Sushi chef on mission to save fish and fishermen

Later this month, Rob Ruiz will become the first chef and restaurateur in San Diego County to be certified by the James Beard Foundation for his sustainable seafood program.

And come January, the owner of Carlsbad’s The Land & Water Co. restaurant will mark another milestone. He plans to open a sushi hand roll shop in San Diego’s Liberty Public Market that will only serve seafood caught by local fishermen.

These are just the latest accomplishments in the 41-year-old Carlsbad resident’s decade-long mission to preserve overfished ocean species, promote safer fishing methods and protect the livelihoods of San Diego’s dwindling commercial fishing industry.

The soft-spoken Ruiz is clear-eyed about his long-term goal.

“I’m trying to heal the planet,” he said in an interview at his 4-year-old Carlsbad restaurant last week. “I’m a humble advocate who cares deeply for the community and believes there is an alternate way.”

In 2016, Ruiz was one of 12 honorees to receive the international Ocean Award for his sustainable seafood practices from the Blue Marine Foundation and Boat International. The London-based foundation’s mission is to protect 10 percent of the world’s oceans by 2020.

It was also in 2016 that the James Beard Foundation took over Smart Catch, a pilot program created by Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Paul Allen to encourage chefs and restaurants to serve more than 80 percent sustainable menus.

The James Beard Awards are the Oscars of the restaurant industry. As a result of the foundation’s brand recognition, membership in Smart Catch grew from 65 in 2016 to more than 500 today, according to Katherine Miller, vice president of impact for the James Beard Foundation.

Meeting Smart Catch’s strenuous sourcing, purchasing and labeling requirements isn’t easy and it isn’t cheap. That’s why Miller said the James Beard Foundation is looking for industry leaders like Ruiz to embrace and promote the program.

“He’s exactly the type of chef we want,” Miller said. “Someone like a Rob Ruiz can be our messenger into the greater community. Clearly, he’s a well-respected chef in his community and the seafood world. For him to take a look at this program and be a part of it means so much to us.”

Ruiz — who grew up in Oceanside and learned his sushi-making skills in Hawaii from Japanese master chef Etsuji Umezu — has been making ripples in the local seafood restaurant industry since 2008. That’s when he and fellow chef Anthony Sinsay (now at Jsix in the Gaslamp Quarter) made Harney Sushi’s menu fully sustainable.

Then, in response to a 2013 Oceana study that found 52 percent of the seafood at Southern California sushi restaurants was mislabeled, he introduced edible QR tags that Harney diners could scan to identify the name and source of the fish on their plates.

At the time, his first-of-its-kind concept made national headlines. Today, he’s gratified that all of the fish he buys from distributors like San Diego’s Catalina Offshore Products arrive with similar QR tags stapled to their gills.

In May 2014, Ruiz opened The Land & Water Co. in the historic Queen Ann mansion at Carlsbad Village Faire. All of its seafood, land proteins and produce are fully traceable, sustainable and organic and its food waste is recycled in a composting program.

Two years later, he won the Ocean Award for his twin campaigns to save Mexico’s near-extinct vaquita porpoises and to promote the sale of Mexican shrimp caught without the (now-banned) gill nets that were entangling vaquita.

Now, with the impending opening of his Hard Fast Handroll Bar at Liberty Station, Ruiz aims to help protect another endangered species, San Diego’s commercial fishermen.

Dave Rudie, owner of 41-year-old Catalina Offshore, said he believes Hard Fast will not only be a good place for local fishermen to sell their catch but also a high-profile platform to tell the story of San Diego’s 150-year fishing legacy.

“I think it’s great,” Rudie said. “Selling local tuna and talking about his story and supporting the fishermen is important to do for a whole number of reasons.”

Back in the 1950s, San Diego was the tuna capital of the world, with as many as 40,000 locals involved in the catching, canning and sale of the product.

Over the next several decades, Rudie said the industry mostly collapsed. Environmental efforts to save dolphins and porpoises from dying in tuna nets impacted both the catch and sales of tuna. In the 1980s, Mexico enforced its 200-mile coastal fishing limit, barring American ships from the waters where the majority of the region’s cold-water tuna swim. And several years back, the industry itself capped its catch of overfished bluefin tuna.

Rudie said bluefin sightings in San Diego waters have risen in the past five years, which has been a boon for local fishermen. But the recent explosion of quick-service poke shops around town has not.

Rudie said much of the pink, cubed tuna found in San Diego poke shops comes from processors in the South Pacific and the Indian Ocean, where the fish were caught, gassed with carbon monoxide to arrest oxidizing discoloration, frozen and shipped.

For Catalina, which buys and sells about half of the 2 millions pounds of fresh seafood landed in San Diego each year, it’s impossible to compete on price with these bulk frozen imports.

“A lot of people buy that stuff based on price. But good restaurants will promote local fish like Rob is doing,” Rudie said. “They’re teaching consumers to pay a little extra for local tuna.”

Four years in the planning stages, the Hold Fast Handroll Bar will sell bite-size, portable sushi wraps as well as gourmet yakitori bites. The menu will change with each day’s catch, but one idea is a Pacific crab clawmeat hand roll with brown butter and spicy bacon and a pork belly and sea urchin slider, Ruiz said.

Ruiz said the Hold Fast menu will also feature several vegan options, in honor of his vegan fiancee, Helen, an interior design student who he’ll marry next fall. He credits her with both helping him adopt a healthier diet and lifestyle and encouraging the pursuit of his passion for sustainability.

“I have my life, health and family in alignment,” he said. “We’re both 100 percent committed to the vision and we both believe in living our dreams.”

pam.kragen@sduniontribune.com

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