Producers: Christina Wise, Jackson Myers, Jason Wise and Eric Esrailian   Director: Jason Wise   Screenplay: Jason Wise and Christina Wise   Cast: Stephanie Mutz, Harry Liquornik, Jim Marshall, Jim Robinson, Ward Motyer, Billy Eggers, Andrew Zimmern, Tim Korner, Ray Isle, Haiwen Lu, Tom Ford, Lilian Carswell, Andrew Kim, Yoon Ha, Justin Cogley, Kyle Connaughton, Aaron Koseba, Spencer Bezaire, Nick Ervin, Jeff Olsson and Ria Barbosa   Distributor: SOMM TV

Grade: B-

Foodies will be especially interested in this documentary from SOMM-TV about the California divers whose efforts satisfy a craving for abalone and sea urchins, but even those whose menus tend toward more ordinary fare can find a good deal to educate and intrigue in  Jason Wise’s “The Delicacy.”

The film is primarily concerned with the current mania for sea urchins among high-end diners, and begins with footage of celebrated chefs and food critics discussing its preparation and popularity.  But after backtracking to Pompeii and the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. to document super-wealthy Roman aristocrats’ taste for urchins, it quickly moves to the California coast Santa Barbara and the craze for the abalone snails that hearty divers donned wetsuits to meet.  Many veteran divers are interviewed, describing how they got into the business and profited from it while enjoying an independent, freewheeling lifestyle.

The harvesting of abalone from the ocean floor grew so intense, however, that they became scare, and California placed limits on fishing them.  They led to their turning their attention to the sea urchins, which exist in abundance in the same area.  Though—as one segment near the close of the film they must compete with the sea otters that also consider the urchins a desirable delicacy—they business has proven lucrative while allowing them to continue living as they wish.  And the market for their catch has escalated astronomically. 

Though all the divers interviewed are a colorful group, a few might be singled out.  One is Stephanie Mutz, the first and only woman to join them.  She’s partnered with veteran Harry Liquornik, and they’re shown working well together and making changes by selling directly to individual restaurants rather than large-scale distributors. 

The other is Jim “Weiner” Robinson, shown in archival footage, a legendary diver who was attacked and killed by a great white shark off San Miguel Island in 1994.  The documentary is punctuated with clips of him, with a scraggly mustached, drawling out his jaunty answers to questions; and there’s a long sequence using reminiscences and news footage to describe his death the horrifying circumstances of his death and the elaborate burial of his ashes at sea that followed.  It emphasizes that while the diving business is thriving and profitable, it is not without its dangers—both major, like a shark attack, and minor (like pricking your fingers on a sea urchin’s protruding spikes). 

“The Delicacy” boasts excellent cinematography by Jackson Myers (with especially impressive underwater photography by director Wise and Tim O’Conner).  The editing by Myers and Wise is not ideal: the turns from ocean footage to interview commentary are not always well managed, and toward the close one feels the joints as there are signs of strain as Myers and Wise try to tie individual segments together.  But the music score by Trevor Morris and Trey Toy helps smooth out any rough spots.

Despite a few stumbles, “The Delicacy” is a tasty documentary that will engage not just devotees of the Food Channel but anyone who enjoys a night out at a fine restaurant (when they reopen, that is).