PHOTOGRAPHY BY PATRICK TREGENZA
Chefs are swooning over the savory seaweeds cultivated in Moss Landing
As The Beach Boys so aptly put it, “Catch a wave, and you’re sittin’ on top of the world.” For Dr. Michael Graham, surfing the edge of an unexpected explosion in the sea vegetable business has put his company front and center with high-end restaurants throughout the country.
Graham, a seaweed biologist and professor at California State University’s Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, founded Monterey Bay Seaweeds five years ago, when he had a mere handful of land-based saltwater tanks growing West Coast dulse. Now, his bayfront patio in Moss Landing is filled with round white containers in which several types of sea vegetables are farmed, and new and intriguing projects are bubbling up on a regular basis. The business has been expanding 20–30% each year, he says.
“This is meant to be a think tank for aquaculture,” notes Graham, who has MLML’s blessing to use this facility for his side business. He strolls to one tank and pulls out a small strand of California sea grapes, one of the products that high-end chefs are clamoring for. The small liquid-filled sea grapes deliver a burst of flavor when chewed, making them not just an attractive garnish, but also a pop of unique taste atop an appetizer or salad. Unlike sea grapes imported from Asia, they aren’t green but instead have a lovely rosy hue.
“It’s very mild,” he says of their taste. “There’s a pop of salt, then of sugar.” But the grapes grow “as slow as redwood trees,” he says, making them his most expensive commercial product to date, at $60 a pound.
But as an edible garnish, sea grapes are wowing foodies across the country. One of the seaweed company’s regular clients is the Michelin three-star restaurant Eleven Madison Park in Manhattan, where chef Daniel Humm tops a seasonal tomato and bonito dish with them.
The rest of Monterey Bay Seaweeds’ client list is similarly stellar. Wolfgang Puck in Beverly Hills, Indigenous in Sarasota, Alinea in Chicago, and A16 in San Francisco are among those serving its products, as well as local favorites, Aubergine in Carmel, Cindy’s Waterfront at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Sierra Mar at Big Sur’s Post Ranch Inn, Home in Soquel and more.
“It has been great to have a consistent source for sustainable, locally harvested seaweed,” says Aubergine executive chef Justin Cogley. “We have a lot of international guests and it is great to show them what our terroir tastes like. Plus we love it when Mike will bring us something interesting to try out.”
Monterey Bay Seaweeds has come a long way since 2012, when Graham and wife Erica, a chef and restaurateur, started their company with their eldest son Josh. Also involved from the beginning was Ross Clark, a leader in climate action and sustainability who works at MLML as well. Their aim from the beginning was to practice sustainable and responsible farming techniques while searching for new markets for their products.
Not too much later, fresh, raw seaweed— long a staple in Asian cooking—began to take on new recognition in the West as a desirable ingredient. Not only was it attractive to foodies, but also to those searching for a nomeat product that still had savoriness. “Vegan restaurants love our seafood,” says Graham. “It’s hard to get that umami from a plantbased food.” The taste, paired with seaweeds’ complement of protein, fiber, B vitamins and natural iodine, makes them irresistible.
In 2015, Bon Appetit broke the news of dulse, a delicate red seaweed that tastes like bacon when fried, which happened to be a product that Graham was just then starting to deliver fresh to local CSF, Real Good Fish.
West Coast dulse continues to be a popular product, and is grown using nothing but pumped-in water from the bay and sunlight to make it grow in carefully monitored tanks.
And grow it does—in fact, Graham says it will double in size in a week. But now the company farms ogo and sea lettuce as well, and uses of those have exploded in the food world. Although people might think of poke, sushi or seaweed salad when they think of eating seaweed, that’s really just the beginning. Chefs are finding a variety of creative ways to use sea vegetables, from drinks to desserts to appetizers and entrées.
Graham and his team, made up of family members and grad students, harvest the fresh seaweed, pack it in sterilized seawater and deliver it by hand locally or ship it overnight to other locations. “Our chefs are loyal to us,” says Graham, who loves seeing restaurant photos of dishes using his seaweeds on Instagram.
While this enterprise is a side job for Graham, a well-known algae and seaweed expert whose research has focused on seaweeds in natural ecosystems and their utility in aquaculture, he’s also been able to form partnerships with others who benefit from what he’s doing, like Monterey Abalone Co., which raises its babies at the seaweed facility. Also being contemplated is a project where purple sea urchins would be fattened on seaweed to produce roe, also called uni, an ingredient for sushi and other cuisines.
And that’s just the beginning of possibilities for sustainable seaweed farming, which can also be used for nonedible applications that range from creating biofuel to absorbing carbon and slowing acidification in ocean waters.
Seaweed can save the world, Graham says: “We’re recognizing the utility and its usefulness in a variety of projects.”
MONTEREY BAY SEAWEEDS
Kathryn McKenzie, who grew up in Santa Cruz and now lives on a Christmas
tree farm in north Monterey County, writes about sustainable living,
home design and health for numerous publications and websites.