In April 2017, 6 top chefs from around the world descended on the picturesque island of Bermuda. Bermuda is a storybook vacation spot, but like many places in the Atlantic, its underwater ecosystem is being threatened by the destructive lionfish, who have no natural predator in those waters. The chefs were invited by the 11th Hour Racing team, who wanted to promote a creative solution to this problem: Eat More Lionfish.
At the Eat Lionfish Chef Throwdown, which even received coverage from the New York Times, chefs competed to create the best lionfish dish. We spoke with one of those chefs, Rob Ruiz, founder of Carlsbad, CA’s Land and Water Co, about his experience. Rob helped to create the event as its executive chef, and was more than happy to talk about the event and the bigger picture.
You’ve just returned from Bermuda, where you competed in the Eat Lionfish Chef Throwdown as a part of the 11th Hour Racing Team. Tell us about your experience! Had you visited the island before?
My experience in Bermuda – with 11th Hour Racing holding the Eat Lionfish Throwdown – was one of the pinnacle achievements of my career. A few months before the event, 11th Hour Racing brought me out to Bermuda to lay down the foundations for the event, and communicate my concept for the best way to present the Invasive Lionfish issue. We created an event that allowed 6 chefs, nationally recognized in 6 nations, to show the versatility of this delicious fish and to spur into motion conversations and sustainable solutions for this invasive species. We visited the organic farms on the island to make sure they could support the event, and spent time with Chef Shawn Ming, the head of the culinary program at the University of Bermuda. We included his students, making our event part of their curriculum, ensuring that the lionfish issue and 11th Hour Racing’s vision of a legacy project, improving the Oceans and awareness in Bermuda were insured. It was truly a global event with a beautiful message and impact.
Can you tell us more about the threat that Lionfish pose? And, how long has this been going on?
Over the last 6 years (and some say longer), the lionfish, native to the Indo-Pacific, was introduced to the waters of our Atlantic Gulf. Since then it has spread all the way to Bermuda and been seen as far away as Italy. This fish has no predators, and one female fish can lay close to one million eggs every 52 days. They are veracious predators, primarily consuming other juvenile fish. The lionfish are spreading like locusts through the pacific, and leaving lifeless reefs in their wake. We must eat them, and create a national market for them to help control their exploding populations.
Beyond just “raising awareness” of this problem – the Throwdown presented a solution: Eat More Lionfish. Do you really think we can eat our way out of the problem?
Those who’ve never tried lionfish before might be apprehensive. Many people are really only aware that the fish has naturally venomous spines.
So what would you say to convince someone to try it?
The fish is delicious, bottom line. You do need to stay away from the spines, but they are usually snipped off before brought to market. Even with the spines on, the fish is easy to fillet. It works like a snapper. Flaky tender white flesh, super versatile, which was Everest at the event, with six completely different preparations. If we can get the word out and educate consumers and other chefs, it is a beautiful way to restore the natural balance of some very precious real estate in the Atlantic. We need national attention to drive consumers to vote with their dollars, and they will when they know they are directly healing the Ocean
The problem seems like a catch-22 situation. People don’t eat lionfish because it’s not regularly found on menus. But it’s not regularly found on menus because of a lack of demand. How do you think progress can actually be made?
This event was designed by 11th Hour to fix this exact problem, when the story is heard all over the globe at one time, it can have the power to inform people, and that demand can create the market. Then, this consumer driven market can perpetuate itself; by helping people feel good about what they are doing.
You’ve long been known as an activist in the area of food sustainability. Where did this passion first come from?
I grew up in Oceanside. CA. Always surfing and in the water. I ended up moving to the Big Island of Hawaii in ’95 and worked my way up to being a Chef at the Hualalai Resort, one of the top resorts in the world. There, we only used local fish, local grass fed beef, and grew our own food. We even had our own Aquaculture program where we raised our own fish and shrimp. My first impressions as a cook came from a fully sustainable kitchen, on the most isolated island chain in the world. I was overjoyed, and when I came back home to the mainland and saw what restaurants were serving, I was embarrassed.
Something that causes chefs and restaurateurs to make compromises on sustainability is the fear that it’s just not profitable – that a restaurant’s already narrow margins will get even narrower. As your restaurant, The Land & Water Company, is now in its 3rd year of operation, has your commitment to sustainability ever made things more difficult?
Luckily, I had done my homework and the Chef family that I work with now, is the same family from three years ago. You have to have the skill set, and be willing to do the work. It’s actually way cheaper to buy whole fish and utilize the entire product than to buy pre-fabricated blocks for $30 dollars a pound. You just have to know your craft, and the chefs at The Land & Water Co. are assassins. I hate to take time off, because Chefs like Brandon Nichols and Keola Liu eat me alive when I get back. It’s not like riding a bike, if you miss a few days of service here, you better be ready to put your time in and catch up, because there is new technique and new product constantly being introduced.
I just had a meeting at NOAA’s Southwestern Fisheries Science center with 40 of San Diego’s best commercial fisherman. I asked them to stop throwing away bycatch; to send it to us to break down. We have a whole new season of all new species about to come in.
What projects are on the radar for you now?
I’ll be cooking with Chef Drew Deckman and Chef Jason Mcloud in the Valle de Guadalupe end of May at the Lechuza Spring Celebration, don’t be surprised if you see a pop up Dinner in NYC with the Land & Water Co. name on it, and I have some really cool collaborations in November here in San Diego. There are many highly talented Chefs in this industry and I am proud to call some of them my friends and mentors. The Land & Water Co. chef family has a strong work ethic and vision. We believe in sourcing and serving the very best from the land and water while creating a legacy for generations to come!
For people – either chefs or consumers – inspired by the Eat Lionfish Chef Throwdown, what can they do to be a part of this movement?
They can ask for it at their local fish market, they can follow it on social media, and they can start making decisions based on what is good for the environment, locally, and thinking globally. There are many ways to get involved right from your smartphone. Whole Foods has started carrying lionfish in their fish markets, and now we hope it will spread nationally. We can “eat it to beat it” and the best way is to #knowyourfisherman and ask him for it. I really hope the lionfish is the tilapia of the future.
Special thanks to 11th Hour Racing for providing all photos. And check out the video below to see Rob Ruiz in action!