May 7, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Jason Wise
Culture Representation: This documentary examines the business behind the delicacy of sea urchin, with the film featuring interviews with a predominantly white cast (and some Asian representation) of sea urchin divers, chefs and journalists.
Culture Clash: “The Delicacy” addresses the controversies over fishing for sea urchins, including the environmental impact and what sea urchin divers have in response to people who are offended by their line of work.
Culture Audience: “The Delicacy” will appeal mostly to non-vegan/non-vegetarian people who are passionate about fine dining and are curious about the specifics of how sea urchin goes from the ocean to human consumption.
“The Delicacy” takes a fascinating look at the business of making sea urchin a fine-dining item. Unlike other food TV shows that focus primarily on the end results of food preparation, “The Delicacy” takes a deep dive (literally) into the entire procedure of making sea urchin available to the public, including showing how sea urchin divers work, how sea urchin goes through processing plants, and how sea urchin is prepared for meals. The heart of this 70-minute movie is with the sea urchin divers, since the documentary shows a very human side to their line of risk-taking work.
Sea urchin is eaten for its center, which is called “uni” in Japanese, and is usually eaten raw. And sea urchin is considered among the top-tier of luxury seafood. Uni Diaries blogger Haiwen Lu, who’s interviewed in the documentary, comments on sea urchin: “A lot of other delicacies out there, like foie gras or caviar or oysters, I feel like they don’t have that buzz factor like uni has.”
Celebrity chef/restaurateur Andrew Zimmern says, “My relationship with sea urchin? Profound.” And he comments on preparing sea urchin: “It’s a simple process but a rare thing.” Yoon Ha, wine director of San Francisco restaurant Benu, adds: “There’s nothing like sea urchin. It’s eaten raw. It’s sweet. it’s briny. It’s incredibly luxurious in texture. It’s a perfect luxurious food item.”
Other restaurant chefs interviewed in the film are Justin Cogley, executive chef at Aubergine in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California; Kyle Connaughton, executive chef at Single Thread in Healdsburg, California; and Aaron Koseba, chef de cuisine at Single Thread.
It would have been very easy for “The Delicacy” filmmakers to keep the movie focused on glowing commentary about sea urchin and filling the documentary with glam shots of sea urchin being prepared. The film certainly shows those fine-dining aspects of sea urchin, but director Jason Wise also includes a history of why sea urchin became a delicacy and what kinds of people fish for sea urchin today.
The history of sea urchin being a delicacy is known to date as far back as the days of the Roman Empire. Archeologists have found evidence that after the upscale vacation city of Pompeii was destroyed by Mount Vesuvius erupting in the year 79 A.D., the upper-class people who lived in Pompeii used to frequently dine on sea urchin. Because sea urchins live in deep underwater environments, they were much harder to get in the days before deep-sea diving equipment was invented.
The documentary then veers off into a brief history of abalone and how it created a “gold rush” for abalone in California, beginning in the 1950s and peaking in the 1970s and 1980s. Unfortunately, abalone (which has a very slow reproductive rate) was being “picked almost to extinction,” says Food & Wine executive wine editor Ray Isle. And that scarcity led to a crackdown on fisheries that sold abalone and the rise of aquaculture businesses that work to grow aquatic life that’s harvested for food. Andrew Kim of Monterey Abalone in California is shown in the film giving a brief tour of his business.
Abalone is brought up as an example of what could happen to the sea urchin trade if there is too much fishing of sea urchin and not enough protection of the species. The documentary points out that illegal poaching of all endangered species will be a reality, but the goal is to not let valuable animals in the food chain reach the point of near-extinction.
Sea otters are mankind’s biggest competition in eating sea urchins. Lillian Carswell, U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s southern sea otter recovery coordinator, notes that sea otters were at the brink of extinction for decades, because they were hunted for their fur. But due to a fluke in nature, a part of the reef near Big Sur in California made it difficult for boats to dock there, so a small group of sea otter that lived there began to multiply and thrive. Generations of sea otter still live there today.
It’s in California, off the coast of Santa Barbara, that the documentary takes another turn, with an up-close look at some modern-day sea urchin divers. The movie focuses primarily on four of these rough-and-tumble group of adventurers: Jim Marshall, who is considered the respected elder; Harry Liquornik, an extrovert who considers Jim to be a like a mentor/father figure; Harry Liquornik, who is quiet and reserved; and Stephanie Mutz, who says she’s the only woman who’s a professional sea-urchin diver in California.
This quartet of sea urchin divers all know each other and have worked together at one time or another. Jim and Harry have a long history together, and they jokingly tease each other, with Jim saying that Harry is “cocky,” while Harry says that Jim is “grumpy.” Mutz considers Liquornik to be her mentor, and they work closely together.
Diving for sea urchin is considered one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. There’s a constant threat of being injured in various ways, and being killed by a shark is also a very real possibility. (And true to his sense of humor, Liquornik jokes that as he gets older, it’s harder for him to fit into a wetsuit.) Sea urchin diver Billy Eggers is also interviewed, but the other four divers get most of the screen time in the segments that feature the divers.
Although the job can pay well (top divers have the potential to earn six-figure incomes), there are also huge risks involved in the work, such as the aforementioned on-the-job injuries and shark attacks, as well as bad weather and the unpredictability of when business might be slow. The divers also have to develop a keen knowledge of where to dive for sea urchin, because the quality of sea urchin depends on how much kelp that the sea urchins eat. The more kelp that a sea urchin can eat, the higher the quality of the sea urchin.
And for people who think that fishing for sea urchin will destroy the food chain, Marshall’s response is that letting sea urchin overpopulate the ocean would actually damage the food chain, since “too many sea urchins … would wipe out the kept forest.” Kelp is essential for ocean life, so the divers say that there needs to be a balance in not destroying a species but also not letting a species overpopulate the ocean.
One of the best aspects of “The Delicacy” is the cinematography from Jackson Myers and the underwater photography by director Wise. Regardless of how someone might feel about the ethics of eating animals, most people would agree with how life in the deep ocean can be stunning and awe-inspiring. Some of the underwater scenes in “The Delicacy” are absolutely gorgeous.
Full disclosure: “The Delicacy” director Wise (who is a producer, co-editor and co-writer of the film) is also the founder of SOMM TV, a subscription video-on-demand service for enthusiasts of food, wine and travel. “The Delicacy” can be viewed exclusively on SOMM TV, which was launched in 2019 by several of the filmmakers of the “Somm” documentary series. If “The Delicacy” is any indication of SOMM TV’s original documentaries, then SOMM TV is a good alternative to other food-centric networks that have programming appealing mostly to casual-dining audiences. “The Delicacy” is the kind of documentary that fine-dining foodies deserve.
The movie ends with sobering reminder of the human cost of diving for sea urchins. Throughout the movie’s segments on the sea urchin divers, there is archival footage of California diver Jim “Wiener” Robinson. He died of a shark attack in 1994, at the age of 42. Marshall, Liquornik and Motyer all give emotional testimonials about Robinson and how his death affected them.
Not everyone agrees with the idea that humans can kill animals for food. Mutz has this response to people who are opposed to her line of work: “I might go to urchin hell, but I’m okay with that. I don’t have any remorse.” Regardless of how people feel about animal rights or eating animal-based food, Marshall sums it up this way: “Fishing will always be around as long as people have to eat.”
SOMM TV premiered “The Delicacy” on May 7, 2020.