I first tasted sea urchin, also known as uni, the roe of the urchin, on a friend’s boat docked on Catalina Island. Others in our party went diving and returned to the boat rich in urchin. They cracked open the spiny shells in search of the roe within, bloodied hands be damned. We spent an intoxicating afternoon eating uni while quenching our thirst with champagne. Fresh uni tastes like the sea with an almost sweet flavor and a creamy texture. Foie gras of the sea!
How lucky for me to eventually meet Stephanie Mutz, a professional sea urchin diver – the only female urchin diver in California.
Stephanie started diving professionally a dozen or so years ago shortly after earning her masters in marine ecology at James Cook University in Queensland, Australia. She had hoped to teach biology at the college level in Santa Barbara where she had earlier studied at UC Santa Barbara. But only a part time teaching position was available, and Stephanie needed to supplement her income. She got a job as a deckhand on an urchin fishing boat.
Raised in Newport Beach, Stephanie knew the ocean. While an undergraduate, she got to know the Santa Barbara coast. And she knew diving from research required for her master’s thesis. She took to working on a fishing boat easily, but three years of experience was required before she could apply for the permit that would allow her to join the crew in diving.
Segue three years with the treasured permit in hand, Stephanie purchased a fixer-upper fishing boat and launched Sea Stephanie Fish.
A determined entrepreneur, Stephanie was looking for an edge to rise above the competition of urchin divers, a male fraternity of sorts. After sharing a shot of tequila with long-time diver, Harry Liquornik, they agreed to partner. The two shared a love of diving and a great respect for the environment.
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Whereas most divers need to harvest thousands of pounds of urchin a day in order to sell commercially to processing plants, Stephanie and Harry required a significantly smaller catch. While Harry had 30 years of experience diving the deep waters of Santa Barbara, where the urchins are well-fed on kelp and thus tend to be fatter, firmer in texture, and brighter in color, Stephanie recognized a niche market in selling directly to restaurants, specialty markets and local farmers’ markets. As in any successful business, theirs was about building relationships with an audience who appreciates the quality and consistency delivered by Sea Stephanie Fish.
It was a happy hour or more when I joined Stephanie on her boat in the Santa Barbara Harbor one evening. Stephanie had just returned from a day of diving, the result being a bounty of urchin. The air smelled of brine and diesel fuel. The rhythmic clapping of the water against the bottoms of the tethered boats, the hungry cries of the sea gulls circling above us, and the barking of seals hoping for scraps as the fishermen unfurled their nets was music to my ears.
Stephanie pulled an urchin from a bucket, cracked open its spiny, purple shell, and handed me the shell from which I took a bite of the buttery, briny roe. Seeing my expression, Stephanie smiled her broad Cheshire Cat grin. She loves what she does and loves the joy that she literally brings to the table.
Urchin diver Stephanie Mutz visits with Chef Daisy Ryan at Bell’s Restaurant in Los Alamos.
A few days later, I met Stephanie at Bell’s Restaurant in Los Alamos. Bell’s is owned by Chef Daisy Ryan and her husband Greg Ryan. Daisy and Greg met while working at Per Se in New York City. Culinary stops in Austin, Texas and Los Angeles followed before returning to Daisy’s roots in the Santa Ynez Valley. They opened Bell’s in 2018, a dream come true.
Daisy and Greg first got to know Stephanie as a customer of Bell’s before becoming a customer of Stephanie’s, and finally good friends. Though urchin was not one of Daisy’s favorite foods, she was eager to come up with a dish that featured uni, a dish that she would be happy to eat, as well as happy to serve. It was Greg’s idea to top savory crêpes with uni and caviar.
“The folded crêpe evolved into layers of crêpes with a rich crème fraîche between each layer,” Daisy explained as she composed the dish, my mouth watering as I watched her sprinkle chives over the golden roe and glistening caviar that crowned the cake of crêpes. “People love uni, they love local, and they love Stephanie. She’s successful because she puts 100% of herself in her business and we are so fortunate to work with her.”
As for the recipe, Daisy insists that it’s simply a classic crêpe recipe of eggs, milk, flour and butter. Mix some chives in the batter. Layer the crêpes with crème fraîche. Daisy likes Kendall Farms crème fraîche unless her mother has the time to whip up a batch. Top the crêpes with uni and caviar.
I suppose you can try this yourself or go to Bell’s and let Daisy make her magic.
In the summer of 2018 an Israeli sourdough baker walked into the Solvang shop. The story which would unfold from this ‘guy walks into a bar’ scenario involves a shared passion for craft and community, and crosses all sorts of international lines, and bread.
Jamie Edlin heads Hollywood & Wine, a marketing communications agency geared to the wine and hospitality industries. She serves on the Advisory Board of Woodbury University’s School of Media, Culture & Design and is the recipient of the 2019 Spirit of Entrepreneurship Award in Media & Communications. Jamie can be reached at Jamie@HollywoodandWine.net
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