New Documentary Explores the Dangerous World of Sea Urchin Diving

The Delicacy also answers the strange question of why we eat the spiny sea creatures.

Director Jason Wise, known for his Somm series of documentaries, has just released his latest movie, The Delicacy. The subject? Sea urchin diving—but also the entire question of what we think of as a “delicacy,” those foods we consider rare and delectable but often, in truth, very strange indeed.

The Delicacy follows several Santa Barbara-area sea urchin divers through the dangers and joys of their work, with on-screen commentary from nationally known chefs such as Andrew Zimmern, Kyle Connaughton of the three-Michelin-starred Single Thread restaurant in Healdsburg, CA, and Justin Cogley of Aubergine in Carmel, CA, a 2013 Food & Wine Best New Chef (and also—disclaimer here—Food & Wine executive wine editor Ray Isle, i.e. me).

Director Wise says regarding the genesis of the movie, “To me, the idea of a delicacy was a great lens to use to speak about all the strange behaviors humans have in terms of eating food. Delicacies are food that aren’t essentially there for nourishment, and come with all sorts of other interesting points—they’re dangerous to get, or odd-looking, or you eat a weird part of whatever animal it is.”

The Delicacy

As the writer Jonathan Swift said back in the 1700s, “He was a bold man that first ate an oyster.” The same could well apply to sea urchins; whoever first thought to take one of these weird black balls covered in sharp spines, crack it open, and eat the odd orange goo inside was either inspired or nuts, depending on your feelings about sea urchin, or uni, or riccio di mare, or any of the many names it goes by. Add in the fact that to get one you have to dive deep into cold ocean water, dealing with hazards like unpredictable currents and entangling kelp, and our love of eating them becomes even more mystifying. And yet, we do love urchin.

Cogley, who has currently shifted Aubergine’s elegant cuisine to a more homestyle takeout focus, says, “The first time I had urchin, it was actually a dish that was pivotal in my decision to become a chef. It was in 1999 at Guy Savoy in Paris, and I had a dish of sea urchin, oysters, borage, and what they called an ‘emulsion of sea water.’ It was extraordinary, and a real changing point for me. My parents weren’t chefs or home cooks or anything. My dad’s favorite food was like marshmallow fluff and baloney or something.” (Some people might find that sandwich more alarming than sea urchin roe; but hey, to each his own.) Cogley adds, “For me urchin has always been such a mysterious food. When you eat it, you can taste the seasons, you can taste the changes in ocean temperatures and so on—it’s almost like the way wines change with each vintage.”

The Delicacy

Wise spent seven years working on The Delicacy. One reason it took so long was simply because of the dangers of shooting urchin divers underwater. “I personally had a very bad situation about two or three years ago, where my equipment failed and I got tangled in kelp—my cinematographer actually saved my life.”

Risks like that, which urchin divers face daily, are part of what makes the film so gripping, especially filtered through the personalities of the divers themselves. “Making this was like stepping back in time in more ways than one,” Wise says. “The urchin divers are these grumpy, swearing-all-the-time, wonderful old fishermen, full of street smarts. Or ocean smarts, I guess. But then there’s also someone like Stephanie Mutz, who’s a diver but also has a masters in biology—though she’s just as much of a bad ass. She’s one of the toughest humans I’ve ever met.”

The Delicacy

Following these divers through the days and seasons in the movie is a gripping, fascinating experience, helped along by the fact that the underwater world they work in (and the movie’s cinematography) is gorgeous, too.

The Delicacy was scheduled for theatrical release this month, until the coronavirus effectively canceled movie theaters. Instead it’s releasing today on Wise’s streaming platform, SommTV, which offers a wide range of food, wine and travel content (first-time SOMM TV users can take advantage of a seven-day free trial, after which a subscription is $9.99 a month.)

“People might say I should have held the movie’s release until theaters reopen, but, really, there’s no better time to watch a film that’s truly about the outdoors than when you’re stuck at home together," Wise says. "And people are still out there diving for sea urchin—it’s a solitary pursuit. And it’s never a bad time to see and hear stories about what we eat, and why.”

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