Each month, Evan Caplan speaks with a chef of a Georgetown-area eatery. In November, he chatted with Fanor Balderrama of Sequoia. Balderrama started his career working at a catering gig soon after immigrating to New York City from his native Bolivia. Later, armed with a degree from the Culinary Institute of America, he cooked his way through several positions at restaurants across New York.
After getting married and having children, Balderamma moved with his family to the D.C. area, eventually finding his way to Sequoia, where he now serves as executive chef. Sequoia, which opened nearly 30 years ago, sits along Georgetown’s waterfront with sweeping views of the Potomac River. It recently reopened with a luxe new design and a multimillion-dollar art installation, seeking to create a gallery-like space.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
Fanor Balderrama: I was born, raised and educated in Cochabamba, Bolivia. I graduated from high school in 1992, served in the military until 1994 and then immigrated to the States. I started my first job in 1998, as a sous chef at the restaurant of a financial services company, preparing French and American cuisine. After a few years in New York, I moved to Virginia in 2004, landing a banquet chef position at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Then, the ultimate opportunity presented itself in 2009. I started a new position at Sequoia restaurant, in iconic Georgetown, Washington, D.C., as a banquet chef. I now proudly serve as executive chef.
Dig deeper into that background. What’s influenced you from your youth?
FB: My parents worked so hard, and had so little time to spend with me, so I stayed with my grandmother and spent hours in the kitchen together. With her, it was her love, patience and guidance that influenced my passion for preparing delectable dishes that were always shared with family and friends. To me, the kitchen was the happiest room in the house because it was in there where my grandmother and I created magic together.
What’s the best part about your job?
FB: The best part about my job is going home at the end of every day feeling grateful for making someone happy because of what I made with my own hands. I really like to make everything fresh and right in the kitchen, because, as my grandmother used to say, “a full stomach makes a content heart.”
What does it mean to you to cook and serve in Washington, D.C.?
FB: Cooking and serving in D.C. means a lot to me. I feel very fortunate because I get to display my talent in every dish at Sequoia. I am very grateful to see guests enjoying our food, prepared with dedication, patience and love. D.C. gets millions of visitors from all parts of the world, and it is always my great pleasure to serve people from all walks of life.
Any celebrities you’ve served?
FB: I was so excited when I was told that Shakira was coming to stay at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in 2006 — and even more so, that I would be the one to cook for her. At Sequoia, we recently had the honor of hosting comedian Chelsea Handler and several of her friends for brunch. She is so beautiful and hilarious. It was a treat to serve her.
Sequoia was recently renovated. Do you like cooking in this new space?
FB: With the new renovation at Sequoia, I felt like I moved into a new house, because everything is new — the furniture, stoves, fridges, everything. I felt like a kid on Christmas. I especially love my new office.
What does your cuisine concept involve?
FB: My cuisine concept is pretty simple: Keep customer satisfaction as our number-one priority. I also motivate my staff at all times, making sure they are happy and enjoy work. It makes a pleasant place to work at. I also like to create innovative new menu items that satisfy our customers and have them coming back for more.
Finally, tell us about the unique neon vacuum-light installation on the ceiling. Does it help diners take better Instagram photos?
FB: The neon and glass light installation by Hitoshi Kuriyama in our dining room is a brilliant spectacle to behold. It truly heightens our restaurant’s incredible view and adds a beautiful and contemporary touch to our refined space. We feel so special to have such a notable work of art in our dining room, especially at night when it lights up the room. It’s very enchanting!