Originally published in Santa Barbara
By Katherine Stewart
Photographs by Brian Hodges
Perched on the side of her boat, Stephanie Mutz fixes her mask over her sun-gold hair and adjusts the oxygen line. With a splash, she’s gone. For the next five hours, she will drift along the coves and inlets of Santa Rosa Island, deftly gathering sea urchins from their rocky lairs. By days’ end, she will have harvested 1,000 pounds of the spiny creatures, destined for the tables of some of the finest restaurants in the world.
The Santa Barbara Channel is a sea urchin’s idea of heaven. The rocky coastline, the kelp cover, and the mild water temperature—it’s just perfect. And a happy sea urchin is a tasty one. Those from Santa Barbara are widely believed to be the most flavorful and desirable in the world. Even in Japan, where the spiny animal is prized as a delicacy, “California Gold” fetches the highest prices. The fame of the Santa Barbara sea urchin is such that the name has been pirated. Unethical purveyors from Russia and Chile have taken to falsely claiming their inferior catches come from our fair waters.
Mutz has one of only about 120 active licenses to fish urchin in the state of California. She believes she is the only woman active in the field, which made her position for six years as president of the Commercial Fisherman of Santa Barbara even more remarkable. (She stepped aside last year.) The average fisherman is in his 50s or 60s; she is 36. But her reputation as an urchin diver is impeccable. Through her company, Sea Stephanie Fish, she delivers her goods—at around $5 per urchin—to some of Santa Barbara’s best restaurants, including The Hungry Cat, the dining room at Belmond El Encanto, the Four Seasons Resort Biltmore, The Lark, and Industrial Eats in Buellton.
Most Americans have yet to experience the delights of sea urchin while those who are presented with the opportunity sometimes have trouble wrapping their heads around the idea. For a small but growing number of diners, however, the briny, delicate flavor has become something of a delightful obsession. “People go crazy for sea urchin,” Mutz says. “They run me over for it!”
With her bright blue eyes, ready smile, and athletic build that speaks to years of outdoor—and underwater—activity, Mutz seems to have been destined for a life lived at sea. “TMI, but I was conceived on a boat,” she quips. “I grew up on the ocean in Newport Beach. I was taught that if you want to eat fish, you go out there and get it yourself.” Mutz received a bachelor of science degree in marine biology from UC Santa Barbara, then a master of science at the School of Marine and Tropical Biology at James Cook University in Queensland, Australia. She presently works as a part-time professor at Ventura College, teaching classes in marine biology and microbiology. However, her main focus appears to be on her career as a fisherman, and most days she’d rather be in the water. As all sea urchin divers must, in order to obtain a coveted license from the state, she spent three years working as a deckhand before becoming the captain of her own vessel, a 20-foot Bellingham Workskiff, which she now keeps docked at the Santa Barbara Harbor.
Diving for urchin is hazardous business. Strong or unexpected currents are one significant danger. Recreational boats are another, especially for the diver’s critical oxygen line. The sea urchins themselves can be, well, prickly, and if a spine gets stuck in a joint it can cause infection. And then there are the sharks. “The joke is: ‘If you see a shark, you’re not working hard enough,’” says Mutz. “Knock on wood, I’ve only seen one—a six-foot salmon shark. I just got into my boat and didn’t go back in the water after that.” There was, however, at least one sea urchin diver that didn’t get away. In 1994, an urchin diver named James “Weiner” Robinson was eaten alive at “Shark Park,” a ring of reefs and rocks off San Miguel Island. Now, every year, California sea urchin divers gather at Brophy Bros. Clam Bar and Restaurant at the Santa Barbara Harbor to commemorate the event. “Urchin divers come from up all up and down the coast,” Mutz says. “We drink to Weiner. Then we tip one over to the shark as well.”
Fishermen’s camaraderie helps ease the challenges of a solitary and physically demanding life. Mutz typically leaves her house at 6 am and doesn’t return home until 8 or 9 that night. Then there are numerous state rules and regulations to consider. “You’re not allowed to fish without having someone place a market order, so I fulfill those first,” says Mutz. “I also sell directly to consumers. Then if there is any left over, I hand it over to the processors,” who put the urchin on ice and truck it down to processing plants in Los Angeles and San Diego, where the sex organs (the edible part of the animal) are extracted and soaked in preservative, sorted for size and color, then shipped to restaurants all over the world.
Chefs beyond the sushi bar are beginning to appreciate the culinary merits of this spiny sea creature, so it’s fortunate that it’s a resilient breed. Minimum size limits and limited fishing days protect against overfishing. According to Mutz, Santa Barbara fishermen are well aware of the delicate balance between harvesting and preservation that is necessary to maintain population stability. “Fisherman in Santa Barbara are some of the most well-educated, ecologically aware, and ethical people I know,” she says. “We’re not just a bunch of salty-crusty guys. We know we need to take care of the resource, or we’re out of a job.” Still, she says, turf wars are inevitable. “Outside fishing grounds, we’re the best of friends, but during fishing season it can be competitive,” she says. “If you’re not competitive, you’re not going to be a good fisherman, especially in Santa Barbara.”
Mutz has earned the trust of some of Santa Barbara’s top chefs, who rely on her to supply them with the precious ingredient. “Stephanie brings the freshest sea urchin,” says Belmond El Encanto chef Leo Andres Ayala, who has created a sea urchin dish with aji amarillo puree (Peruvian yellow peppers), citrus salad, and toasted brioche points. “I’d rather get my urchin from her because she can harvest according to a chef’s exact requirements as she is an expert in the sea urchin industry, both from a commercial and research standpoint.”
On occasion, chef Leo prepares a very rich bisque of sea urchin served in the shell and topped off with even more fresh sea urchin. He also enjoys preparing sea urchin topped with quail egg in a citrus broth, with a little scallion to cut the fishy flavor. Over at The Hungry Cat, where the animal is also served at the raw bar, urchin is the key element of sea urchin butter. And at Les Marchands, urchin is the secret ingredient of a notorious noodle dish so mysteriously delectable that it inspired weekly ramen nights on Fridays and Saturdays.
These days, there seems to be no limit to the reach of sea urchin cuisine. It is appearing in a number of unexpected places—including ice cream. “In
Solvang, chef Pink at Bacon & Brine does a sea urchin ice cream with caramel,” says Mutz, her bright eyes widening at the thought. “It’s so good!”