VIU’s Culinary Arts students, Microbiology students, and three Urchins walk into Malaspina Theatre.
No, this isn’t the start of a bad joke.
It’s a look at the first-ever Urchin Tank event that took place on Wednesday evening, November 23 on VIU’s Nanaimo campus.
The Urchin Tank is the grand finale of the Seaweed Challenge, a semester-long collaboration between the Biology and Culinary Arts Departments where teams develop and test fermented seaweed products.
Dishes using each seaweed product were presented to judges, or “Urchins,” as part of the Urchin Tank finale.
Olivia Alexander is the Research and Community Project Coordinator for the Centre for Seafood Innovation (CSI) in Bowser, BC. The CSI works to connect students with the seafood industry to solve problems and create job opportunities.
Alexander noted that there is a growing demand for seaweed from consumers, but it poses questions for harvesters and farmers: “Once they take that seaweed out of the water, where does it go? What do they do with it?”
Microbiology professor Dr. Andrew Loudon and Culinary Arts instructor Chef Daniel Ross hoped to find answers.
In the Seaweed Challenge, their students learned from each other’s disciplines: food safety for Microbiology, experimental design for Culinary Arts. They also went on field trips to better understand fermentation and expand the possibilities for their products.
Alexander appreciated the collaboration. “It’s been amazing what they’ve come up with. It is remarkable how many creative ideas they have,” she said.
The appetizer to the Urchin Tank event started at 5:30 pm with each team showcasing their products in the lobby:
Team 1 – Seachi
A 2-in-1 marinade and seasoning inspired by kimchi, made with Japanese wireweed;
Team 2 – Jerkyweed Paste
A cooking paste, made with a high percentage of sargassum;
Team 3 – Sea-alsa
A seaweed salsa;
Team 4 – Pelagic Pickled
A pickled seaweed base that can be used as a vinaigrette or put in drinks, made with sargassum; and
Team 5 – Eye of Fire: Sargassum Hot Sauce
A (very) hot sauce made with Japanese sargassum, jalapenos, habaneros, pineapple, tomatillos, and a “variety of other secret ingredients.”
The Urchin Tank officially kicked off at 6:30 pm in the theatre. VIU Registrar Fred Jacklin served as emcee.
“Why seaweed?” he asked in his opening remarks. “Seaweed is dead sexy.”
Mark Smith (President and CEO of the Pacific Seaweed Industry Association), Debra Hellbach (Manager of the CSI), and Dr. Loudon then spoke about the seaweed industry and the potential for seaweed food products.
Dr. Loudon also said something that would be repeated throughout the night: “Everything you just ate is safe.”
Next, Jacklin introduced the Urchins:
Dafne “Kelper” Romero (North Pacific Kelp Wild Foods),
Majid Hajibeigy (Canadian Pacifico Seaweeds), and
Jordan White (Naas Foods Inc.)
The presentations followed. Each team explained the ingredients and process behind the product, as well as the target market. The Urchins graded them based on sensory appeal, innovation, and marketability.
After closing remarks from Jacklin, Lavina Gully (Canadian Food Innovation Network), and the Urchins themselves, the awards were announced:
People’s Choice went to Team 5 (Eye of Fire),
Most Sensory Appeal to Team 4 (Pelagic Pickled),
Most Marketable to Team 4, and
Most Innovative tied between Teams 2 (Jerkyweed Paste) and 4.
The coveted Urchin Cup went to Team 4 for their product’s overall excellence.
What now for these bright-eyed entrepreneurs? There are two possible directions: getting jobs with seaweed industry companies or continuing to work on their products. The CSI will be there to lend a helping hand.
“Giving students opportunities to network with industry has been one of our biggest hopes, that they’ll make those connections to move forward,” Alexander said.
She is impressed by what the teams were able to accomplish: “Professor [Loudon] and Chef [Ross] have been absolutely amazing, as well as the students. It has been a fantastic collaboration.”
Who knew seaweed and students would go so well together?