Stephanie Mutz helped uni go from overlooked Santa Barbara product to one of the city’s culinary calling cards.
If you’ve eaten uni at any of L.A.'s critically praised restaurants—Michael Cimarusti’s Michelin-starred Providence, Niki Nakayama’s n/naka, Jordan Kahn’s Vespertine, Jeremy Fox’s Rustic Canyon—odds are, it came from one woman. The only woman sea urchin diver in California, actually.
Her name is Stephanie Mutz, and she’s been diving for ten years. Before that, she was a deckhand for three. This is not a story about glass ceilings, however. (And she prefers to be called a fisherman, by the way. “I don’t do anything different than any other fisherman, and I already stand out. I don’t want to do that anymore,” she says, laughing.)
This story, rather, is about how uni went from being an overlooked Santa Barbara product to being one of the city’s culinary calling cards. About a decade or so ago, sea urchin was still one of the area’s top products by weight, along with lobster and white sea bass, depending on the season. (Just to clarify: uni is a Japanese word that refers to the urchin’s delicate yellow gonads within. They’re the most popular edible part, although you can also eat the clear jelly-like muscle, Mutz says.)
Ten years ago, however, uni didn’t have the cultural cachet that it does today in the U.S., at least at non-Japanese restaurants—the trend hadn’t yet struck. As a result, most Santa Barbara fishermen would sell their catch to industrial suppliers, who would then truck this bounty to processing plants in nearby Oxnard, Los Angeles or San Diego to treat it with nitrates and preservatives. The shelf life could then get extended for one, two, maybe three weeks—but Mutz sounds iffy about that. Then the uni, which would be delivered to restaurants in bulk trays—the shells long discarded—would be rolled into butters or pasta sauces or sushi rolls: Items where the integrity of the shape wasn’t quite as important as if you were serving it straight out of the shell.
These products aren’t necessarily inferior, Mutz is careful to point out. But they’re definitely different. “Out of the shell it’s more crisp and clean, it just has this sweeter taste,” she says.
When people tell her they don’t like uni (which they do, all the time), she asks them: Have you ever tried it fresh? Most of them say no. And it’s not terribly surprising. Fresh urchins are more labor intensive for back of house staff, after all. They have to cut the shells and scoop out the uni within. (Mutz actually teaches classes for chefs on how to do it properly.) Compare that to just getting the uni delivered by the trayload, ready to use.
Still, Mutz has no shortage of customers—and the number goes up during inclement weather, she tells Food & Wine, when other suppliers aren’t necessarily willing to brave the elements, but she and her business partner are. His name is Harry Liquornik, by the way, and he’s a 50/50 part of Mutz’s company, See Stephanie Fish.
“He does the same thing I do and he’s overlooked, which is probably related to me being female,” she says. Although she admits that her media coverage, not insignificant up to this point, has to do with this fact, her commercial success comes down to business strategy.
She made a key decision early on: to sell direct to restaurants and do consumers—not large-scale industrial suppliers. She realized in her early days as a diver that she couldn’t compete with male uni fishermen quantity-wise. It’s a strenuous process: two to three days a week, Mutz dives down with a rake and a bag, handpicking uni and looking for the best ones.
Most people don’t realize that, because of this, 99% of all uni you’ll eat is still harvested by hand—sea urchins are really challenging to farm raise. (There is a farmer in Alabama who’s currently experimenting with farm-raised uni, but it doesn’t seem close to coming to market.)
“I didn’t have the testosterone to catch thousands and thousands of pounds a day,” Mutz says, “And I realized I couldn’t make a living like this. So I had to figure out how to figure out how to increase the value of my product. So I started direct marketing.”
That is, she started reaching out to restaurants and to individual customers—she still sells about once a week at farmer’s markets in Orange County. It worked. And well. But it got to be exhausting. So she reached out to another fisherman who she noticed was also doing the same thing: Her current partner, Harry Liquornik.
“I bought him a shot of tequila at Brophy’s [a bar on the Santa Barbara pier], and I said, ‘Hey, let’s team up.’” And so they did. And the business just took off from there.
These days, Mutz, who’s also a part-time adjunct professor of environmental science and biology at Ventura College, is also invested in the sustainability of the whole enterprise—for selfish reasons, too.
With her current fishing license, she explains, fishermen are allowed to harvest them when they’re four years old. At that point, they will have been reproducing for three years, and the idea is that this is an adequate time frame to allow for populations to replenish themselves. (Amazingly, sea urchins have been known to survive for 200 years, according to Mutz.)
If you go to Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch website, however—it’s basically the leading consumer-facing authority on seafood sustainability— you’ll notice that California uni is given a less preferential rating than Canada uni. Mutz takes issue with this. She explains that because California uni doesn’t have a “fisheries management plan,” it’s dinged. (The state does, of course, have a complex set of regulations in place.) This is basically an official document that can get years to obtain, according to Mutz—and involves loads of stakeholders and meetings, in typically bureaucratic fashion. Is it a good move? Yes. Is it completely representative of the truth? According to Mutz, no.