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The holidays are a time for food traditions to be celebrated. You know tradition when you taste it, although you might not put it in those particular terms. And soup might not be your first thought for the holidays either, but let’s consider it. Few things are more comforting, and yet often soup is plain, needs a great deal of salt, and is just an excuse to carry large hunks of buttered bread or grilled cheese to your mouth. But a really well-done soup should stand alone, and the start of that is the stock. So how do tradition, the holidays, and soup come together here? One of Kanaloa’s holiday traditions is bouillabaisse, a French soup from Provence that takes seafood as the star. Martín Chavez, who is himself a tradition at Kanaloa, having worked there for thirty-five years, is famed for his bouillabaisse stock, which starts with a fish stock rich with celery, onion, thyme, and fish bones. Then it is strained, and sautéed onions, fennel, and tomato are added, along with a special spice blend that is, for lack of a better phrase, the secret ingredient.

Owner Randee Disraeli brings out the mysterious spice mix for me to inspect, a brilliant gold bouquet of saffron and many other flavors that I can’t quite guess. But Randee isn’t going to give the ingredients away. This spice mix is near to her heart and has been part of Kanaloa’s cooking since its inception. Chef Odile Mathieu was one of Kanaloa’s original customers, and befriended Randee and her husband. “About ten years about after we started,” Randee says, “Odile went with us to Europe and we drove the whole coast of France with her, taste-testing seafood. We’d sit down on a park bench, and she’d make vinaigrette right there on her cutting board and we’d have a picnic.” She was the kind of friend who would leave paper cutouts of footprints on the floor for the children to follow, with a giant bowl of chocolate mousse waiting for them at the end of the trail. As part of this culinary friendship, Odile shared the spice mix for the bouillabaisse, and Randee has had it specially blended for Kanaloa since then.

So, you may wonder, what is the big deal about this soup that people order quarts and quarts of bouillabaisse from Kanaloa? Well, the soup is rich, well-balanced, and immensely comforting. I can and do eat it all by itself. But there is something missing here. What could it be? The fish! Luckily, Kanaloa is a fish market as well as a restaurant. Randee says that many families make this their holiday tradition. “They take the bouillabaisse  home and customize it with whatever they want. Shrimp, octopus, mussels, swordfish…” So if you are wanting to make an amazing entrée, order a few quarters of bouillabaisse to pick up from Kanaloa, along with your favorite seafood, and you will be well under way for an amazing meal.

Of course, you can also chose to have your family celebration at Kanaloa. As Randee says, “If people have special events with their families here, they ask us to prepare the bouillabaisse specially in the restaurant, with their choice of ingredients.”

However you decide to have the Kanaloa bouillabaisse, just know that with each spoonful, you are sharing in a Kanaloa tradition that may just become your family’s tradition.

Angela Borda is a Santa Barbara food writer who is delighted to be blogging about one of her favorite restaurants, Kanaloa Seafood.