It took Rob Ruiz some 17 years of honing his skills and developing a distinctive culinary point of view before he opened up his own restaurant, The Land & Water Company, in Carlsbad. But this chef, whose reputation centers around hyper-local, sustainably raised and sourced ingredients, started out as a kid making chocolate-chip banana pancakes for his family after church. His culinary inspiration? Public access TV shows like Great Chefs of the World.
"I loved Great Chefs of the World," he said. "You could hear the buzz of the oven hoods. Listening to them and watching the chefs prep the food totally relaxed me."
Ruiz, born and raised in Oceanside, was also hooked on fishing shows—no wonder, since for 25 years he spent every summer with his grandpa fishing around Alcatraz and later around Vancouver Island for salmon, rockfish and oysters. In fact, the oysters you enjoy at The Land & Water Company are from his old fishing grounds.
But it took a move to the big island of Hawaii in 1995 for Ruiz to dive deep into what would become his calling. He went there to attend the University of Hawaii for a business degree (which he earned), but it was the culinary jobs he took to put himself through school that ultimately gave him his career.
A short-order cook at Lulu's Bar & Grill, Ruiz was discovered by Ian Whittemore of the Kona Inn. Whittemore's mentoring in French cooking techniques, butchering and other skills enabled Ruiz to move on to the Five-Diamond Hualalai resort as a cook. But, Ruiz said, not quite a chef.
"Morgan Star, whom I worked with, said 'Any cook who's a good cook can write and execute recipes—but that's not a chef,'" said Ruiz. "He told me, 'You're going to do mother sauces and knife cuts. I'm going to put you on my line and if you don't know it in your head on the spot you're wasting my time.' He taught me the fundamentals and set me up for success."
At the time, success meant working at the Hualalai for Alan Wong and then Etsuji Umezu, learning Hawaiian regional cuisine and developing the soul—and skills—of a sushi chef. It also gave him an appreciation for local ingredients.
After 10 years Ruiz returned to San Diego, working first at Sushi on the Rock, then Harney Sushi. Then came the opportunity to open his own place.
"It was all about my chefs and me building ourselves a home to live and work in, each being able to do our own food, doing it the right way with no short cuts," he emphasized.
His world has expanded. Like many San Diego chefs, Ruiz has been exposing himself to the bounty and talent of Baja. "It's changed my cuisine. I love open-air cooking in Valle de Guadalupe. Now I want to put people in my new garden."
That would be a Fallbrook property owned by longtime friend Ed Cannon, who is growing heirloom Japanese vegetables for Ruiz, as well as a variety of fruits, lettuces, other produce—and eggs.
"My goal is baseball-batting people over the head to know where their food comes from," he said. "That includes educating people about seafood. When you do it responsibly, that's the reward."
The Land & Water Company
2978 Carlsbad Blvd #110, Carlsbad, CA 92008