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Chef Rob Ruiz Comes Home

The notable sushi chef had to grapple with grief and shovel fish guts to get here
Ligaya Malones
The Kitchen - sandwich

The Kitchen – sandwich

Ligaya Malones

Chef Rob Ruiz is back. But the notable sushi chef and sustainable seafood advocate needed to grapple with grief and shovel literal fish guts to get here. We’re in between lunch and dinner service at The Kitchen, Ruiz’s new passion project in Vista.

“I learned all these things,” he begins: classical French cooking, Hawaiian Regional Cuisine (including how to slice sashimi from Alan Wong’s team), sushi, fine dining.

“After what all of us have gone through the last couple years, what’s my answer to ‘What could I do for people?’ And I’m like, I’m gonna make ’em really awesome food and I’m gonna do it for seven bucks.”

Welcome to The Kitchen

The Kitchen started as a commissary for Crownview Co-Occurring Institute’s food program, which Ruiz oversees. Crownview, located in Oceanside, shepherds recovery programs for people facing post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, and other mental health conditions. Ruiz and team, including some Crownview graduates, make and deliver meals for its programs. On the day I visited, dinner was chipotle shrimp and penne pasta.

As of March, it’s also a fast-casual sit-down restaurant. From the counter, you order simple yet delicious food—delicately battered fish and chips, chicken sandwiches on housemade biscuits, salads, and burgers. All ingredients are either grown at The Kitchen’s farm in Bonsall or otherwise locally produced, which helps keep overhead low. Salads are named for the seeds that spawned their leafy greens, and virtually all dressings, condiments, and baked goods are made from scratch, which also keeps costs down. 

A Tsunami of Humility

Just a few years ago, before The Kitchen, adversity slammed Ruiz from every angle. His signature sushi restaurant shuttered. Death came for someone close to him. Then the pandemic came for us all. Ruiz, like many in the hospitality business, was furloughed. 

Fishmonger Tommy Gomes and team threw him a line processing fish to eke out a paycheck.

 “I was like, okay, put me wherever you want,” Ruiz says. “So they put me on the boat, right. And you’re on the boat, and they have a crane that goes down and picks up like 500 or 600 pounds of tuna at a time. There’s seawater washing through the deck of the boat—it’s in the harbor, but it’s still gonna move. And then you have a cutting board that you’re just hoping to land the fish on because it’s moving. The fish is moving. The crane is moving. You have 10 guys all around you, all moving.

“And my job was to pick up a 100-plus-pound fish by yourself, carry it over, put it down, then get the head off of it, hand the head off, break the fillets off, go all the way and break it down to nothing. And then go run and get another one. You just do that nonstop. And you can’t wash your knife; you can’t wash your cutting board.

 “This is just a few hours. These guys who do that for a living, these guys are beasts. These guys are a different breed. These guys are amazing.”

The point is, the once-rigid Ruiz is more malleable now, more balanced, yet the pursuit for bigger and better is still on. During the decade he spent cooking and surfing on Hawai‘i Island (the Big Island), some coworkers from Oaxaca gave him the kitchen name “El Diablo Sin Cola,” or The Devil Without a Tail.

“I really do things 110 percent,” he explains. He attributes his drive to his grandfather, a former Navy captain, who “always had a high bar of what was expected.” Give him a chapter to read and Ruiz will rip through the entire book, and then some. 

Fine dining is still on his mind, maybe, eventually. So are whole paycheck-worthy tasting menus. Right now though, Ruiz is giving The Kitchen 110 percent.


By Ligaya Malones

Ligaya Malones grew up in Kaua’i, Hawai’i and is a San Diego-based writer covering the intersection of food, travel, and culture. Her work has appeared in publications including Food52, Condé Nast Traveler, Lonely Planet, and Salt & Wind Travel.

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