It’s moments before dinner service on a Thursday night in the kitchen of Lionfish, the seafood restaurant and showpiece of swanky Gaslamp hotel, the Pendry. Executive chef JoJo Ruiz mentioned earlier that this kitchen rarely felt rushed, however busy the night. But in these moments before the first round of customers stroll in off Fifth Avenue, the slow bounce of reggae playing on overhead speakers is outpaced by the hustle of restaurant workers getting down to business. I hear the abrupt staccato bursts of chefs’ knives dicing and the brisk tempo of hard-heeled shoes as waitstaff come and go from the dining room. At the sushi bar, a second set of speakers plays hard-driving metal that adds its own hoarse energy to the sound clash.
It’s all background noise to the pair of chefs moving without hurry through the center of the kitchen. Maybe they hear only the reggae, or maybe they’re too intent on a plate of seafood to notice. Lionfish is introducing new menu items tonight, so Ruiz and his chef de cuisine Aaron Panganiban have been going over recipes with their team, stepping from one station to the next, cooking and plating a single dish at a time. Over here, they make a red snapper tempura. Then they stroll across the kitchen and casually start grilling pineapple for a sous vide pork belly adobada.
435 Fifth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
They’re totally consumed, and within a few minutes, everything is ready and the staff gathers as the chefs stop over one last plating decision. Ruiz steps back to take a critical look at a plate of striped seabass sashimi and confers with Panganiban. How much ponzu sauce does it need? How best to arrange the serrano peppers? Should it be served in a slate gray bowl, or on a teal plate, a better contrast to the glistening, light-colored fish?
Only 32 years old, Ruiz has already served as executive chef at a couple of notable seafood restaurants: Herringbone and Ironside Fish & Oyster. But Lionfish is the first restaurant Ruiz opened as a partner, and so no detail is too small. How does everything look in the front of the house? What do customers see and experience the first moment they walk through the front door?
Still, his primary concern is the food, in particular, the ingredients. “I’m very lucky to have the luxury of being able to buy nice products,” Ruiz points out. That luxury comes from working in a hotel setting downtown, which appeals to hotel guests and conventioneers. It’s also due to Las Vegas-based Clique Hospitality, the entity behind the Pendry and Lionfish, which honed its destination-venue-building talents through a litany of high-end casinos, Bellagio at the top of the list. It was Clique founder Andy Masi who brought Ruiz in as partner and chef, and who gave him a license to pick and choose his vendors.
Back in the kitchen, the waitstaff gathers around to take a bite of each new dish, and to learn the all-important details customers will want to know, like where the ingredients came from, and how they were prepared. The bone-in ribeye is hard to forget. “It’s Cedar River Farms natural beef,” Ruiz assures them, “as natural as it gets.”
The snapper is newly available from a trusted source in Ensenada. A couple of the servers start scribbling notes when he gets to more detailed preparations, for example, how to explain the pistachio aillade served with an egg over grilled asparagus.
Ruiz quickly rattles off the recipes by rote. Not just tonight’s menu either. At some point during the week I spend shadowing him, he instantly recalls the entire preparation of the first recipe he was given as a teenage line cook in Chula Vista: a Guamanian dish called chicken kelaguen. It’s impressive, but it’s not Ruiz’s most impressive trick.
“I can trace every single item of seafood on the menu back to its origin,” he tells me, “every single thing.”
In other words, Ruiz has an answer to the seafood diner’s trickiest question: “What can you tell me about the fish?” I sometimes see a flash of terror in the eyes of servers, and even chefs, when I ask. “Is it local? Was it line-caught? Is it really the species it says on the menu?”
Problem is, information about where a fish came from or how it’s treated doesn’t often get passed along as it’s trucked, cleaned, butchered, and distributed to restaurants. Knowing this stuff doesn’t come without effort. Chef JoJo has taken the opportunity provided by cooking in a high-end restaurant to prioritize making this effort. What’s happening with the wild population of that species? Where and how was a fish farm-raised? What are the regulations regarding storage and transport of seafood from this fish’s point of origin? Ruiz has been cooking seafood his entire adult life, and continues to pay keen attention to such details. “The sustainability thing is not just a fun buzzword for me,” he says. “We’ve been talking about this for years and years and years.”
Consider the United States’ most popular fish order, salmon, which has become one of the most confusing for the conscientious diner. Atlantic salmon has long since been overfished to the point where most Atlantic salmon you find on a menu is farm-raised. But with fish farms came horror stories describing parasite infestations, chemicals spills, and escaped fish disrupting ecosystems where they don’t belong. The conventional wisdom for American salmon became: stick to wild-caught Pacific salmon. So when customers see it on the menu, they have to ask — and I have to ask — “Why does Lionfish serve farm-raised salmon?”
Ruiz sees the question coming. “I’ve actually had people come in and say, ‘I don’t want that because it’s farm-raised,’” Ruiz reveals. “But do you know why I’m not using wild salmon right now? Because the salmon they’re pulling out are fucking four pounds. Salmon aren’t meant to be four pounds.”
Adult salmon weigh up to 100 pounds or more. Finding four-pound fish suggests wild-caught populations are being overfished. “If you’re pulling out fish faster than they’re growing,” Ruiz adds, “that’s not sustainable.”
Meanwhile, not all salmon farms are created equal. Ruiz went looking for a farm that raises fish to his standards. He landed on king salmon from northern California-based Superior Foods. “I’ve hopped in the water with the fish,” Ruiz explains, “I know where the fish are coming from.” He’s done the same at oyster farms, and with the striped bass he gets from Pacifico Aquaculture, a fish farm near Ensenada, in Baja.
His ability to back up such decisions is why, in 2018, Ruiz and Lionfish were honored with Smart Catch Leader recognition by the James Beard Foundation, a culinary arts nonprofit that doles out prestigious awards each year to the nation’s best chefs and restaurants. 2018 was the first year James Beard issued the honor, part of a broader mission to use the cachet of prominent chefs to advance awareness of the sustainability issue, as many of the most desirable species are being fished into oblivion. “With more than 90 percent of the world’s fisheries either fully fished or overfished,” states the foundation, “chefs have a chance to use their influence to lead industry efforts to maintain healthy, sustainable food sources, both for now and for future generations.”
In 2018, the total number of restaurants in the U.S. receiving the Smart Catch designation was 117. Only two were in San Diego. Each underwent at least two assessments to show how much of their seafood purchasing decisions met a set of current sustainability standards. Those receiving an 80 percent or higher score were named Smart Catch Leaders. Lionfish received a score of 94 percent.
In 2019, the number rose to 148. Not by coincidence, Ruiz is executive chef of two of them. When Clique earned the chance to build the new centerpiece seafood restaurant for the Hotel Del Coronado, Serẽa, Ruiz took his coastal cuisine across the bay. Not only did he repeat as a Smart Catch leader for Lionfish, but for Serẽa as well.
1500 Orange Avenue, Coronado
The easiest way to achieve Smart Catch status is to buy fish directly from the people who catch it. Ironically, stricter regulations targeting sustainability have helped shrink San Diego’s fishing industry over the past several decades. But a small group of fishing professionals still work the waters off our coast and haul in local seafood that exemplifies Smart Catch standards.
When I started following JoJo Ruiz through his week, I imagined it would include an early morning visit to local fishing docks, or at least to Tuna Harbor Dockside Market, the Saturday market at the Embarcadero where our local fishing industry sells whole fish and other seafood to chefs, and directly to the public.
But JoJo’s relationship with them has moved beyond that. He’s been so reliable a buyer of local catch, especially now that he’s shopping for two high-volume restaurants, that local fishers call him directly when they have something beyond his regular needs. Say, when local fisherman John Law comes in with several dozen rock cod; or when Kelly Fukushima lands a 160-pound white bass. They know Ruiz will make room to create a special on one of his menus, even for the fish other chefs won’t want. And what is just as important: he’ll find the best ways to prepare it.
Mackerel, for instance, is known as a particularly oily fish, with a pronounced, fishy flavor. To the initiated, it’s enjoyed as a delicacy, but most casual seafood fans demur, so there’s not a robust market. “Mackerels are sort of a bycatch,” explains Ruiz. “Nobody’s going out and specifically fishing mackerel.” So when a fishing contact reaches out with a bunch of mackerel nobody else wants to buy, JoJo’s response is usually, “Yeah, I’ll take all of them.”
This happened around the time the James Beard Foundation invited Ruiz to cook at a Smart Catch event at its Beard House in New York, so he brought the mackerel with him, and served them as boquerones, giving a mackerel twist to the classic Spanish tapa typically made with anchovies. First the fish spent 24 hours in salt, followed by 24 hours in vinegar, before going straight into olive oil, then being served on fried focaccia with milled tomatoes and garlic.
“It was one of the most talked about dishes of the event,” he notes.
Ruiz has always preferred fish to meat, and has a genuine fondness for mackerel, briny oysters, and other seafood on the funkier end of the food spectrum. He traces it back to childhood visits to see his grandparents in Popotla, just south of Rosarito. “I think that’s where I got my inspiration and love for the ocean,” he says, specifically recalling his grandfather sharing abalone with him, out of a can.
Growing up, he didn’t have a lot of experience going to restaurants, until a friend of his father helped open a restaurant in Chula Vista, Yokozuna’s. “My parents didn’t have a ton of money,” JoJo recalls, “but we would go to that restaurant, because my dad was friends with him.”
Eventually that relationship led to Ruiz working there for his first high school job, as a dishwasher. Reflecting its ownership, the place served Pacific Islander cuisines and sushi. Up until this point, young JoJo’s professional ambitions had veered more towards maybe building hot rods or custom motorbikes. But once he started making food at Yokozuna’s, things changed. “That first job, I hopped in there, I fell in love with it. And I was good at it,” the chef recalls. “Everybody was like, ‘Dude you’re good at this, you should look at it as a career.’”
So after high school, he went to the San Diego Culinary Institute, and before long he was holding down two restaurant jobs and an internship at the Oceanaire seafood restaurant. Before the internship ended, he was hired as a line cook, working for its executive chef (at the time), Brian Malarkey.
In the time since, Malarkey has found fame appearing on the reality television cooking competition Top Chef (which he will do again in 2020), and has opened acclaimed San Diego restaurants, including Herb & Wood, and most recently, Animae. When he opened his first restaurant, Searsucker, he tapped Ruiz to be his opening sous chef. And when Malarkey opened the seafood restaurant Herringbone, Ruiz got his first executive chef gig.
“You can see when someone does a job for passion more than a paycheck,” says Malarkey. “He came in with such a great attitude. He went to work every day to have fun and learn.”
The two still keep in touch. When Malarkey brings a small party to check out Serẽa, Ruiz comes up with a special off-menu dish for his former boss, grilling the coveted fish collar — the rich, tender flesh behind the gills — of a locally caught bluefin tuna.
Serẽa, which opened in summer 2019, is the result of a six-figure renovation of the site formerly known as 1500 Ocean, and Prince of Wales for decades before that. The overhaul included upgrades to its decades-old kitchen, a key one being installation of a custom-built Santa Maria grill, which has a pulley system to raise and lower the grill over its wood-burning fire, for greater control over the heat.
This comes to bear on Serẽa’s signature preparation: grilled whole fish for two, fileted tableside by your server, delivering warm, cleanly cut portions of very recent, very local catch. Say, a rockfish caught by John Law, its meaty, flaky white fish glistening with olive oil.
The renovation opened up the ocean views. Serẽa’s terraced patio overlooks the hotel’s grassy lawns, and below them, its famous beach. It enjoys a very Mediterranean-like commingling of olive oil and salty sea air, and the menu reflects that. Even a crudo course draws on Greek flavors to embellish raw slices of that bluefin tuna. It’s like sashimi, except instead of soy sauce and sesame seeds, it’s got olive oil and caper relish.
While Ruiz was consumed with the process of pulling this kitchen together, chef de cuisine Panganiban took the lead at Lionfish.
Things have settled since the summer opening, so now Ruiz splits time more evenly between the two restaurants: three long days apiece, occasionally crossing the Coronado bridge to make runs between them. At Serẽa, chef de cuisine Tony Torres keeps the kitchen going. Confined to a smaller space, this kitchen stays relatively kinetic through dinner service, as cooks dodge each other between stations and snap jokes down the line. It feels more in tune with the pace of Tony’s bantering persona, which brings out a playful side of JoJo. They’ve worked in kitchens together going back 11 years to Oceanaire.
Ruiz is as quick to praise these chefs at his side as he is to credit his mentors, including Jason McLeod, his Michelin stars-winning boss at Ironside; former Herb & Wood chef Shane McIntyre, who pushed Ruiz, giving him cookbooks to learn from; and Robert Ruiz (no relation), the only other San Diego area chef to receive Smart Catch recognition, for his recently closed Carlsbad restaurant, Land & Water Company. (Word is he’ll be back with a bigger one soon.)
And Brian Malarkey, who fondly recalls those days at Oceanaire with Torres and Ruiz, when a band of young chefs found their joy together in the kitchen. “On Saturdays, I would schedule the fish butcher off,” he remembers, “and we would race to see who could butcher the fastest and the best.” He laughs. “We like the chaos of the kitchen. We call it comfort and chaos.”
These years later, as executive chef, Ruiz is still butchering fish. Plenty of seafood restaurants procure ready-to-cook filets from large seafood distributors, but in addition to getting prime fish cuts such as belly or collar, one of the biggest perks of buying directly from local fishermen is getting a lower price. For example, filets of that tuna might go $22 a pound from a distributor, but the fish costs $7 a pound the day it was caught — if you’re willing to butcher it yourself.
Ironically, the same can’t be said about buying local produce, and there’s more to Ruiz’s curatorial sourcing practices than fish.“Most chefs can’t afford the stuff that’s from the farmer’s market,” he explains. “It’s more expensive than just getting commodity lettuce or commodity corn.”
The mid-afternoon delivery of fruit and vegetables to Lionfish shows me why. The farmers market team from mid-city vendor Specialty Produce parks a truck out behind the Lionfish kitchen, rolls up its back door, and sets up a table to display an agricultural bounty. Selected the day prior from the stock of more than 75 farms dealing at the Santa Monica farmers market, their haul delivers all manner of organics and heirlooms to Ruiz’s doorstep. Available to sample are fruits, roots, herbs, stalks, fungi, oils, nuts, and leafy greens. For the Instagram crowd, photogenic specimens include Buddha’s hand citron, hen of the woods mushrooms, and a rainbow of cauliflowers: orange, green, and purple.
This would have to be a highlight of any chef’s work week, but especially this chef’s. One of these Specialty Produce reps happens to be JoJo Ruiz’s fiancée, Ashley Bonilla. As the Lionfish chefs pore over the table, eyeing potential ingredients and perhaps finding inspiration for seasonal specials, Bonilla cuts slices from heirloom fruits, and hands everyone pieces to sample. Some of these are rare and prized varietals, just in season this late summer day: a juicy green gauge plum, known for its intoxicating sweetness; an aromatic Valencia pride mango, a joy to eat raw as it’s not fibrous like most store-bought versions of the fruit. There’s an assortment of musk melons, a couple of which pastry chef Monica Szkopiec will churn into a smooth and delicately flavored sorbet for the evening’s dessert menu.
As their colleagues collect ingredients and reassemble the truck, Ruiz and Bonilla may be afforded few moments together, rare enough due to his six days and nights in the restaurants, and to her own busy schedule. “I get a lot of people who ask me, ‘How do you date somebody who’s a chef?’” Bonilla acknowledges. “Well, I have a life first of all,” she says with a laugh. “I have my own interests, I go to school, I practice yoga, I have friends. And then we find our time. And we are constantly having the conversation of quality over quantity.”
In many ways, their entire relationship has been built around restaurant hours. “We both came from a background of being in the industry,” Bonilla explains. “I worked nights, he worked nights, so that’s a lifestyle I’m familiar with.”
They didn’t meet at work, though. She was working at Old Town’s Harney Sushi when the two met through a mutual friend, seven years ago. As Ashley likes to say, “We met the old-fashioned way.”
Their early dates were not so old-fashioned, as they usually followed late shifts, which meant meeting up after two in the morning, when San Diego’s choice of romantic venues fell to 24-hour taco shops, a yakitori counter, or shared snacks at a hookah bar.
These days, they’re more focused on building a future together, a young couple in the process of realizing their dreams. Just not marriage, yet. “We’re forever engaged,” they joke, explaining that the status is mostly driven by the circumstance of the tax code clashing with working-class reality. Between her tuition and his status as an independent contractor, she says, “Financially, it makes more sense to not get married.”
Making the juggle trickier last year was the birth of their first child, only a few months prior to Serẽa’s opening. For JoJo, that meant compounding the time demands of being a new parent and building up a new restaurant. But the budding family is making it work, thanks in no small part to the help of Ashley’s mother, who moved into their El Cerrito home to help with her grandchild.
The couple try to make their mornings count, waking early and taking walks together as a family. Their only shared day off is Tuesday, which they devote to household errands and family activities, above all spending that time with the baby. Occasionally, they’ll go out to check out a friend’s restaurant, but more often, they eat at home. It’s JoJo’s only day to find comfort without the chaos. “Everyone seems to think, and I blame Instagram for this, that chefs are just living this easy life, and taking really great photos, and everything’s just really casual,” shares Bonilla. “It’s a little more complicated than that, it’s a little crazier than that.” But even during the busiest of times, she says, “I think there is a quality of life that’s there.”
They describe late nights and food festivals and media dinners and whirlwind trips visiting a dozen restaurants in other cities. “I tell him this,” adds Ashley, “especially when he’s in the midst of opening up a new restaurant, and everything’s so crazy. As tired as he might be, he loves it.”
Sitting next to her, in a booth in the corner of the glamorous, steampunk-inspired dining room of the sustainable seafood restaurant Lionfish, JoJo agrees. “I think that’s every chef’s goal.”