This Is (Sturgeon) Spinal Tap

By Lisa Elbert | Megan Swann


Lisa Elbert
Megan Swann

At its sexiest, it’s like unsheathing a sword. At its most mundane, it’s like squeezing the remnants from a tube of toothpaste. And at its most childish, it resembles a “water weasel,” so says Cadence Chef Joey Elenterio. “Remember, like those water balloons with the valve that you’d fill up and spray?” Elenterio is referring to the extraction of sturgeon spinal cord fluid from the fish’s notochord. The sturgeon “gelĂ©e” resembles jellyfish in texture and tastes fresh, clean, and bright—a bit like oyster liquor, the essence of the sea.

A devotee of Passmore Ranch (with a tattoo to prove it), Elenterio buys whole sturgeon for $11.54 per pound. (Sold separately, Passmore sells the notochord for $31.50 per pound.) Elenterio accumulates two notochords per week and uses the fluid immediately, although he says the shelf life is about four days in the walk-in and a few weeks longer in the freezer. Although he’s using it as a garnish now, the fluid also works to season and/or emulsify sauces, and other large fish, such as swordfish, yield a similar product. “I try to exploit every flavor and texture from one ingredient, to find a way to use every piece of the fish,” says Elenterio. From purveyor to plate, here’s the spinal breakdown.

  1. Elenterio receives one to two sturgeon twice a week from close friend and sustainable seafood rancher Michael Passmore of Passmore Ranch in Sloughhouse, California.
  2. Larger 10-pound fish are preferred for extracting the spinal fluid.
  3. After eviscerating and rinsing the sturgeon, Elenterio begins to break it down.
  4. He fillets the fish, removing the loins from the spine, leaving just the vertebrae. “It’s a very quick process,” says Elenterio. “You just break the fillet off of the spine, and break the spine in half from its center,” just like breaking a stick over your knee. 
  5. Then the notochord is removed from the spine—it’s like pulling a slippery sword from its sheath.
  6. Starting from one end, and slowly working the fluid out the other, Elenterio extracts the fluid from the notochord, with each yielding about 1 cup. He breaks it up and is left with little globules, the size of half a marble.
  7. A dish of Cured and Cold-smoked Sturgeon, Quail Egg, Kohlrabi, Arugula, Caviar, and Crisp Sourdough Starter is finished with ¼ ounce of the spinal fluid, to reinforce the distinct oceanic sturgeon flavor.
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