Growing up, we were told there were “always other fish in the sea” — a tidy little metaphor to explain the power of choice. But that trite cliche may not hold water for long: studies say that at the rate we’re consuming fish there will be none left as soon as 2050. It’s a frightening statistic, one that Chef Rob Ruiz is determined to change.
The San Diego chef, ocean activist, and 2016 winner of the Ocean Award for his work saving the Vaquita Porpoise, has become a world leader in seafood conservation and sustainable, ethical consumption. And Ruiz’ popular San Diego eatery, The Land & Water Co., is known for being on the forefront of sustainable seafood and ethical eating.
“We bake our own breads, and we make everything here in house,” Ruiz says. “Every sauce, every grain of rice, everything is made from scratch here in the building.”
When preparing fish, they waste nothing. “We utilize the entire creature — we don’t just take the filets off and throw it away.”
Ruiz’ passion is making his restaurant as environmentally friendly as possible and he carries his “waste not” philosophy to nearly every aspect of the operation. The Land & Water Co. composts their organic waste, recycles everything that comes out of the building, and uses their compost to support a garden, where they grow many of their ingredients. Even the water that The Land & Water Co. soaks veggies in is saved and used to water the garden after service ends.
It’s an ambitious operation, but Ruiz wouldn’t run the business any other way. As his mentor, Chef Alan Wong, a James Beard winner, once told him, “If you don’t know where it came from, what it ate, what it is, and how to cook it, you have no business serving it.” It’s a philosophy Ruiz has remained focused on for his entire career.
Originally from Oceanside, 50 miles north of San Diego, Ruiz has always felt that the ocean was his home. “I was born and raised next to the ocean,” he says. “I spent my life living in the ocean, and I care for it deeply. It’s something up from a young child to now, that I’ve just been consumed with.”
At 17, fresh out of high school and feeling directionless, he decided to move to the islands of Hawaii to clear his head, surf, and figure out what he wanted to do. It was a move that would lead to a lifelong obsession with cooking and fish.
“When I got out there, I realized that money was necessary to live,” Ruiz says with a laugh. “So a friend of mine got me a job where I worked at this little bar. I was a dishwasher.”
One night, the short order cook didn’t show up for work. They asked Ruiz if he knew how to cook, and though he had absolutely no experience, he hopped on the line. Ruiz began to learn cooking on the fly and found out that he had a talent at it. Soon, he was moving up the ladder — apprenticing at more prestigious restaurants before finally landing at The Hualalai Resort. There, he apprenticed under famous sushi master chef, Etsuji Umezu.
Learning his craft in Hawaii spoiled Ruiz in many ways, because the isolation from any mainland forced kitchen teams to know everything about the food they were cooking. “The Hawaiian Islands are the most isolated island chain in the world,” Ruiz explains. “2,000 miles to Japan or 2,000 miles back to Cali. So at The Hualalai we only used fish that were caught around the island. We had our own garden where we grew our own food. We had our own aquaculture where we raised our own fish and shrimp and then we had our beef all coming from the local Parker ranch.”
Without knowing it at the time, he was being conditioned to grow his own food, to only use traceable fish, and to serve livestock that were humanely raised and slaughtered. “That was the genesis of how they planted the seed in me,” Ruiz says, “And that’s how I learned to cook — that’s how good cooking is done.”
When Ruiz got back to San Diego and started to work in various sushi and fish restaurants, he was shocked at what he saw. Restaurants were using fish from countries with little to no regulation. Ruiz was disgusted. “I saw the dark side of the food industry,” he says, “and I just refused to accept that is how the food world is going to operate.”
Determined to open his own restaurant using ethical sources of seafood, Ruiz reached out to NOAA, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (They run all of the fisheries in the United States), and to fishwatch.gov to find out what fish he should be serving.
“They were so happy,” he says. “They literally told me, you are the first chef in the United States to ever call us, the actual authorities, the actual keepers of the U.S. Ocean and ask us what is the right fish to serve.”
Ruiz hoped to gather all the knowledge he could — embarking on a journey that took him around the world. Soon, he began to get a clearer picture of how to sustainably run a seafood restaurant and how to get people on board with only buying and ordering from markets and restaurants that support sustainable fisheries.
“The four main species that we consume are tuna, salmon, sablefish, and snapper,” Ruiz says. “I’ve learned how to manage them through what we call conscious consumerism. That’s where we use the purchase power of the consumer, and so we educate the consumer on how to change the dynamic of a market by purchasing what is the right choice, what is a responsible choice.”
For fish like the Bluefin Tuna, one of the most sought after and overfished species in the world (in the U.S., the biomass of Bluefin Tuna went down 97% from 1950 to 2017), Ruiz knows to only use fishermen that are U.S. Fishery, the highest regulated fishery in the world, and who catch the fish under quota while only using specific types of gear. “I can go down there and serve a Bluefin Tuna that a fisherman caught and I know the way in which it was caught,” Ruiz says. “That’s how you fix this problem.”
Not that it’s been an easy journey teaching consumers to buy ethically. At first, it was tough to get the guests at his restaurant on board with traceable fish. Ruiz even began to print edible codes on his sushi so that patrons could scan their food with their cell phones and see where the fish they were eating came from. But now, the practice of using traceable fish has caught on and he finds people seek him out specifically for his sustainable efforts.
“People know that they can come in and eat with confidence everything on all of my menu,” Ruiz says. “And also that they get an opportunity to change how they eat, go home, find fish the right way, and spread the word.”
Chef Ruiz’ conservation efforts extend not only to educating consumers and restaurateurs about sourcing responsibly, but to changing the kinds of fish we consume in order to eat more sustainably. In doing so, he wants to get people eating fish that are overpopulated and rarely consumed. And lately, he’s turned his attention to the Lionfish, a species that’s eating away the fishing industry, spreading like a locust, and overtaking coral reefs.
In April, he’ll be heading to The America’s Cup in Bermuda to raise awareness by putting on an international event focused on creating a global market for Lionfish, a manmade problem, that he hopes we can fix and in order to bring the ecosystem back into balance.
It’s time-consuming, hard work that Ruiz has taken on. But when asked how he could possibly have the time and energy to not only run a successful restaurant, but do ocean conservation all over the world, he laughs. “Like most chefs, I’m probably 30% crazy,” he jokes. But, he adds, the real answer is that he’s able to sustain his work because he sees change happening.
“What makes me happiest,” he says, “is watching the change spread that I’m catalyzing. It’s seeing that change happen everywhere that I go and see people realize, wow, you’re right and it’s so easy for me to make an impact.”
It’s validation that one person with passion, drive, and a little knowledge, can change the world.
“We only have one earth,” Ruiz says. “We only have one ocean and everything that I can possibly do to make a positive impact, I’m trying to do it.”