Twice a week, Aimal Formoli rises extra early to connect in a new and unusual way with the food that finds its way into the kitchen at Formoli's Bistro.
Formoli not only cooks it at his well-respected J Street restaurant, he picks it, too traveling to the Napa Valley to gather up produce from a pristine organic garden and then heading back to town in time to plan and prep and cook. Somewhere along the way, he has time to envision a day when this kind of growing, gathering and cooking can reshape the culinary landscape in and around Sacramento.
What Formoli gets in Napa shapes the ever-changing menu in Sacramento. It is a new routine and, for this 33-year-old restaurateur and chef, a life-altering way of looking at food and flavor.
Formoli had always sought to use the best products at his popular restaurant. But this, he says, changes everything.
The produce is grown in a biodynamic garden at Grgich Hills Estate. Formoli met the winery's vineyard manager, Dave Bos, at a recent charity event, and Bos invited the chef to visit the garden.
Formoli soon took him up on the offer, and before long the chef found himself in the middle of this picture-postcard garden in American Canyon, one of five properties overseen by Grgich Hills. It's a place where tiny frogs hop around on rich, pliable soil. Chickens roam wherever they please.
"I go in there and think, 'Oh my God, this is the most incredible thing I've ever experienced. Just the natural beauty of it it's like a crayon box, all the colors. Then to feel the dirt under your feet. It's so soft, and it feels like it's going to collapse.
"I started eating everything right on the spot. What's amazing with biodynamics is how clean and wonderful everything is. I was tasting everything for the first time again."
Said Bos, "He's an amazing chef, and you could just see the wheels turning in his head. I told him, 'If you want to come down here and fill up your car, we'll figure out some kind of barter system."
Formoli jumped at the chance. Never mind that it would include rising before dawn and driving three hours round-trip before most folks have had their first cup of coffee.
Biodynamic farming was developed by Austrian educator Rudolph Steiner in the 1920s and is considered by many as the pioneering method of modern organic gardening. Rudolf Steiner College in Fair Oaks conducts numerous biodynamic gardening workshops throughout the year.
According to the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association, "Biodynamic farmers strive to create a diversified, balanced farm ecosystem that generates health and fertility as much as possible from within the farm itself. Preparations made from fermented manure, minerals and herbs are used to help restore and harmonize the vital life forces of the farm and to enhance the nutrition, quality and flavor of the food being raised."
Grgich Hills Estate uses the same method for its 367 acres of grapes and the fruit and vegetable garden in American Canyon.
"To me," said Bos, "biodynamics is the oldest form of organic farming. It goes back to the way people farmed a hundred years ago. The reason we do biodynamics is because it gives us better health, quality and vitality on our farms."
After recent visits to the Grgich Hills garden, Formoli has returned with a variety of peppers he has pickled, watermelon he used for a watermelon gazpacho, and beets for the beet salad. On and on it goes baby onions, baby leeks, lemon cucumbers, onion blossoms for salads, purple kale, dinosaur kale, chard all from a garden of less than an acre.
"One of the things I try to do, when I eat something at the garden, is say, 'OK, how can I translate this for someone sitting in my restaurant?' You can take a vegetable and do a hundred different things you just want to make sure you don't lose the flavor of the vegetable."
Formoli's new approach to his food has energized his kitchen and his service staff. He has taken several of his employees with him when he gathers the produce. At the restaurant, servers routinely inform customers about the chef's use of the produce and how it influences the farm-to-table approach to cooking.
A recent visit to the bistro for dinner found fresh produce and deep flavors throughout the menu, including a richly textured and colorful frittata made with fresh guinea eggs from Grgich Hills, along with zucchini and peppers from its biodynamic garden. Same, too, for the green beans and squash salad and the beet salad, with bright colors and vivid flavors.
"We have a lot of great farms everywhere, but I don't think everybody understands what these farmers really do," Formoli said. "The whole idea of farm-to-table is kicked around all the time, but for me to actually go and do it myself changes everything. I see where it comes from, and I can fully stand behind everything 100 percent now."
In recent years, Sacramento has become a hotbed of farm-to-table cuisine. Among the best practitioners are Mulvaney's, The Kitchen, Magpie Cafe and Juno's Kitchen, all of which feature the finest ingredients, with an emphasis on supporting small local and regional farms.
Formoli's Bistro is part of that movement, too.
But Formoli wants to take it several steps further. He is hoping to learn more about biodynamic farming from Bos at Grgich Hills, with a vision to obtain a local plot of land and create a biodynamic garden geared toward restaurants his and any others committed to freshness and flavor.
"I'd rather everybody have it," Formoli said when asked why he would invite potential competitors. "It will just heighten the level of food in Sacramento. We can educate everybody in Sacramento and get them to experience these kinds of things."