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Diving For 'The Delicacy': The Dangerous Quest For One Of The Most Sought After Foods In The World

Jason Wise is a documentary filmmaker whose previous work includes three movies about sommeliers and the wine industry: Somm (2012), SOMM: Into the Bottle (2015) and SOMM 3 (2018).

His current release is The Delicacy about the strange popularity of exotic seafood offerings like abelone and sea urchins.

By definition, delicacies are foods that are rare, exotic and expensive. It’s a great subject for a documentary film.

Wise admits the influence of Anthony Bourdain’s popular shows taking his viewers around the world in search of culinary oddities.

He’s fascinated with food and the cultural ramifications of what we eat.

His movie Somm has been described as “the history, politics, pleasure and BS of wine.” The same might be said of his exploration of gourmet food here.

The Delicacy was six years in the making.

It is comprised of historic photographs and footage, interviews with fishermen, divers, restaurant owners and chefs as well as recovered news video from local TV stations in the Santa Barbara area where much of the story takes place.

It traces the obsession with exotic seafood all the way back to Pompeii, Italy and the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.

Wise points out that people are attracted to food that is unique, strange and rare.

We humans can choose what we eat and that sometimes involves adventurous choices such as a craving for the internal organs of a creature as spiky and strange as a sea urchin.

It’s a delicacy that can cost $1000 a plate.

The economics of the business is what drives divers to risk their lives in dangerous, shark-infested waters. The Delicacy shines a light on the tragedy that can ensue.

While eating raw oysters might be the entry point for many people, Wise says the experience of eating a sea urchin is “like seeing a city for the first time."

You have to try it with the right person in the right place – that’s what makes the difference.

"Here's the thing that is undeniable, whether you like it or not. There is nothing in the world that tastes like it," said Wise.

He says it's extremely strange, and complex and odd.

Food critic Andrew Zimmern compares the taste to that of a copper penny.

"The truth is it is this metallic salinity, cotton candy kind of fatty taste, but without the fat. It’s got this strange viscous—and there’s just nothing else like it. People will just wax poetic for 30 minutes about these different flavors in it because there is no flavor," said Wise.

"You can’t say it tastes like a mushroom...because there is nothing. It’s a thousand tastes that equal one indescribable thing.”

Wise says The Delicacy is not a social issue film.

He’s just trying to show you a world that you would not have seen otherwise.

When you think about it, this is what documentary films have done from the early days of Edison and the Lumiere Brothers—offering glimpses of the world that we might otherwise never experience.

Production-wise, The Delicacy is old school, having been shot on film versus high definition video or 4k.

Wise emphatically states the biggest hurdle in making the film was the financing. "If you find a documentary filmmaker who says that money wasn’t the biggest problem, they’re lying. Or they have a very rich uncle!”

Wise is an accomplished diver who shot all of the underwater footage in The Delicacy himself.

The movie is being debuted through the streaming service SOMM TV.

In Wise’s words, “COVID created the largest captive audience in history.”

His next project (being shot over five years in eight countries) is titled The Whole Animal.

"It’s about cultures all around the world using an entire animal for food." said Wise.

It’s a timely topic.

He adds that, “Poor people trying to figure out a way to live created some of the greatest cuisine that we have.”

We’ll be watching for the release of The Whole Animal.

In the meantime, Jason Wise’s current documentary The Delicacy opens on May 7th.

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