Chef JoJo Ruiz Creates Memorable Seafood Dishes At The Hotel Del Coronado’s Serea Restaurant - Coronado Eagle & Journal | Coronado News | Coronado Island News: Coronado Home And Business

Chef JoJo Ruiz Creates Memorable Seafood Dishes At The Hotel Del Coronado’s Serea Restaurant

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Posted: Friday, July 12, 2019 5:25 pm

Friday, June 29, 2019, marked the long-anticipated arrival of Serea Restaurant at the Hotel Del Coronado, and with it the return of sorts by Chef and Partner JoJo Ruiz to Coronado. As he said during our interview inside the elegant, airy and spacious eatery two days after the Grand Opening, “I grew up in the South Bay and had a dream I never thought would happen. I used to come to parties and bonfires in Coronado as a teenager 15 years ago, dreaming of working in a beautiful restaurant in the Hotel Del Coronado. And now I am.”

Ruiz was born in San Diego and is formally named Jose Joaquin, but his family nickname since he was a child has been ‘JoJo.’ Ruiz played soccer at Hilltop High School in Chula Vista for two years before a severe knee injury ended his playing career. As a child, summers were spent at a Grandparent’s beach house in Rosarito, Mexico. “We spent a lot of time there as kids,” Ruiz said. “We did a lot of exploring in the ocean tide pools. So I’m no stranger to seafood.”

Part of his introduction to seafood included the desire as a youngster to eat lobster. “I was so young, but I wanted to eat lobster. When I did, I thought, this is gross. Now I love Spiny lobster.”  

Early culinary influences for Ruiz came from his immediate family. “My grandmothers on both sides were great cooks. One was from Durango and she cooked Mexican dishes. My other grandmother, who had the beach house in Rosarito, was Tejano. They were the grandparents on my Dad’s side, and they did a lot of open fire cooking, around a barbecue pit, which I like to do. Open fire and seafood are what I love when it comes to food.”

Ruiz’s first job was at Yokozuna’s Sushi Bar and Islander Grill in Chula Vista, where he started working as a dishwasher at the age of 16. After six months of that, he became a prep cook. When asked when he thought earning a living as a chef was a possibility, Ruiz said, “It was during that first job, when I was still in high school. I would run circles around everybody in the kitchen. I picked it up quickly and understood how food works. It was like a second nature to me, how to use a sauté pan and a wok. I worked clean and I worked fast. It just happened.”

Early mentors included Chef George Cota from Yokozuna’s, where Ruiz continued to work as he cooked his way through the San Diego Culinary Institute. “He was my first boss and Chef Cota was a sushi chef who taught me how to butcher fish and seafood. He was a very large man, 300 pounds or so with a ponytail, who made petite plates and got me to try mackerel. He was also legally blind, but he made beautiful, big sushi presentation pieces. He could cut the thinnest pieces of sashimi I have ever seen. He taught a lot of guys who are now very successful.”

Like most successful chefs working their way up the ladder, Ruiz bounced around a bit while refining their art. Another major culinary influence was Chef Shane McIntyre, the Corporate Chef for the Brian Malarky including Urban Wood, Searsucker and Herring Bone. “Chef McIntyre taught me a lot and he pushed me the hardest for sure,” Ruiz said appreciatively.

Sometimes the best job opportunities present themselves when you are already gainfully employed and that was the case with Chef Ruiz. “I was working at Ironside Fish and Oyster and was really happy with my job, when Clique Hospitality approached me for Lionfish Restaurant at The Pendry Hotel. Serea at the Del wasn’t even a thought then. Clique Founder Andy Masi flew me and my fiancée Ashley Bonilla to Las Vegas. We ate at a couple of their restaurants to see what they were doing. After seeing their style and passion for food, I made my decision. I sat down with Andy and he offered me the position. The timing was kind of horrible, as I was transitioning from Ironside to Craft & Commerce. The position Andy offered was everything I had wanted, the money and being made a partner. It felt like the right decision. Serea happened during a dinner at Lionfish for some representatives from the Blackstone Group (owners of the Hotel Del Coronado). Andy has some great connections and we had an over the-top dinner for them with spot prawns, rockfish and crabs and they loved everything. Right now I’m 100 percent at Serea and when we get the operation running smoothly, I’ll be back and forth between the two, 50-50.”

As for the development of the Serea menu, Ruiz explained, “We started on the menu around April 2018, and we started putting ideas together. We had hundreds of menu revisions as Andy and I went back and forth with what he wanted and what I want.” As for the décor in Serea, “Andy and the guys at Clique oversaw the work and Studio Munge (Toronto, Canada) did a fantastic job. It’s light, open and you can see the ocean from every seat in the house. The concept is less is more (a nod to famed Architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe) in the dining room, there isn’t stuff everywhere. There are hints and accents. They put all the artwork up recently and the rooms totally changed from one day to the next.”

Ultimately, Serea’s success comes down to the food. Ruiz described his culinary style and had a few dishes to recommend to diners. “I would say obtaining the freshest quality seafood and preparing it in the simplest ways is best. I don’t try to overdo it anymore. A few years ago, I reached the point that 15 ingredients in one dish was too much. I use sea salt and spray the fish with a mixture of lemon juice, red wine vinegar, olive oil and oregano. We grill it over charcoal and spray it with that mixture every couple of minutes, which gives us a nice caramelized skin and adds tons of flavor. I love the Chickpea and Spinach salad with grilled Spigarello broccolini, Quinoa, Za’atar, Beemster cheese and Lemon Tahini dressing. Then I would say the local Halibut Ceviche with cucumber, avocado, lemon, coconut, agave pickled serrano and spring onion. Third would be the Baja Seabass Sashimi with tomato and San Diego seaweed salsa fresca and seaweed chicharron. Fourth would be the Grilled local Spot Prawns and probably Patatas Bravas with Chili Garlic Aioli and Chive as a side dish. And fifth, for dessert would be Loukamadas or light donuts with a walnut honey sauce.”

During opening night where Chef Ruiz estimated he served 350 patrons at Serea, The Better Half and I were able to sample several of the dishes on the menu, including the Greek Salad with tomato, peppers, cucumber, red onion, Feta cheese and Mediterranean Olives; the Hawaiian Big Eye Tuna with Caper relish, Shiso, crispy onions, pickled fennel, and 20-year-old aged Balsamic Vinegar; Zucchini & Eggplant Chips with cheese and Tzaziki; the local Halibut Ceviche described above; Crispy Saganaki, a Greek cheese, with tomato, Peppeadew Pepper, Baugna Cauda and Lemon; Greek Fries with Feta, lemon and Tzatziki; Spanish Style Mixed Mushrooms with garlic, Provencal Herbs, Sherry Vinegar, all topped with a Hen’s Egg; and dessert was a large White Chocolate Clam Shell sprayed with edible pearl, with cake on the bottom and mousse on top, and a Mango Passion Fruit Coulis.

The menu Friday night covered a lot of ground and was fun to sample in a group setting. For dinner, my favorite dish was the Hawaiian Big Eye Tuna, sliced razor thin, beautifully plated and wonderfully prepared. Sharon’s favorite dish was the Halibut Ceviche, which was also delicious. For dessert, it’s a tossup for me between the Loukamadas with walnut honey sauce and the White Chocolate Clam Shell. I forced myself to stop at three Loukamadas and thoroughly enjoyed sampling the White Chocolate dessert concoction.

Ruiz said of his future plans for Serea, “I want to earn the James Beard Foundation Smart Catch designation for Serea, like we did at Lionfish. I would say that is the highlight of my career, earning that in October 2018. I got to cook at the James Beard House in New York for Smart Catch. We use all sustainable seafood, and every piece of our seafood can be traced back to the origin of who caught it and where, if it was farmed, how it was farmed and if it was sustainably farmed. We are using all sustainable fish and fisheries. We try to get everything straight from the boats, cutting out the middleman. It’s a completely different freshness than people are used to. That is something I wanted and pushed for during the last five years of my career. I want to give people an understanding of what sustainable seafood is and it is great to be recognized for it.”

Although seafood is the primary focus at Serea (which means ‘Mermaid’ in Portuguese), there are also chicken, lamb, and steak options, along with a vegetarian dish Zucchini Pesto Cavatappi.

And there’s more, “We’re working on something for after the summer, which would be a very, very high end tasting menu with 10-15 courses. Something insane, an out of this world tasting menu. We may call it Table 3, and we’ll have one or two tables a night serving the tasting menu. And national recognition would be nice, along with a Michelin star.”

On a personal level, Ruiz eventually plans to establish a charity with his fiancée Ashley. He said of the concept, “I cook for a living, so I want to start giving something back. We are working toward teaching younger people, when they grow out of their home, how to cook. She and I want younger people to be able to make a basic meal for themselves.”

Ruiz and Ashley Bonilla have a 10-month old son, and recently moved into a new home. In his spare time, Ruiz likes to work on old cars and motorcycles. “I’ve always had Harleys and Chevys. When Ashley got pregnant, I had to sell the bike. When our son turns 18, I’ll buy another one. I’m looking for a 1953 or 1954 Chevy Belair convertible for my next project. So with chores, new house stuff and spending time with my son, there’s not a lot of spare time.”

Dinner reservations for Serea can be made by calling 619-435-6611 or online by going through the Serea website, which is www.sereasandiego.com. Serea is currently open from 4 to 10 p.m. during the week, and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturdays. Ruiz added, “We may start opening for lunch on Sundays. Lunch yesterday (Saturday, following Friday night’s Grand Opening) was one of the longest days of my life. It was rough, but we made it.”

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