THE NEIGHBORHOOD CHEF
For East Sacramento residents, Formoli’s Bistro is simply a neighborhood restaurant. But what a neighborhood restaurant. It’s the kind of place where everything is made fresh from scratch; where the meat, fish and produce are sourced locally and seasonally; where diners receive an amuse-bouche when they sit down; and where even the burger is transcendent.
All that is thanks to chef AIMAL FORMOLI. In 2008, he and wife Suzanne Ricci opened the restaurant in a J Street hole-in-the-wall with $75,000 they’d scraped together. Things were so tight, Formoli recalls, that on opening day he wrote a check for a chef’s coat—and it bounced.
But from those inauspicious beginnings, Formoli’s Bistro went on to capture the hearts of local diners. The personable Ricci ran the front of the house, while Formoli served simple, comforting food from the tiny open kitchen. It was just the two of them at first. But Formoli’s Bistro was an instant hit. “It felt like diners were coming to my house,” Formoli explains.
By 2011, the bistro had outgrown its original location. Formoli and Ricci moved their operation up the block to a larger space. “We were ready to grow,” says Formoli. The restaurant may attract bigger crowds these days, but it’s still a mom-and-pop at its heart. “I’ve found my niche,” says Formoli. “I’m happy with doing simple things properly, but with a little flair.”
He doesn’t mind hearing his baby being called a neighborhood restaurant. “This is not a special-occasion place,” he asserts. “I want some comfort and some complexity.”
Even über-popular chefs sometimes make mistakes. Hoping to introduce diners to something new, he took his famous whiskey burger off the dinner menu on Friday and Saturday nights. Customers howled. Chastened, he put it back.
“The people told us what they wanted,” he says. “I don’t want to limit anyone from coming here. Dining shouldn’t be an investment. It should just be fun.”
He’s known as the mad scientist of Sacramento cuisine, pushing the culinary envelope with his artful take on molecular gastronomy. But since taking over the kitchen at Enotria in October, PAJO BRUICH has pulled back on the gimmicks to concentrate on ingredient-driven fine dining. His was an unconventional path to success. A self-taught chef, Bruich began hosting pop-up dinners several years ago at a rented commercial kitchen and quickly made a name for himself with his inventive multicourse tasting menus. In 2011, restaurateur Ali Mackani hired Bruich—who had never worked in a restaurant kitchen, let alone run one—to revamp the dining program at Lounge ON20, a hip midtown watering spot that hadn’t quite found its groove.
Despite getting high marks for his food, Bruich wasn’t able to fix what ailed Lounge ON20, and he left in April 2012. (The lounge closed soon after.) Unemployed and ambitious, he wondered whether it was time to depart Sacramento for a bigger stage and started looking at Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York. While trying to decide on his next move, Bruich did a monthlong unpaid stage at the highly regarded Benu in San Francisco. “I was humbled stepping into Benu’s kitchen,” says Bruich. “There’s a general excellence and sense of importance to every position. I got to go back to the basics and ask myself, ‘Why do I do this?’ Because I love food.” When he wasn’t at work, he ate at the city’s best restaurants and spent hours talking with other chefs.
Meanwhile, Enotria’s owners had been talking to him about running their kitchen. At first he turned them down, but by the end of the summer, he decided that he belonged in Sacramento after all. “There’s a place for me here,” he says. Bruich brought in local suppliers such as Passmore Ranch and Feeding Crane Farms and created a tasting menu. “The best restaurants in the world have tasting menus,” Bruich says. “People are looking for an experience. The tasting menu is the way to go.”
Slender, earnest and cerebral, Bruich has lofty goals for himself and for Sacramento. “I don’t want to say that Enotria is a great Sacramento restaurant,” he explains. “It should be a great restaurant that happens to be in Sacramento but that could be anywhere in the world.” He instituted a guest chef program, importing Michelin-starred chefs such as Dominique Crenn of Atelier Crenn in San Francisco and Aaron London, formerly with Napa’s Ubuntu.
Bruich dreams about getting a Michelin star for Enotria, something no other Sacramento restaurant has ever done. He wants to see Sacramento join the ranks of great food cities such as San Francisco and New York. “Sacramento is the underdog,” he says. “It makes me want to fight harder and put Sacramento on the map.”
THE HOMETOWN BOY
As one of the city’s top restaurants, Ella never has had trouble attracting first-rate candidates to helm the kitchen. But when executive chef Michael Thiemann recently left to run Tyler Florence’s sprawling food empire, Ella’s owners did something unusual: They hired from within. RAVIN PATEL had been working for the restaurant since 2009 when he was tapped for the executive chef gig in February. It was a strong vote of confidence in Patel, a hometown boy who never dreamed he’d be a chef.
Raised in an Indian American family, Patel was expected to go into finance or medicine, just like his cousins. “I was always interested in food, but I couldn’t make that my profession,” he says.
Patel got an economics degree at UC Davis and went to work for E*Trade. But he hated it. So he quit and enrolled at the French Culinary Institute in New York, which has turned out such celebrated chefs as Bobby Flay and Dan Barber. Finally, he was in his element. “I loved it,” he says. Patel went on to work at New York’s acclaimed Montrachet, moving quickly through the ranks before joining the staff at The Modern, a sophisticated restaurant that belongs to Danny Meyer’s famed Union Square Hospitality Group. “It was the most influential job in my culinary career,” he says. “It’s a very well-run kitchen where I learned about professionalism, repetition and consistency.”
New York was an exciting place to be a young chef. But once he married and was expecting a child, his hometown beckoned. Returning to Sacramento, Patel went to Ella for an unpaid internship—and on his first day was offered a paying job as a line cook. “I just put my head down and worked hard,” he recalls. Within a year, he was promoted to sous chef, then later to chef de cuisine. When Thiemann resigned, Patel basically had been running the kitchen for 2 ½ years. He was the obvious choice to replace the departing chef.
Now, he says, his job is to take Ella to the next level. “Every chef here has brought something,” says Patel. For someone running a large kitchen, his finance background is a plus. Inspired by the farm-to-fork movement, he aims to source at least 50 percent of the menu directly from local farmers. And he’s working to infuse the menu with some Indian American culture: He serves a deconstructed fried okra dish with raita, a traditional Indian condiment.
Patel thinks Sacramento will become a nationally recognized food town within the next decade, thanks to the arrival of chefs who, like himself, have experience in the bigger food world. “Sacramento was missing that outside influence,” he says, “but it’s evolving.”
At 23, KEVIN O’CONNOR is probably the youngest executive chef in Sacramento. His boss, Blackbird owner Carina Lee Lampkin, laughingly calls him a child prodigy.
The El Dorado Hills native got his first job at the tender age of 13, washing dishes at a local restaurant. At 16, he went to work at Masque Ristorante. While his high school classmates were reading Macbeth, he was chopping vegetables. “I wanted to be a prep cook,” he recalls.
At 18, O’Connor went to work at Mason’s in downtown Sacramento. “That’s when I got serious,” he says. But instead of going to culinary school like many of his peers, he signed up for an overseas internship program called WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities in Organic Farms). He ended up in the South of France, working at farms and wineries with restaurants, where he could learn about food in a more organic fashion. “We’d shoot a boar in the vineyard one day, and on the next day it would be on the menu,” he recalls. “It was awesome.” But he doesn’t consider himself self-taught. “I really despise that term,” he says. Rather, he undertook a version of the French apprentice system, learning French techniques and the French hierarchical system on the job.
Back in Sacramento, he was hired by the Selland restaurant group, working as a line cook at Ella and The Kitchen. When he left Ella, he was at a crossroads, not sure what to do next. Lampkin, meanwhile, had moved here from San Francisco to open a restaurant downtown. O’Connor did some construction work for the new restaurant, then helped Lampkin to conceptualize the menu. Blackbird opened in April 2012 with O’Connor in the kitchen. Eventually, he took over the day-to-day running of the restaurant.
“Kevin’s a badass and a natural leader,” Lampkin says. “Mostly, I let him do his own thing.”
O’Connor describes his style like this: “Grab what’s in season and showcase it as best as I can. Nothing too modern or molecular. Challenge the diners, but still have them be comfortable.” The fish-centric menu includes crudo from the raw bar and a daily Chef’s Prix Fixe that aims to introduce diners to things they might not automatically try. One recent offering: flat-iron steak tartare with fried kale, squid ink and egg yolk. But cooking for a crowd doesn’t scratch every one of O’Connor’s itches. “At Blackbird, I have a lot of freedom,” he says, “but we have a business to run.” So in his spare time, he holds high-concept pop-up dinners around town. “I feel like I can push different food at these dinners and be a lot more creative,” he says. “I get to play and have fun and do my art.”
He doesn’t own a restaurant. In fact, most Sacramento diners don’t even know his name. But his restaurant-industry peers consider ADAM SCHULZE one of the best chefs in town.
At Rick Mahan’s The Waterboy, Schulze oversees a finely tuned kitchen that prepares high-quality, simple, Mediterranean-influenced food. He’s had no formal training. In high school, Schulze washed dishes at a restaurant in Yountville and later at Sacramento Brewing Company. He had no idea what he wanted to do with his life. All he knew was that he didn’t want to wash dishes. So he picked up some shifts working in the pantry and never looked back.
When a friend got a job at Paragary’s, he followed him, making pizzas, fresh pasta, breads and desserts. “Everybody there had gone to culinary school, so I started thinking about it,” he says. But he realized that if he kept his eyes open, he could earn and learn at the same time. The legendary Kurt Spataro was executive chef; Patrick Mulvaney was the sous chef. When Mulvaney left for the top job at Piatti in Roseville, Schulze followed. He then bounced around, working at a number of local restaurants.
Ten years ago, he got a call from Mahan, offering him a part-time job at $10 an hour. Schulze had just gotten married and was expecting his first child. “I wanted to go so badly,” he says, “but I was scared.” Mahan upped the offer to full time at $12 an hour, and Schulze jumped at the chance.
Working for Mahan is a dream, he says. “Rick is a hands-on owner. This is a collaborative environment, not corporate. You want to do good for him.”
A natural leader and a strong force in the kitchen, Schulze gradually took over day-to-day operations at the midtown restaurant. “I convinced Rick to let me take care of things,” he says. “He slowly handed over the reins.”
Schulze takes obvious pride in adhering to Mahan’s high standards. Several months ago, Mahan paid Schulze the ultimate compliment, putting Schulze’s name on the menu. “To have Rick put my name on the menu is a tremendous joy,” says Schulze. “I feel like I’m taking care of his child.”
In the past year, he’s cooked for former President Bill Clinton and competed on ABC’s reality cooking show, “The Taste.” “It’s been crazy,” says ADAM PECHAL, owner of Tuli Bistro, Restaurant Thir13en and a busy catering company. “I’m not complaining, but it’s taken a toll.”
Being on a TV show was the culmination of a years-long dream. Pechal tried out several times for “Top Chef” before landing on “The Taste.” Every week on the show, “cheftestants” had to prepare a single mouthful for celebrity judges Anthony Bourdain, Brian Malarkey and Nigella Lawson. During a sandwich challenge, Pechal was stung when Lawson mistook his pork loin for turkey in a Cubano sandwich. Still, he kept his temper in check. “I didn’t want to be that guy—you know, the jerk or the villain. I think I stayed true to myself and my food.”
After each show aired (he was eliminated after episode 6), Pechal blogged about the experience—and discovered a passion for writing. Now, he’d like to take his career in a more creative, intellectual direction and maybe write a book. He also wouldn’t mind being on the small screen again; he’d like to model himself after the peripatetic Anthony Bourdain, star of “No Reservations” and author of the seminal cooking memoir, Kitchen Confidential.
Cooking for Clinton was another singular honor for the busy Pechal. He got the call just one day before Clinton came to town. One teeny little hitch: The ex-president is a vegan. “I couldn’t use my bag of tricks,” says the meat-loving Pechal, “but I love a challenge.” He prepared tatsoi salad with almonds and citrus-ginger dressing and housemade spinach pasta with golden cauliflower, roasted peppers, confited cippolini onions, arugula and toasted almonds.