Whether she realizes it or not, Stephanie Mutz is a culinary celebrity whose fandom has grown way past the confines of the Central Coast. But her reputation doesn't stem just from the fact that she harvests the best sea urchin around, or that she's the state's only female urchin diver.
"I think people are intrigued with me being a female and doing what I do, but I'm not the first one," she says when I meet her on her boat in Santa Barbara's harbor. "I'm just the only one in California at the moment. Plus the whole woman urchin diver thing has been told so many times," she laughs.
But there must be some reason why her name is the one most associated with Santa Barbara sea urchin, four reverently whispered words in the community. And why the urchins harvested by her and her business partner, Harry Liquornik, are known as "California Gold." You'll see their uni being used everywhere from Bibi Ji just a few blocks away to fine dining haven Vespertine in Los Angeles. Ludo Lefebvre counts himself as a big fan, too.
"It all comes down to the quality, consistency and passion for what I do," Mutz tells me. "My days are brutal. But luckily, there's more good days than bad days."
During those good days, the Orange County, California transplant manages to pack in a lot—when she's not diving for the spiny sea creatures at dawn or delivering to restaurateurs and various markets, she's putting her masters in marine biology to work as an adjunct professor.
"I definitely believe in providing a protein source to your community. . . It just costs more money when you do it responsibly." While the chefs and consumers who are starting to catch on have no issue paying a premium, don't think Mutz's life has gotten any easier since she's gotten more popular. Her and Liquornik's only days off are around Thanksgiving, and their most recent "vacation" was due to the Thomas Fire and ensuing mudslides that prevented them from making deliveries to Southern California.
"It's always hard. It's always hard, no matter what," she concludes about the profession. Nevertheless, she persists.
"It has a lot to do with how fisherman and chefs have something in common where we all have a little bit of a screw loose," she smirks. "We would do almost anything to provide a guest or customer with what they'd want." Sometimes, that might mean finding a way to ship her prized urchins to the East Coast, including most recently Florida for the South Beach Wine & Food Festival. Though, of course, uni is best enjoyed right where it was harvested.
She splits a few urchins open with a large crack, and hands me a cleaned half, its spines still gently pulsing as I cradle it in my palm. The roe is a buttery, sweet custard that tastes of salt water and ocean air.
"It's a compliment when people make it look like our job is so easy, but it's not. I just want people to appreciate more of what we do," Mutz concludes, as I throw the cleaned shell back into the harbor. "But we're making a living and having a really good time doing it. And I can't complain about that."
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