Uni Diver Stephanie Mutz Stands Out in a Sea of Men
Because of the superior condition and flavor of the uni she harvests, Stephanie Mutz has positioned herself as one of the most sought-after suppliers in Southern California.
Photo by Danny Liao
Armed with a rake and an oversized sack, and breathing through a hose attached to the small skiff floating above her, the diver and marine biologist sets to work harvesting sea urchin off the coast of Santa Barbara. Alongside her partner and mentor, Harry Liquornik, who took her under his wing when she first began urchin diving, Mutz provides high-quality uni to some of L.A.’s hottest restaurants. She’s also the only female urchin diver in California among a sea of men.
Because of the superior condition and flavor of the uni she harvests, Mutz has positioned herself as one of the most sought-after suppliers in Southern California — and she played a significant part in uni’s recent surge in popularity across L.A. menus. Mutz’s urchins can be found laid atop Wes Avila’s jewel-colored ahi tuna poké tostada with furikake and micro shiso at Guerrilla Tacos; split open and served in its shell as the star of a seafood tower at the Hungry Cat or Connie & Ted’s; and inventively integrated by chef Jeremy Fox into a mind-blowing steak tartare at Rustic Canyon.
“We call them our princesses,” Mutz says of the urchins. If the water is too warm and the urchins aren’t looking so great because of it, she won’t deliver. “I’ll call my chefs and let them know that the urchins aren’t at their best this week. Some people might harvest them. But if I wouldn’t eat them myself, I don’t want to supply them to anyone.”
Mutz’s care for the quality of her urchin and the state of the ocean in general runs deep. Her background in marine biology informs her outlook on urchin diving as a livelihood — one based in preserving a stable ecosystem and sourcing local seafood that’s actually available to locals. Mutz also puts her passion to work as an adjunct professor of biology at Ventura County Community College, and her job as an educator doesn’t stop there.
“I provide front-of-house instruction and open a dialogue about local seafood at the restaurants we work with,” she explains. Her motivation is to educate the restaurants themselves so that they can provide diners with a clear picture of where their lunch or dinner is coming from — the ideal being a small boat and local fishermen. Or fisherwomen.
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