When Billy met Aimal: Buddy chefs from Kru and Formoli’s stand out
Sacramento’s restaurant scene is tight-knit, but these two chefs rise above with their jokes, jabs, fierce loyalty—and excellent food
The pots and pans were banging a little hard in the large kitchen of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in East Sacramento. Aimal Formoli, one of Sacramento’s top chefs and owner of Formoli’s Bistro, did not seem happy.
“Bill ran off. I gotta do his prep,” Aimal groused to a friend who’d walked in. “He didn’t tell me anything. I don’t cook his style.”
“Bill” would be Billy Ngo, another of Sacramento’s top chefs. They were cooking a dinner for a few hundred people last year to benefit Downtown Sacramento Young Life, something they do together every April. Ngo had left a few ingredients at his restaurant, Kru, and ran back to get them.
While Formoli banged around, Ngo walked in. He had a big, friendly smile, as he often does. “What?” he said to Formoli. “Didn’t you finish yet? What have you been doing?”
Formoli looked at Ngo hard. He couldn’t hold it. They both giggled, as they often do when they’re together.
Formoli and Ngo have one of the most distinctive, steadfast and charming friendships in Sacramento’s restaurant community. And because of their cooking skills, their success and their personal style, they’ve become two of the more influential chefs on the scene.
And, as Sacramento continues to grow as a food town, everyone from foodies to longtime veterans such as chef Patrick Mulvaney cite them as examples of how to do it right.
“You look at both those guys,” said Mulvaney, owner of Sacramento cornerstone Mulvaney’s Building & Loan, “and you say, ’here’s what it looks like. Here’s how you make it work if you have the gumption and the sweat and the talent to do it from the ground up.’”Just like Lucy and Ethel
The pair’s friendship, it turns out, is part of their success. And that friendship starts with high-level cooking skills and with a similar devotion and approach to craft. But, there’s also a healthy dose of Lucy and Ethel between them and, oddly enough, a yin and yang to their styles, personalities and career arcs.
Suzanne Ricci, Formoli’s wife and business partner, has enjoyed/endured years of watching the two.
“They are really different. Billy is quiet. Aimal is not. But when they’re together, they’re just goofy,” Ricci said. “They’re always messing with each other. It’s fun to see these two great chefs be such great friends, and still have such different venues for food.”
Ngo’s Kru on J Street in Midtown serves Japanese and sushi, and his food has the flavors and subtle layers that can make such food hypnotic. In the kitchen, he’s quiet, meticulous and contained. And he has ambitions. He’s about to expand to three restaurants.
Formoli’s Bistro on J Street in East Sacramento is a neighborhood bistro with bold flavors, yet elegance. The food has international influences, but if you had to narrow it, it’s Mediterranean style. In the kitchen, Formoli is loud and energetic.
“I need noise and I’m handsy,” he said. “I’m patting people on the back, touching things.”
His goal is to make his one restaurant a community touchstone.
Because they are moving in different directions, that makes their friendship as intriguing as it is noteworthy.
“Their connection is the most unique of two chefs I’ve ever seen,” said Nguyen Pham, owner of Sunh Fish Company in Midtown, a seafood market and provider to more than 100 restaurants. “Those two have a genuine love for each other.”
On a recent afternoon, Mike Thiemann, another highly-regarded chef and a partner in K Street eateries Mother and the planned Empress Tavern, wandered into a happy hour at Ella Restaurant and Bar. He found Ngo and Formoli there with Michael Passmore, the owner of the Passmore Ranch fish farm, and another friend. Theimann’s face lit up. He said he always gets a kick out of hanging with Ngo and Formoli.
“The bond between them is just obvious,” said Thiemann, who washed dishes at Taka’s Sushi in Fair Oaks in 1999 when Ngo was cutting fish there. “They just mesh. Just look at them.”
A steady stream of people—chefs, Ella regulars, foodies—came by to say hi to Ngo and Formoli. People respect the two, and even more, people like them.
They are easy to like. Both seem to be perpetually smiling, and there’s a graciousness about them. Both are on the short side, have dark hair, wear dark-framed glasses and tend toward T-shirts.
Formoli is squarely built. Ngo lean. Both have clearly spent time in the tattoo chair. Formoli has the most noticeable tat between the two. It’s the name Giovanni, Formoli’s 4-year-old son, across dad’s lower throat. Ngo has a wisp of a beard on his chin. Formoli’s beard is thick, neatly trimmed and mostly tracing his jaw line until it becomes a goatee. It’s got flecks of gray.
Where they are very similar is their shared, surprisingly gentle countenance for guys who live in rough-and-tumble restaurant kitchens. And when they’re together, there’s something in the air.
Some of it is the ease between them, in the way of brothers. They’re comfortable and genuinely happy the other is in the room, and that makes other people comfortable. Their friendship is welcoming, not exclusive, as if people in their orbit are part of it.
And they’re entirely un-macho, though there’s an inner toughness and a quiet confidence in both. That mix gives them the confidence to both show their affection and to share it.
“When I’m around them,” Passmore said, “I always end up thinking, ’I’m glad these guys are my friends.’ I forget they’re two of the best young chefs I know.”
“Young?” Ngo chimed in. “Aimal’s not young.” (Formoli is 35. Ngo 33.)
“I think Bill is lying about his age,” Formoli said. “I want to see paperwork on it.”
They met in 2008, not long after Formoli’s Bistro opened. Kru, which opened in 2005, was getting big press by then. Formoli wanted to taste the food and meet the chef.
“From what I heard, I expected this monster chef a-hole,” Formoli said. “It turned out, I was totally right, but just in a compact package.”
Ngo laughed. “I’m fun-size,” he said.
“No, seriously,” Formoli said, “I walked in and there’s this humble, quiet, enthusiastic guy. It was instant respect from me.”
And an instant connection. They shared similar food philosophies, backgrounds and general outlooks.
Both men revel in their industry. But they’re not out to conquer it, they simply embrace it. What they want is to be really good cooks and restaurant owners.
“Cooking is a craft you do over and over until you have the skill,” Ngo said. “And you have to figure you’ll screw it up at first.”
“I don’t think I’ve gotten anything until I’ve screwed it up three times,” Formoli said. “At least. You have to take your ego out of it.”
As for ego, Pham says they share what he called “fake humbleness.”
“They both have an unshakeable belief in themselves,” he said. “And the creativity between them is insane. But they both do that extreme fake humble in front of people, which, I guess, is the real definition of humble.”
Ngo and Formoli said there is a lot to be humble about.
“We’re just cooks,” Ngo said.
“We both think this is a craft that needs to be honed, but we’re not saving lives,” Formoli said. “Chefs aren’t rock stars. I hate that term, ’rock star chef.’ But we love people who work at this.”Sushi, potato-peeling, and hard lessons learned
Still, “rock star chef” is an apt description. And the stories of Ngo and Formoli, taken together, paint a picture of what it’s like to succeed in the roll-of-the-dice restaurant business and in Sacramento’s rapidly blossoming food scene.
Ngo and Formoli were both born outside the United States. and came to Sacramento when they were very young. Formoli was born in Iran. His mother is Iranian, his father is Afghan. The family moved to Rancho Cordova when he was five. Ngo was born in Hong Kong—and named Buu Ngo. His parents came to south Sacramento when he was 18 months old.
Ngo’s parents owned a Chinese restaurant on Folsom Boulevard near the Rosemont area, but he can’t remember its name. It’s long since gone.
“One of my first memories is sitting there while my parents worked,” Ngo said. “They’d pick me up from school and I’d hang out there, or wash dishes and do small stuff.”
Even before he graduated from Valley High School, Ngo got a job at Fuji Restaurant on Broadway as a busboy and dishwasher. When he was 17, a chef quit and they asked Ngo if he wanted to learn sushi.
“I said, sure, but it was just a job,” he said.
He moved to Mikuni not long after. “They were blowing up,” Ngo said. “It was fun and exciting, and they were crazy busy. But I was just a kid. I didn’t want to work that hard.”
He eventually found his way to Nishiki Sushi on 16th Street and to Taka’s, where owner Taka Watanabe became a mentor and friend. That’s when Ngo decided he wanted to be a chef.
“I really liked it,” he said. “I put my head down and worked hard and learned from him. But I was young and dumb and wanted to work for myself. I needed to learn how to cook a lot more styles and techniques, so I went to culinary school.”
That was 2002. He attended the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, taking afternoon classes and living in Daly City. He worked at Taka’s on weekends, and graduated in 2004, then moved back to Sacramento where he got an externship at The Kitchen and became a student of chef and owner Randall Selland.
“What I learned from Randall was don’t skimp on the ingredients,” Ngo said of his time there. “Always source the best.”
With Watanabe as a partner, Ngo opened Kru in 2005 and it became an almost instant hit for its blend of Japanese flavors and European technique.
“I was 24,” he said. “I was just full speed ahead. I didn’t stop to think about it.”
Formoli was only slightly older when he started in restaurants. Like Ngo, his first reaction was, “it’s just a job.” But in his case, a woman, not sushi, sent him to culinary school.
Formoli’s father was an engineer for the California Department of Transportation. Formoli didn’t find his way into a restaurant kitchen until he graduated from Rancho Cordova High, got intrigued with the city of Portland, Ore., and attended Portland State University. A friend’s stepdad was a chef consultant and got Formoli glamorous jobs like washing dishes and peeling potatoes. No surprise, he did not fall in love with restaurants.
But when he came back to Sacramento, he fell in love with Ricci. He was living with his brother in Elk Grove while attending Cosumnes River College. He met Ricci in a humanities class.
“We did projects together. First night we hung out, I told my brother, ’I’m gonna marry this girl,’” Formoli said.
Hanging out meant Formoli cooked for her, a lot. He loved being in the kitchen. About a year into their relationship, Ricci started encouraging him to make cooking his career.
“I resisted,” Formoli said. “I didn’t want to be another home cook who thinks he’s great and gets his butt kicked.”
He decided culinary school was the way, took out a loan and enrolled in the CCA in 2002, same year as Ngo. But Formoli took morning classes and lived in Sacramento.
“Suzanne said I should live in the City, but there was no way I was going to be away from her for two years,” he said.
So until he graduated in 2004, this was his routine: Up at 3:30 a.m., drive to San Francisco, classes until midday—“I had to be on the bridge by noon,” he said, “or I wouldn’t get back in time because of traffic”—go to work, first at Vic’s IGA Market in Folsom, then at Fins Market and Grill in Fair Oaks. He’d get off late, study, sleep a couple hours, and hit the road to San Francisco again.
“It taught me about working hard,” Formoli said. “Turns out, it also taught me about restaurant hours.”
When he graduated, he worked full time for Fins and learned how to open restaurants, starting two new Fins outlets. Formoli and Ricci married in 2005. She was working at Short Center South, an organization for adults with developmental disabilities. They talked about opening their own restaurant, and in 2008, opened Formoli’s Bistro at J and 33rd streets, with Ricci managing the front of the house and the marketing. Not long after, Aimal met Ngo.
“They were both really young men when they opened their restaurants,” Ricci said. “They were self-sufficient and strong, but they were young. They bonded over that.”
And over their shared dopey humor, work ethic, love of food, and vision for their industry as well. But most of all, they bonded over an instant sense of trust.
“We both kept saying, ’we need to do something together,’” Formoli said. “We came up with beer dinners.”
That was in 2009. That year, Ngo opened a second restaurant, Red Lotus, on J near 28th, but they used Formoli’s place, which, if you pushed at its capacity limits, sat 35 people. Their first food-and-beer pairing meal drew more than 60 people.
“It was packed,” Ngo said. “No one could move, but it was so fun.”
“We both said, ’anytime.’” Formoli said. “Anytime you want to do an event, let’s do it together.”
That led to the charity events, probably more than they planned, and gave them even more opportunities to cook their different styles together—Ngo careful and meticulous, Formoli loud and energetic—and to mess with each other.
“Whenever I bust out the tweezers, Aimal gives me crap,” Ngo said about his dish-plating method. “Or he comes around and knocks over things.”
“I can’t rattle him,” Formoli said. “He just stays with it, and makes fun of me while he’s working.”
As both men grew as chefs—and in stature on the Sacramento scene—they shared something else: an understanding of how to focus their restaurants. But that came with a touch of irony. Many of their fans didn’t see their range.
Ngo and Kru had become synonymous with great sushi, but Ngo was doing so much more in the kitchen with nuanced dishes and Asian flavors. (The desire to expand his style was one reason he opened Red Lotus.) And Formoli, who delivers so many different approaches within his Mediterranean framework, has one of the best-known hamburgers in town, his Whiskey Burger, a rich, thick, extremely juicy cheddar cheeseburger with habanero aioli and a whiskey demi-glace.
The thing is, Formoli said, “I never wanted to do a burger. I didn’t want to be a burger place.”
When they first opened in 2008, Ricci argued they needed a burger on the menu. It was not an artistic statement, it was a demand of survival.
“We fought about it because, basically, I was stupid,” Formoli said. “Then in a temper tantrum, I went back and threw a burger together. I had a bottle of Gentleman Jack whiskey sitting around. It was like, here, fine. Suzanne was right again.”
Since their full ranges are not universally well-known, just ask Formoli and Ngo to describe each other’s cooking chops.
“I have never seen a guy open so much ramen in my life,” Formoli said.
“He’s the burger king,” Ngo said. “Seriously, everything he does has layers. At the restaurant, it’s comfort with layers. Away from it, he can do anything.”
“Bill is my favorite chef in Sacramento,” Formoli said. “Everything he does is executed to perfection, and he one of the most organized chefs I’ve ever watched. Aside from showing up late to everything with me.”
Even with all of Ngo’s skills and organization, Red Lotus closed in 2011. It was a blow, though he’s philosophical about it now. It didn’t work for a bunch of reasons, but Ngo said the biggest issue was Red Lotus’ bar. He had no idea how to run a bar.
“I learned way more with that failure than I did in all the years before with Kru’s success,” Ngo said. “I was cocky. I wanted to do more and more stuff. I needed to fail at least once. During that time, I hung out with Aimal a lot.”
“I remember there was a lot of talk about our businesses,” Formoli said. “I also seem to remember there was a lot of alcohol.”
Passmore, who was selling fish to Ngo at both his restaurants then, said he was impressed by how Ngo responded to the situation.
“Lots of people go out of business with outstanding balances,” Passmore said. “Some just move on. Bill paid back every dime. He sold off quite a few things, put his head down and worked, and never mentioned it.”
Red Lotus’ failure affected Formoli, too, in ways besides the hangovers. It made him more cautious. That year, he swapped restaurant buildings with Gonul Blum and moved six blocks east. His bistro took on a bigger room and a new personality.
“It was like opening a new restaurant,” Formoli said. “When it’s your money, everything you have, and you have a family, you get nervous. Bill kept telling us we weren’t doing the dumb things he did.”“Restaurants aren’t just food”
The new Formoli’s Bistro has been, if anything, more of a hit. But it took constant attention, Formoli said. In 2012, he and Ngo both learned more about paying attention to their home bases.
That’s when they opened—together—Pork Belly Grub Shack in Natomas. Ngo found the spot and the deal. Ngo, Formoli and Ricci started planning.
“Developing it was the best part,” Ngo said. “We’d sit around at night with wine, cigars, cigarettes and just talk about it.”
“It was an exciting time,” Ricci said. “These two best friends were going into business together.”
Both chefs said they may have talked a lot, but Ricci really developed the concept and the menu.
“That’s why it was so good when it opened,” Formoli said.
Pork Belly was a casual eatery, and Formoli and Ngo gave everything layers and twists. It got good buzz, great press and a steady flow. But they sold it in 2013 for what they put into it. The chefs could see they were neglecting their own restaurants.
“You have to have everything in control and you can’t let things slip,” Ngo said. “I learned that at Red Lotus. We both needed to spend the time at our places.”
Formoli and Ngo continue to work together on special events whenever they can, but their restaurant careers have moved onto different tracks.
Since selling Pork Belly, Ngo said he has gotten Kru under control. He hired Ricky Yap, a chef Ngo trusts, and now has substantive expansion plans. In 2015, Kru will move nearby to a bigger building
—he’s not saying where just yet—and his J Street location will become a pure sushi restaurant. And he plans to open a casual, fast sushi spot called Fish Face on R Street near 11th Street by the end of the year.
“I think I understand managing the time better now,” Ngo said. “I have good people, too. I want to try it while I can.”
“Bill has that in him,” Formoli said. “He wants to try new things, he wants to see everything in this business. And that’s him. If there’s a pond, he’s the guy with the smile who says, ’Let’s jump in.’”
“Bill is just game,” Passmore said.
That partly explains his appearance in February on the Food Network’s Cutthroat Kitchen. (Ngo made it to the final round but finished second.) Some food pros called Ngo too talented for such stunt shows, but Ngo didn’t mind. He wanted to take a swing at it.
“It wasn’t a cooking contest, it was a game show,” he said. “It was the most anxiety, stress and adrenaline I’ve had at one time, but it took 17 hours. It was fun, but I don’t know if I’d do it again.”
Ngo’s life is now at a point that lets him jump into ponds, whether it’s game shows or new restaurants. Formoli is in a different place, because he has a family, and because he sees his restaurant differently.
“My restaurant is my wife and I,” Formoli said. “I want Formoli’s to be something we can give Giovanni, whether he takes it over, or it pays for his college, or something. And I want to hone what I do right here.
“I’ve been called a ’neighborhood chef,’ and I think that’s really cool,” he said. “This is my town, this is my neighborhood. I want to get better and better and do it right here. I look at people like Patrick [Mulvaney] and Rick [Mahan] and others, they’ve established a place. I aspire to that.”
Mulvaney said Formoli and Ngo have both found the formula for success and for adding to their community—they’ve become a part of the city around them.
“Restaurants aren’t just food,” Mulvaney said. “Good ones become that third place for people, after home and work, where they feel they belong. Both those guys are those kinds of chefs. They make people feel welcome. They’ve built those kinds of places.”
Formoli and Ngo were both, frankly, thrilled to hear about Mulvaney’s compliment—for a minute. Then they went back to Lucy and Ethel.
“Really?” Formoli said. “Bill? He’s so quiet.”
“I’m just letting you talk,” Ngo said.
“The thing about Aimal and Billy,” said Ricci, “is their souls are similar. They’re both very sweet, and they’re true chefs. There’s no candy coating. People love the idea of Aimal and Billy.”