Rob Ruiz has a poke problem. The Hawaiian dish continues to trend, and the number of poke shops in San Diego is skyrocketing. That’s troubling for Ruiz, who’s now considered one of the most sustainable sushi chefs in America, if not the planet.
"Every single one of these poke bars is serving crap," he says, shaking his head. "They’re serving a tuna product that is coming from overseas. Usually frozen and gassed with carbon monoxide. If they’re getting it fresh, they’re getting it from an untraceable source."
There is a better way to do it. A more sustainable way that supports what he calls "the most endangered species in San Diego—fishermen and women." Rather than talk about it, Ruiz is taking action by opening The Hold Fast in Liberty Public Market. It’ll be a fast-casual handroll (temaki) bar using only fish that were caught by San Diego fishing fleets.
"San Diego fishermen can literally walk their catch into my handroll bar. Thirty thousand pounds of big eye tuna is offloaded less than three blocks away from The Hold Fast. People are saying, ‘You can’t do that. We need imports to support our markets.’ The US imports 96 percent of its seafood. But we don’t have to. I go to the beach every morning and make food from what I find—seaweed and aquaculture-raised oysters, sea urchins, spot prawns, yellowtail, mackerels, sardines, ajis, stone crabs."
Ruiz is used to the naysaying. When he was part of the team at Harney Sushi who put an edible QR code on their fish years ago, people scoffed. They decried it as gimmicky. The idea was customers could scan the code and know exactly where the fish had swum, where it was caught, how it was processed. That it wasn’t endangered or caught out of season or in some other nefarious way.
When he opened The Land & Water Co. in Carlsbad with the promise of doing hyper-sustainable sushi, more people scoffed. Customers want their bluefin and their salmon, they said, and won’t pay for less-sexy, sustainable alternatives. When he tried to save the endangered vaquita porpoise with a series of dinners, people said it was cute (like the porpoise). When the Blue Marine Foundation flew him to London to accept an Ocean Award next to Pharrell Williams (who was getting an award for turning discarded fishing nets into clothing), people laughed less.
When sushi fans started lining up at the door to Land & Water on weekend nights, only a few chucklers remained. And when he became recognized as one of the most sustainable sushi chefs in the US, with a direct line to the world’s foremost sustainable seafood organizations like Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the NOAA, and Monterey Bay Aquarium, the laughs died.
"I’ve had tons of chefs who want to work with us and learn how to be sustainable," he says. "They’ll come in for about 45 minutes, then they’ll stop and grab their knives and say, ‘No one wants to work this hard; you guys are nuts.’ And they’ll leave."
It’s true. To reach the levels of sustainability not seen before, Ruiz and his staff at Land & Water work to the bone. They arrive four hours earlier than most kitchen staffs. They peel the daikons by hand, compost the skins in four giant bins out back, then pickle the cores and compost the seeds. They buy Del Pacifico shrimp (fished from ultra-sustainable boats called pangas) and peel them by hand. The shrimp goes into the sushi rolls. The shells get roasted and go into stock. Then they compost the leftovers of the stock.
"I could charge triple what I’m charging. I could buy sport-caught fish and make more money. I could buy cheaper products and mislabel it on the menu like a lot of places do, but this opportunity is a gift. I have customers with cancer or celiac who’ve become my regulars because they’re relying on food to heal themselves. I’m making soups from scratch using fish skeletons that have all the marrow that’s so nourishing. I have to respect the clients and the food. We finally learned how to do it and make a profit."
Ruiz estimates that the poke restaurants around town are getting their fish at $16–$22 a pound. But he says he can buy a whole tuna for four dollars a pound down at Tuna Harbor Dockside Market (held every Saturday in San Diego, the market is where local fishermen offload and sell their fresh catch). Most chefs don’t know how to butcher a whole fish, though.
"I can go to David Haworth, who operates the last tuna fleet in San Diego, and get the whole fish," he says. "When you get the whole fish you also get the kama [the collar, a delicacy], the cheeks, the head, the collagen, the toro, and the belly.
Ruiz credits his time in Japan with really setting in the importance of using the whole fish. He was granted full access to the world-famous Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, apprenticing under a buyer who’d been there for 20 years, learning how to grade, sort, and buy the fish. More importantly, he saw how deeply they honor the fish and the craft of being an itamae (sushi chef).
I’m doing it because the most critically endangered species in San Diego right now is a fisherman.
"I butchered a yellowtail and threw the bloodline in the trash like almost all chefs do in the US," he remembers. "They looked at me like I was a criminal. They made me take it out. I seasoned it with flake salt and put it on the grill, and it’s delicious. Tastes like steak in soy sauce. Then we’d take the heads of the fish and put them in the oven at 275 until it just falls apart. We ate tuna marrow. We hacked the bones and used them for roasting. Then we’d scrape off the meat and use them in dons [rice bowls].
"They can’t afford to waste anything. When they butcher their fish, they look it in the eyes, and make a ‘fish print’ to honor its soul. They hang the Shinto deities to bless their station. We’ve made sushi into a lavish art form in the US, but it became an art form because 300 years ago in Japan people couldn’t afford to eat such high-quality food. So they learned to make one small, perfect bite of perfect food. Someone could save up $7 for that bite. It was all about not wasting anything."
That’s what Ruiz will be working on at The Hold Fast—perfect bites of food in the form of handrolls. He’ll split his time between Land & Water and Hold Fast, and customers can reserve omakases where he’ll create tastings from the day’s local catch. His sustainability efforts have gone beyond seafood now, too.
"I’m sitting here in the city that was once the tuna capital of the world, richest soil content in the United States aside from Hawai‘i. And we are buying crap from the Midwest. We’re ordering off a list, getting corn and soybeans from Monsanto."
Land & Water and Hold Fast will get all of their produce from two local farms. They will turn it into dishes, compost the rest, and return the compost to the farms, which will be used to grow them more food. He’s closing the cycle, and is hopeful more restaurants will start doing the same.
"The local fishing families need help. When we buy from them it’s fresher and in season, caught responsibly under the strictest guidelines in the world. We’re supporting San Diego families and communities. And it’s cheaper. It’s more affordable. We need to dispel the myth that it’s more expensive and too much work. We can do it if we listen, and learn.
"The Hold Fast will take everything I’ve learned. We all talk about wanting James Beard and Michelin stars in San Diego. But to do that, we have to do it right. We have to practice what we preach. I’m gonna go out there and lead by example."
The Hold Fast will open in Liberty Public Market at Liberty Station in the next few months.