Sequoia at The Cannery

Four years after closing his namesake bistro, Aimal Formoli is back.
Kevin Barnett, Aimal Formoli and Suzanne Ricci sequoia at the cannery
Kevin Barnett, Aimal Formoli and Suzanne Ricci. Photo by Rachel Valley.

Great restaurants open with lots of fanfare and press attention. But they usually close with little or no notice and often no explanation of what happened, leaving behind disappointed and confused diners who wonder what exactly went down.

That’s how I felt when Formoli’s Bistro closed in 2018. Located just a few blocks from my home in East Sacramento, it was one of the city’s most interesting eateries: a warm, welcoming neighborhood boîte that attracted people from far beyond the neighborhood’s boundaries with exciting, high-quality seasonal fare. So why did it close? And whatever happened to its chef and owner, Aimal Formoli?

fried chicken sequoia at the cannery
Fried chicken with wild mushroom hash and chili puree. Photo by Rachel Valley.

I recently ran into Formoli and finally got the answers to my questions. In short, he now works as the chef for Sequoia at The Cannery, a midtown event space that specializes in corporate meetings and private parties. How he got there is a bit of a longer tale.

Formoli and his wife, Suzanne Ricci, opened the first iteration of Formoli’s Bistro in 2007 in a sliver of a space on J Street in East Sacramento. He was just 25 years old, she only 23. Both the food and the laid-back vibe were appealing, and it was often hard to get a seat at the tiny bar or in the minuscule dining room. People couldn’t get enough of his whiskey burger, an alluring amalgam of Five Dot Ranch beef, cheddar cheese, habanero aioli and whiskey demi-glace on a brioche bun.

seared beef with pickled beets. sequoia at the cannery
Seared beef with pickled beets, avocado and green chili puree on herb toast. Photo by Rachel Valley.

After a few years, the couple moved out and up the street to a larger space on J Street. But while their business was succeeding, they were growing disenchanted as the local food scene changed. “Sacramento went from a real foodie town to an Instagram town,” Formoli says. “Substance didn’t matter.” By 2018, when their restaurant lease was up for renewal,  they had two young sons and felt burned out. Having spent their entire adult lives in restaurants, Formoli explains, he and Ricci were ready to “mellow out and feel sane again.”

After closing Formoli’s Bistro, Formoli worked as the executive chef at Stanford Hospital in Palo Alto, overseeing everything from patient meals to entertaining doctors and hospital executives. Ricci, who’d managed catering for Formoli’s, began working for Kevin Barnett, a San Diego businessman who owned a medical device company in Sacramento. A self-described foodie and “frustrated perfectionist,” Barnett didn’t like to hold training and sales meetings in hotels, so he built his own 12,000-square-foot facility in The Cannery, an architecturally distinctive brick landmark building that is home to The Sacramento Bee and VSP’s innovation center. Eventually, he sold the medical device company but kept Sequoia as a for-hire catering facility.

He was interviewing local chefs when Formoli catered a Christmas party at Sequoia. Barrett was dazzled. “It was an elegant meal,” Barnett recalls. “Tomahawk steaks. Cooking over an open flame. Incredible showmanship. And I liked the way he interacted with everybody, so kind and gentle.”

tiramisu at sequoia at the cannery
Tiramisu. Photo by Rachel Valley.

Last May, Barnett became partners with Formoli and Ricci in Sequoia. Ricci writes the menus and supervises the business end, while Formoli oversees the kitchen. They offer everything from intimate, seven-course tastings for a handful of diners to seated meals for 250. UC Davis uses Sequoia for leadership meetings, and Audi held a North American product launch here, with guests flying in from all over the country. By summer’s end, the space had already been booked from November through February for holiday parties.

But the food is all Formoli. A recent lunch for Barnett and a guest featured sushi-grade bluefin tuna, lightly seared, with jalapeño relish, served with a crispy polenta cake, wild mushrooms and a butternut squash reduction. It was restaurant food at its finest. “I call it the Aimal Experience,” says Barnett.

house made fettuccine at sequoia at the cannery
House-made fettuccine with shallot cream topped with pickled green onion and an egg. Photo by Rachel Valley.

Eventually, Formoli would like to try out new things at Sequoia—maybe a monthly supper club open to the public. But for now, he’s happy to be back, doing what he was born to do: just cook.

Sequoia at The Cannery

1601 Alhambra Blvd.; (916) 623-4201