hop chef.’ That idea of the hip-hop chef was new to us when she said it. So I had her Google it to see if anything came up. Nothing did, so I was like, That’s what we’ll call it: the Hip-Hop Chef. And I was drinking Moët & Chandon, so we dropped the n and added the r to get ‘Chef Chardon, The Original Hip-Hop Chef.’”
Unintentionally, Jones helped Sutton create his character, assembling her footage in a way that made Sutton seem not just personable and funny, but also knowledgeable about the dishes he cooked. She eventually submitted the film into a competition that caught the attention of one of Ricki Lake’s producers, who told her to go down the rabbit hole with the idea. She prompted Don to film three episodes of the show at his New Jersey house for public access on Manhattan Neighborhood Network’s Hip-Hop Hour, and the channel became impressed by its popularity.
But public access doesn’t gain one notoriety, much less money. Sutton was intrigued with his new character—which melded every aspect of his career with his personality—so he studied up even further on the TV industry to pitch Chef Chardon to a major network.
At the time Scott Vener—the former music director for HBO’s Entourage—discovered Sutton, he was splitting time between Los Angeles and New York City. One night, he was in bed in his NYC apartment with his girlfriend when the cable went out. With no ESPN or MTV available, he settled upon Manhattan Neighborhood Network, which was airing Sutton’s show. What he saw was rough and lo-fi, like a real-life Wayne’s World. Vener thought he had stumbled across an incredibly smart and entertaining series.
“I knew just seeing it he was ahead of his time,” Vener says.
This was before TiVo, so Vener rushed to his computer to locate an email address to contact Sutton. He located a website and tracked down someone in Sutton’s inner circle.
“So I got a call from one of Jadakiss’ homies because we were cool,” Sutton says. “And he was like, ‘Don, I ain’t know you know how to cook.’ And I told him, ‘I don’t know how to cook, man, don’t believe that shit.’ And he was like, ‘You know how to cook because they’re sitting here talking about you cooking on TV and this guy keeps asking me for your number. I don’t know who he is, but he seems important.’ I was like, ‘Give him my phone number, man, it’s no problem.’”
Vener and Sutton connected, and Vener eventually hipped Benny Medina, an executive producer for Fresh Prince of Bel Air, to the show during a meeting at the famed Record Plant recording studio in Los Angeles. Medina then flew to New York to have lunch with Sutton at Times Square’s W Hotel. When they met, Medina looked Sutton up and down, taking in the jewelry and flashy Rolex. He observed Sutton almost scientifically, speaking out loud to no one in particular, “Yeah, yeah, that’ll do.” Medina knew that Sutton had the “it” factor. The two headed upstairs to get to know each other before Medina told Sutton that he needed to get to Los Angeles ASAP. They had work to do.
What Vener says about Sutton’s being ahead of his time is probably true, and not just from the cooking-plus-hip-hop standpoint. Had Sutton’s show gone to air it very well could’ve shaped hip-hop cable television as we know it.
In terms of scripted series in 2004, only Redman had anything resembling hip-hop television that didn’t deal with music itself, appearing in FOX’s short-lived Method & Red with Wu-Tang Clan’s Method Man. Vener, Medina, and Sutton probably knew this when they began appearing on studio executives’ doorsteps in the fall of 2004. Besides using Sutton’s public access episodes as templates, Sutton brainstormed ways the show could present itself with a network budget. For each episode, he’d invite one rapper as a guest collaborator through a series of sketches in which Sutton would prepare that rapper’s favorite dish. A Chappelle’s Show-like performance would conclude the scene. But unlike Sutton’s previous iterations, the show would travel—much like Action Bronson’s does now—to different locations that suited each rapper.
Whichever studio picked it up would also benefit from vertical integration in hiring Sutton. He and Vener had begun talks with record executives to create a soundtrack that would allow the television studio to skirt paying hefty licensing fees for music. Someone just had to green-light it. One person who allegedly did was Spike TV’s Albie Hecht, who’s currently running HLN Network. Hecht, through HLN, refused to speak about his dealings with Sutton, which makes it difficult to find out more about why the show was attractive to Spike. In connecting with several people who were at Spike at the time, only one person, former head of development and production Peilin Chou, had any recollection of the project. Chou mentioned via email that there might’ve been a presentation pilot ordered, but that’s about all she can remember.
Even Vener claims his memory about the specifics of talks with Hecht are hazy, leaving only Sutton’s account. Sutton claims they were allowed to prepare a budget; Vener says that they didn’t get that far. But what did irk Sutton even before Hecht left Spike was that he wasn’t getting the respect he felt he deserved from creating the idea in the first place.
“When we got the budget,” Sutton says, “of the $200,000 I was only getting $15,000. So I was like, hold up, tell me why I’m only getting that, y’all controlling $185,000, and they eating? I want to make sure that nothing happens that I don’t feel comfortable doing.”
What did happen, according to Sutton, is he was relegated to being the show’s talent. That arrangement left Sutton vulnerable to the whims of studio executives. Unlike his past dealings in cooking and music, Sutton did not gain the total control he sought. He was the host—that’s it.
“I was bummed out that we never got on the air,” Vener laments. “Because I felt that once people saw the vision that he had, he would’ve been at the forefront of all of this.”
“I asked a very close friend of mine in television about it and she told me, ‘Chef, in the music business, they have sharks,’” Sutton recalls his friend saying. “‘But in TV, they have killer whales. And the killer whales eat the sharks.’”
So he asked her what he was.
“You’re just a baby. If I were you, I’d go home and get people who understand this and come back to the table later.”
By the time he did, Hecht had left Spike and the show was dead after the network’s new team expressed no interest in retaining it. Medina and Vener said they could turn the show into something reality-based, but everyone’s attentions had drifted elsewhere. Nothing was done.
“I was bummed out that we never got on the air,” Vener laments. “Because I felt that once people saw the vision that he had, he would’ve been at the forefront of all of this.”
There’s something that nags after hearing his story, both the mythic and verifiable portions, that makes one wonder how someone like Damon Dash, following nearly the exact same path in life, became the household name.
“I think that sometimes when you’re a real creative person with lots of fresh ideas, people are nervous about being the first to take a chance on them,” says Kelly.
“But you also have to be guarded with those ideas,” he continues, “because ideas can’t be trademarked. I think a lot of times D got excited and let everyone know what he wanted to do, but maybe didn’t have the money or capital to make his idea come to fruition. So now these execs pass on the real thing because they didn’t understand it. But they’ll take a chance on the thing that emulates it or gives them the same feel, and they’ll settle because they don’t want to miss out twice.”
On a hot day in August 2014, Sutton ambles up the boardwalk— dressed in slim-fit denim capris, impeccably white Pumas, and huge sunglasses—extends his hand, and welcomes me to Atlantic City. At this point we’d been chatting on the phone for months, but this was our first in-person meeting, and he wanted to update me on his life.
Since Chef Chardon fell through, Sutton rededicated himself to the food world while remaining relatively quiet on the music and TV fronts. Sure, there was the time he appeared at the end of a 2007 New York Magazine profile on Dame Dash, but at that point he was personally catering for the Roc-A-Fella founder and (at least to my knowledge) not looking to reignite his music career.
Around two years ago, though, an Atlanta-based entrepreneur named Keith Quarles introduced him to the coffee business. Quarles had started a company called Farmers Direct, which dealt directly with Cameroonian farmers to bring their coffee to the States. Unlike getting beans from a country that uses a coffee and tea board to regulate sales, Cameroon has no such committee. Guys like Quarles and Sutton cut out the middleman and can offer a fairer price to their suppliers and consumers.
Instead of simply hocking the Arabica blends native to Cameroon on the boardwalk—which was his first foray into the business—he’s dreaming big and aiming to start a chain of high-end coffeehouses in Atlantic City around the Cameroonian beans.
We spend the majority of the day viewing the prospective crown jewels of Sutton’s coffee business: his first two coffeehouse locations. The first is a former Spanish restaurant in a Hispanic neighborhood. The building’s inside is barren with the exception of several scattered boxes of his Cameroonian coffee, Lucky 7 Brand. After we pile back into the black SUV that his personal security guy and long-time friend, Khalif, is driving, we race back down Atlantic to see the second location. Once we pick through the patchwork city blocks, composed of both decaying beach homes and strip malls, we park off a small side street near the new convention center, Boardwalk Hall.
Sutton heads towards the boardwalk. Arms outstretched, pointing towards an old, abandoned public restroom built with high, regal arches, Sutton explains this building is his dream location. Without prompting, he prophetically declares what obtaining the spot would actually mean to him: It would become a fully realized monument to his ambitions finally coming to life.
“A part of the magic will be bringing this building back to its original state,” he says. “I want my coffeehouse to outlast me.”
After meeting Sutton’s mother and sister, we pull onto the Atlantic City Expressway, heading back towards the city, when Sutton and Khalif momentarily break into a conversation between themselves. They chat about Guy Fieri (Sutton was impressed at how he’s branded himself) and where we should go for dinner (Angelo’s in Ducktown; great stuffed shells).
Passing the last set of toll booths before Atlantic City’s solemn skyline opened up before us, Sutton looked out the window and said to no one in particular, “It’s all about to happen, man. I’m glad I’m in position.”