Acclaimed James Beard Award-winning, Executive Chef Jojo Ruiz (Lionfish Modern Coastal Cuisine at The Pendry, and Seréa Coastal Cuisine at the Hotel del Coronado, San Diego, CA) is ‘notorious’ in SoCal as being the King of Sustainable Seafood. He also knows a hell of a lot about building cars and motorcycles and is a power yoga junkie.
Raised in Chula Vista, CA, just down the block from downtown San Diego, Ruiz remembers visiting the tide pools at the beach as a kid with his grandparents. However, Chef Ruiz’s passion for seafood was born in the kitchen at Yokozuna’s Sushi Bar and Grill. His penchant for working harder than anybody else, along with his natural creative chef skills, fueled his rise from dishwasher at 15, to line cook at 16, and seafood butcher, sushi chef, and hot line cook by age 17. Jojo comments, ‘‘I’ve always been happy to work a 16-hour day back to back to back and be completely fine with it. That’s my strength. I’m very good at working myself almost to the bone.” Jojo credits his love of hard work to his father and grandfather.
After graduating from high school a year early, Jojo made a mad dash to the San Diego Culinary Institute. Prior to graduating culinary school, where he also taught the Fish Fabrication class, Jojo worked in three restaurants simultaneously.
Needing to fulfill an extern position at a high-end venue to get his diploma, Jojo shot straight for the top. He explains, “I was watching the famous chef Chef Brian Malarkey on television, and thought, I want to try and work for this guy! So, I pushed in to see him at Oceanaire Restaurant. Halfway through the interview, Brian said, ‘You know what? I’m just gonna hire you!’ I was like, Wow! I was 20 years old and my first job out of culinary school was working with Brian Malarky at Oceanaire.”
While working with Malarky, Jojo helped open Seersucker and Herringbone, among others, and in the midst of these efforts he caught the eye of the Clique Restaurant Group, which includes the restaurant Lionfish Coastal Cuisine. Ruiz explains, ‘At 22 years old, I didn’t really understand the progression of being a professional. I was used to working in stand-alone restaurants. Lionfish was in a hotel. The Director of Operations from corporate, whom I’d worked with at Brian Malarkey, approached me about Clique Restaurant Group. She said, “Listen this is a really good opportunity. You should talk to these guys.”
After killing it in the interview-tasting with the Clique Restaurant Group, Ruiz was hired. He shares, ‘By joining Clique Restaurant Group I’ve gotten to opportunity work and create menus for up to four restaurants at a time. I grew up without a lot of money. We never went on fancy vacations or knew what a luxury hotel was. So this experience really helped to create a new reality andpersptive.
When asked when he finds time to sleep, Chef Jojo, who is raising a three-year-old son and has another baby on the way with his wife, (Chefs’ Warehouse Rep Ashley Bonia,) replies, “Communication is key. Sleep is overrated. We drink really good coffee.”
As chefs know, chemistry is everything in food as well as relationships. Ruiz gives his take on partnering with Andy Messiah, founder of Clique Hospitality: “Working with Andy and Clique has completely changed my life. It’s taught me a lot about how to communicate and how to become more business savvy. Andy is a great example of putting your money where your mouth is and going the extra mile to create the experience, beyond just being a mentor. We really trust each other when it comes to getting things done.”
Getting things done is Chef Jojo’s superpower. Being a James Beard Foundation Smart Catch Leader is a clear example of this. Smart Catch is an educational sustainable seafood program created by chefs for chefs with the purpose of increasing the sustainability of the seafood supply chain. Chef Jojo shares, “When it comes to sustainable seafood, it’s just doing your homework and asking your sales reps questions. It really comes down to what is good for the environment. In terms of wild seafood, how are they fishing it? What types of nets are they using? Making sure I’m not buying from a company that is overfishing. Using the best products but also the right products; taking responsibility as a chef to do your due diligence is key.”
A personal favorite fish for the King of Sustainable Seafood? Jojo responds: “I like anchovies. I like sardines. I love mackerel. But a whole local yellowtail is just the best. When they are super fresh, they’re translucent, almost pink. When you get whole local yellowtail just out of the water, it’s just a different level of flavor. It’s almost sweet.”
Rounding out our time with ever-busy Chef Jojo, who’s currently building a ‘66 Impala in his spare time, he generously shared one of the favorite ingredient categories he enjoys buying from CW. “CW are the condiment kings!”, he offered, enthusiastically, adding, “The white truffle honey is delicious. The black garlic aged shoyu, the barrel aged fish sauces…you can pretty much get any cool condiment from The Chefs’ Warehouse, and Justin Lawson (VP Sales) is always introducing me to new ones.”