Alley & Vine’s Jason Ryczek (center) hops into the sturgeon tank to suck out some roe. Courtesy: Jason Ryczek

Alley & Vine
1332 Park St., Suite D (near Alameda Avenue), Alameda

Jason Ryczek, the chef and co-owner of Alley & Vine, has a very specific description for the taste of the Alameda restaurant’s white sturgeon caviar.

“The taste starts out earthy, not dirty, but like repotting a plant or fresh garden soil after it rains,” Ryczek said. “The next stage is clarified, almost browned butter. Lastly, it finishes not fishy, but oceanic, like standing on the end of a jetty and getting a face full of ocean mist.” 

He wants the taste of the caviar to reflect the life of the sturgeon, a life that Ryczek is intimately familiar with. Once or twice a year, Ryczek and his chef team heads up to Elk Grove to harvest their caviar from white sturgeon at California Caviar Company’s farm, CQ Ranch.

Once at the farm, Ryczek gets into tanks with the 5 to 8 foot long fish and leads them into a net before turning them over to expose their underside. One person holds the sturgeon upside down while another uses a sharp knife to make an incision in its belly. The roe is then sucked out with a plastic straw, blown onto the back of a hand, and assessed for color, size, texture, and taste. 

After that, the fish is brought to a harvesting facility where the roe is extracted, with one fish yielding between 8 to 16 pounds of roe, depending on the size of the fish. While the roe is the focus of this process, Ryczek doesn’t let the rest of the fish go to waste: He uses other parts of the sturgeon in dishes at his restaurant, including using the skin in a chicharron-style dish and serving the sturgeon meat as his main fish entrée.

A selection of Alley & Vine’s caviar bites. Credit: Melati Citrawireja

Curing the roe is how Ryczek develops the “oceanic” taste he describes so fondly. After it’s harvested, the roe is kept cold as it’s quickly taken to a curing facility. There, they clean, salt and tin the roe, after which it is aged. 

If that sounds vague, it’s supposed to, as Ryczek said he couldn’t go into every detail due to certain NDAs he’s agreed to on the caviar process.

“There’s all this mystery,” he said. “I always have to make sure I know what I can and cannot say about it.”

Ryczek learned the caviar process from Deborah Keane, California Caviar Company’s founder and CEO. When the Alley & Vine team gets too busy to step away from the kitchen, Keane will do the harvesting process in Ryczek’s place, and to his specifications, he says.

California Caviar Company prides themselves in their “sustainability, traceability, and transparency,” according to their website, and says it’s “completely sustainable” in nature and operation. One example they give is their “infinity loop model,” which takes water from natural aquifers to supply their tanks and ponds. Once used at the farm, this water is used to irrigate the surrounding farms’ fields before returning to the aquifers. 

Then there’s the fish, themselves. In Alley & Vine’s case, their roe is harvested from white sturgeon — a species native to Northern California — aged 6 to 15, but in the wild, one can find white sturgeon that are 60 years old, or even older. Many of the 27 current species of sturgeon are endangered due to overfishing and habitat degradation, but in California, white sturgeon are not state or federally listed as threatened.

However, they are categorized as a “state Species of Special Concern,” according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. That said, Phaedra Doukakis-Leslie, Fishery Policy Analyst at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said that California’s white sturgeon aquaculture industry has been successful and sustainable. The commercial aquaculture industry’s goals don’t always align with restoration goals but there are indirect benefits between the two. 

“The market [for caviar] is always there and providing a source that is traceable and in no way negatively impacts wild populations,” Doukakis-Leslie said. “I think that in and of itself is of benefit.”

Though caviar is often synonymous with high society and fancy dining, Ryczek says Alley & Vine is anything but rigid when it comes to the end product.

“There is no precise way to have it here,” Ryczek said. “When I bring out sets, I tell people look, there’s no right or wrong way to do this, you’re eating caviar, enjoy yourself.” 

That attitude of approachability is reflected in its price points. Sure, they do offer an ounce of their caviar for an impressive $95, but diners can also get a $13 taste of white sturgeon caviar, served on a buttermilk biscuit. 

Ryczek places caviar on some Alley & Vine dishes. Credit: Melati Citrawireja

Ryczek started working with caviar in 2018, as the executive chef of the glitzy (and now shuttered) Farallon in San Francisco. That’s where Ryczek started working with California Caviar Company, learning the ins and outs of the process from Keane. But when Alley & Vine opened in December 2020, caviar wasn’t even on the menu.

“We really weren’t going for anything super pricey,” co-owner Casey Hunt said. “Caviar was brought on because the guests that were coming to the restaurant were really looking for some more luxury items.”

Once caviar appeared on the menu, it took off, Hunt said. Now they’re selling close to three pounds a week, an amount that has surprised both Hunt and Ryczek. 

“Once you have good caviar and people know it, the amount that you go through, it still blows my mind,” Ryczek said. 

Doukakis-Leslie has been working on sturgeon-related research and policies for more than 20 years and said one thing that has always impressed her about sturgeon is their perseverance. Sturgeon date back more than 120 million years ago, according to NOAA

“There’s so many types of environmental changes that could impact them, yet they have this long evolutionary lineage and they’ve been around for so long,” Doukakis-Leslie said. 

Similarly, the market for caviar has stayed around as well. 

“It’s not a fad. It just keeps going,” Doukakis-Leslie said. “I think there are other things that we think about in food that just, they go away, but this doesn’t go away. So, you know, there’s value in that.”