Lovebirds Dip Their Beaks

Join R.H. Drexel as she shadows couples on their date night, and joins them for a night out on the town.  

Modern life can be pretty hectic; it’s hard enough to keep one’s obligations in order, much less plan a special night out on the town with a spouse or romantic partner. Imagine then, how especially challenging this must be for couples who hold down unconventional jobs that require long, unpredictable hours and grueling volumes of physical labor.

Santa Barbara-based couple Steve Escobar and Stephanie Mutz

I recently arranged to shadow a Santa Barbara-based couple, Stephanie Mutz and Steve Escobar, on their date night, and it was an unconventional, exciting dinner, to say the least. Both work full time fishing Southern California’s oceans. “Our lives and our plans revolve around the weather,” Stephanie tells me, “so if there’s a good opportunity to work, we work, and if there’s opportunity for time off, we take time off.” Steve adds, “Most of the time we say, ‘let’s just do it,’ especially if the weather is going to be crummy the next day. We try and have a date night every couple of weeks. Still, our priority is taking care of our market and being consistent with our customers, because if you take care of the market, it takes care of you. Our customers and our market take priority.  I haven’t been home for Christmas, Easter or Thanksgiving for 20 years.

Stephanie urchin diving

On average, Stephanie and Steve start their workday at 3:00 AM. A couple of hours later, you’ll find them on the ocean, most likely out near the Santa Barbara Channel Islands, fishing for their daily catch. Stephanie, who was recently featured on Bravo’s Top Chef, is California’s sole female commercial sea urchin diver, though she also catches snails, and, on occasion, sardines and mackerel. Steve is a full-time crabber, and sets traps in the Channel and off of Newport Beach, “I’m a crabber, or a crab fisherman. I used to catch spot prawns and all kinds of fish. When I went after all of those, I didn’t do any of them very well. So now I just do crab and lobster full time. This way, I have time to build traps and really stay on top of things. If you spread yourself too thin, everything seems to suffer.”

Stephanie's urchins for dinner 

“There are some days,” she adds, “when you know you’ve got about 22 hours of work in front of you. And, it’s maybe blowing 50 knots out on the boat, and salt water is getting in your eyes. Your coffee gets knocked out of your hands. Your food falls and gets wet. It’s then that you discover you can push yourself much further than you thought you could. Your socks are soaking wet. You’re doing all you can just to function; just doing whatever you can to retrieve these traps, and you think, ‘there’s no way I can do this,’ but you do. You find a way.”

Chef Jeff Olsson and Stephanie looking at the fresh catch 

Our evening begins oddly enough; I am asked to meet them at Industrial Eats, a popular eatery in Buellton, California, just off Hwy. 101. They arrive in a pickup truck, the back of which holds a few large Coleman coolers. The truck is barely in park when Stephanie hops out of the cab, looking elegant in a short black dress. Before long, she and Steve are at the tail gate of the truck, pushing the coolers forward; showing me their catch. Chef Jeff Olsson, who with his wife, Janet, owns and operates Industrial Eats, is expecting them; they’ve contacted him earlier that morning to let him know that they’ll be bringing in some fresh ingredients for their date night dinner; fresh sea urchin, ling cod, California Sheepshead fish and Ocean white fish. He meets us at the truck, and together, he and Steve carry this bounty into the restaurant. Just as Chef Olsson is disappearing into the kitchen, Stephanie calls out, “Surprise us!”

The catch before it is cooked 

They prefer to eat at restaurants that support them as purveyors, or that allow them to bring in their own ingredients. “We like to go to places that think outside the box; that allow us to bring our catch in,” Steve says. We never ask what something will cost nor do we expect any special favors. Restaurants have overhead, staff, and all of their other needs, so we’re just happy if they’ll prepare our catch for us. We totally appreciate people doing what they do, so we probably end up paying the same amount as people who don’t bring in their own ingredients, but it’s a lot of fun.”

The couple first met about seven years ago, “I said hi to her on the Santa Barbara pier, and she totally blew me off,” Steve says. “And then we found ourselves in the same hiking group. At the time, I was going through a divorce, and she invited me to a party. She wanted to fix me up with one of her friends. I never did meet that friend of hers because when I got to that party, we just ended up talking all night. I offered to give her a ride home and threw her bike in the back of my truck. She invited me in for a glass of wine. We’ve been together ever since.”

“During these hikes,” she says, “we’d have these conversations about fishing; about how important it is to utilize the entire animal; catching only what you need for your markets, and saving the rest for the ocean. We talked about not wasting things, about appreciating the catch. And, so, philosophically, we saw eye-to-eye right away. We share the same respect for our resources, whether from the ocean or the land.”

“You can go out and catch a bunch of snails,” Steve adds, “and sell them for pennies a pound. Or you can just catch what you need, take them to market, and sell them for more of a premium. That keeps the resources healthy.”

Chef Olsson with uni (sea urchin) draped over freshly shucked Morro Bay oysters

Gradually, Chef Olsson begins to bring out their bounty on large, family-style plates. It’s a busy night at the restaurant, and diners from nearby tables occasionally join us table-side to look at what we’re eating. First up is a course of uni (sea urchin) draped over freshly shucked Morro Bay oysters. The sea urchin meat is sweet, slightly floral and positively oceanic. “I source from different parts of the reef,” Stephanie explains. “Sea urchins really are what they eat. I pay attention to Merroir [like Terroir, but applied to ocean life] to the full extent. Sea urchins (Stephanie calls them ‘my princesses’) prefer giant kelp; the kind you see on the surface of the ocean. That’s really their preferred diet, and it’s really what’s preferred for the human palate, too, in that it makes for a sweet, clean taste. There’s this other lettuce-y, brown algae that grows a lot in shallow, warm waters, but when they eat that, the urchins ends up tasting pretty bitter. Typically, the males are sweeter than the females.” Steve chimes in, “I prefer the females myself,” and we all chuckle.

A sheepshead fish with its pronounced teeth

Next up, Chef Olsson brings the Sheepshead fish to the table. I’ve never seen a Sheepshead fish before and am somewhat taken aback by their pronounced teeth. But, the meat is so flavorful, flaky and savory that I’m soon lost in a hedonistic reverie. While we continue our dinner, I ask them what else they enjoy doing on their rare days off, “We can’t lend our permits out to people,” Stephanie tells me, “so days off are rare. We are artisanal, owner/operator fishermen. That’s actually very important to us, from a management perspective, because we take responsibility for all of our resources. We hold ourselves accountable that way, which is great from a business perspective, but on a personal level, it means we can never be away for very long; just a few days, really.” The couple cites a recent two-day weekend spent in the Napa Valley as their last real vacation.

White Ocean Fish 

When they do have a rare night off at home, they enjoy reading aloud to one another, watching documentaries or just chatting. “We like to watch documentaries about human right’s issues,” Steve says. “We feel that every child born on this earth deserves to be well taken care of and deserves love.”  Stephanie is quick to add, “We don’t want to add to the world population, though. We have made the decision not to bring any more people into this earth.” Both are very concerned about over-population. The most recent book they read aloud to one another was “The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates”, by Frans De Waal.  “And we talk about food and wine a lot,” she says. “This year, we made wine together for the first time. It’s a big learning curve. We’re just making it in some glass carboys; a white and a red. We traded some lobster for some Syrah grapes from a local winemaker, and did the same for a little bit of Muscat from a little old Italian lady from around here.” Steve adds that, growing up, his dad and his friends made wine and his grandpa always had a jug of wine by the table. “Wine was always around. It’s pretty important to us.”

Steve with his catch

Stephanie fell in love with wine by way of Black Pearls, of all things. “I worked in French Polynesia for some time, and I fell in love with Black Pearls there. I’m not a jewelry person at all, but I do love Black Pearls. And, Black Pearls and wine share a lot of similarities. There are all of these gradations of quality; of shape, color. You become more discerning when you can appreciate something like Black Pearls or a nice, complex wine.”

 

More food continues to arrive at the table. Wine is poured. Plates are passed back and forth. As they continue to laugh and catch up, I excuse myself and let them enjoy the rest of the evening by themselves. It’s dark out, and as I’m getting in my car, I look through the restaurant’s large glass windows, and watch them both settle back in their chairs, smiling. Finally, they are having that rare night off.


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--R.H. Drexel