What It Takes to Get the World's Best Sea Urchins on the Menu
It sounds like the induction ritual for a ninja warrior; the trials and tribulations of a Jedi getting to grips with the Force. But all Beau Clugston really wanted was the best damn sea urchin on the planet.
Clugston, a 33-year-old Australian-born chef who has spent most of the last eight years living and working in Copenhagen, was on the phone with a fisherman named Gunnar from the Faroe Islands. The chef had called Gunnar a few days before and asked if they could talk about his fabled Faroese sea urchins. The reply on the other end of the line was swift: “First of all, I don’t talk about product until I know you.”
The second time Clugston called, Gunnar laid out a mission for the chef: “Beau, unless I meet you, we’re not having that conversation. So I guess you have to get on a plane to Torshavn and come meet me tomorrow.”
Strapped for cash, Clugston borrowed money from his Danish mother-in-law, bought a ticket, jumped on a plane the next day, and found himself face to face with Gunnar. “There was no way I could afford a hotel, so I invited myself to sleep on his sofa,” explains Clugston. “I thought that this is either going to go two ways: it'll either fuck this relationship up, or it's going to be the start of a beautiful one.”
So far, so beautiful. The famous Faroese sea urchins are now on the menu at Clugston’s recently opened restaurant Iluka in the heart of Copenhagen. Clugston, a noma veteran with a short spell as head chef in Paris behind him, opened Iluka thanks to a bank loan and six intense weeks of DIY. He hired his skeleton crew of two front-of-house managers and a sous chef two days before opening. The menu is focused on seafood, but Iluka isn’t building classic fruit de mer platters. There’s creamy potatoes topped with egg yolk sauce and shaved bottarga‚ cockles dressed in black currant leaf oil, vegetable crudités to dip in blue mussel emulsion, and fresh ricotta with oyster and mussel granita.
The idea behind Iluka, explains Clugston, is that there are no rules. Except one: buy the best damn raw ingredients that you can get your hands on.
That’s how he found himself passed out on a sofa in the kids’ playroom in a waterfront home in the Faroe Islands. He and Gunnar had toured the Faroese seas and ended their adventure at the fisherman’s home. They flambéed langoustines in akvavit on the grill and drank champagne. Clugston was gone by 6 AM to catch his morning flight, and didn’t have a chance to say goodbye. Six weeks later, the fisherman gave his blessing for the chef to import the urchins. Clugston says that the whole ritual—the family loan, the redeye to Torshavn and the impromptu bed on the kids’ sofa—was all worth it.
“Gunnar’s urchins have this incredible sweetness, almost like carrots, and they are alive, flown in fresh in the morning” explains Clugston. “They don't have that iodine flavor people are used to. I can ring up a fishmonger and get sea urchins, and people will like them, but they are not going to change your life. These ones have that ability. They have that moment.”
But how do urchins go from good to life-changing?
“Because the water is so consistent—around eight degrees—all year around,” says Clugston. “The urchins grow really slow so they have time to develop their flavor.”
For the uninitiated majority, sea urchins remain a strange beast. For Clugston, who grew up in the Australian beach town of Sawtell south of Brisbane, they were as easy to come by as skipping stones when he was out surfing as a kid. He says the Faroese urchins are superior to anything else he has tried, but part of the problem is also the way people handle this delicacy.
“People eat too many bad urchins. We’ve all tried the ones that taste like toilet cleaner. When the urchins are dead, then they get this iodine flavor, but the live ones don’t have that. They’re a completely different game.”
He grabs a sea urchin from the cooler. It was caught early this morning, explains Clugston, sent on a plane in Torshavn at 7 AM, went through customs in Denmark a couple of hours later, and is now waving its spines in slow motion on the kitchen worktop at Iluka. He takes a pair of sturdy kitchen scissors, “goes through the arsehole” at the top of the shell, and cuts around. He gently lifts the lid he’s created on the shell.
“That's it, “he says. “I don't do anything else. A lot of people scoop out the roe and wash it in a salt brine, but I think you should keep the urchins in their natural juices. Why the hell would you want to get rid of that?”
He serves a teaspoonful of urchin juice and it tastes like a glorious oyster shot. Clugston pours the water through a sieve, cleans out the brown intestines from the shell, and reintroduces the water back into the shell with the orange lobes of roe.
The raw urchin is served simply with a lump of fresh toasted sourdough, brushed with melted butter. The roe has a lush sweetness that hits you right after the cleansing wash of the sea. Life-changing? Perhaps. At least for Clugston, who had to suffer for his art.
“I cook them to order, because stress means death to the urchin,” he explains. “The more you touch it, the more stress you heap on it”.
The same goes for Faroese langoustines, which he dips in simmering water for a few seconds to loosen the shell before he picks their meat. The raw langoustine tails are glazed in an eight-year-old elderflower vinegar which Clugston made while working at noma, and it’s served with the langoustine liver on a small piece of gem lettuce.
Clugston recalls a conversation he had with Gunnar back in Torshavn.
“He said: If I were to give you seafood, what would you do with it? I said that honestly, with these sea urchins, I would just serve it with good bread.”
“Oh, so you wouldn't put creme fraiche on it,” replied the fisherman. “Ok, you’re in the right headspace to use these products.”
The kitchen Jedi had passed with flying colors.