Chefs Ponder Life Without Foie Gras

In July, foie gras will be outlawed in California. And chefs care.

(Photo copyright Heather Irwin/BiteClubeatscom)

If you want to upset some of the area’s top chefs, bring up the subject of the California foie gras ban scheduled to take effect on July 1. Then stand back and watch the fireworks.

“It’s stupid. It’s just a misguided law,” said Chef Doug Keane, of Cyrus restaurant in Healdsburg.

Others use words like “crazy”, “unfair”, “ridiculous,” and a host of less savory terms when it comes to a food many toques consider sacred.
Keane is among a handful of chefs who have toured and watched foie gras production before deciding whether or not to keep it on the menu. Few politicians, he contends, have done the same. He is also among a number of chefs who have been picketed and assaulted by protesters for serving the controversial meat, and continues to keep it on his menu.

“This is a tradition that is thousands of years old. To deny this right of passage for any chef, who spends their life in the most fruitless of industries, just isn’t going to work,” said Chef Doug Richey, currently in the planning stages for a new restaurant and former chef of Santi. Across his knuckles the words FOIE GRAS are tattooed as a permanent and very public statement about a food product he passionately defends.

At the center of this polarizing gastro-feud among animal-rights advocates, politicians, chefs and luxury-food consumers is a specific bit of offal. Prized for centuries by the French, foie gras is the fatted liver of a duck. The birds in nature gorge themselves in the fall as they prepare for long migrations, storing fuel internally for the energy they’ll need. The unctuous fat content and indescribably rich, creamy flavor makes it highly sought-after and revered by chefs.

Catherine Bartolomei, Farmhouse Inn: “I get why people have a problem with it, but I suspect they’re not talking about the kind of foie we’re using here. It’s always on our menu and people love it. It’s just the style of restaurant we are. People seem a lot more concerned about the rabbit we serve than the foie gras. If and when the time comes, we’ll stop. But until then, we’re keeping it on our menu.”

Douglas Keane, Cyrus: “It’s hard to say what will happen. We don’t know who’ll enforce it. Hopefully someone will challenge it legally. We’ll probably serve it for a while, maybe get some fines. But I’m not sure if I need another legal battle.”

Jesse Mallgren, Madrona Manor: “I almost never order foie gras, but I figure when it’s banned I’ll have to take trips out of state to buy it for myself. It will come off the menu, but I have a couple ideas around it. I’m praying that the bill gets repealed, but that doesn’t look like it will happen. We’ll just kind of see what the backlash and fines are. But I may serve it to some of our guests off-menu.”

Doug Richey, former chef at Santi: “When the foie gras police come kick down the door with a warrant, I stop serving it. But I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around any law-enforcement agency spending any money to fine a restaurant for serving foie gras.”

Josh Silvers, Petite Syrah: “Pork belly is the new foie gras? Nothing will ever replace foie, but it’s pretty good. The bill is very poorly written, and if you took it literally it would include turkeys, because they definitely don’t look like that in the wild. I might go to Nevada to get some. I’m not sure yet.”

Dustin Valette, Dry Creek Kitchen: “Foie gras is not consistently on the Dry Creek menu currently, but does sometimes run as a special.” Valette plans to take it off the menu if SB1520 goes into effect on July 1.

Mark Stark, Stark’s Steakhouse: “This is a stepping stone. And if everyone realized that, there would be a lot more people up in arms. Why are people making these choices for us? I think people have a right to chose for themselves. I’ll take it off the menu, because leaving it on is just a street fight and longterm that isn’t the way to go.”

Taking advantage of the duck’s natural proclivity to overeat, production facilities use a controversial method of force-feeding the French called gavage. Advocates say the ducks, which lack a gag reflex, don’t mind the feedings and, in fact, come running for the extra food. Detractors point to documented injuries to foie gras ducks who have suffer ruptured organs and misery as a result of poorly performed gavage. As a result, California enacted Senate Bill 1520 in 2004, completely banning the production and sale of foie gras throughout the state beginning on July 1, 2012. The city of Chicago enacted a ban on foie gras in in 2006, but overwhelmingly overturned it two years later.

With eight years between Gov. Arnold Scharzenegger’s signing and actual enforcement, the threatened ban has been mostly static for foie gras lovers, who have continued to indulge at dozens of Bay Area restaurants that serve it without reservation. But with the deadline looming, chefs are beginning to think about what a future without legal foie gras will look like.

“I think its a shame, because the majority of people who voted for the law have never tried (foie gras) or don’t know what it is,” said Josh Silvers of Petite Syrah restaurant. “They saw a bunch of posters and pictures that, frankly, are ugly but not representative of how purveyors like Sonoma Artisan Foie Gras do things. Those ducks live a really nice life, and they have one really bad day and that’s it.”
His menu has long featured the delicacy, but come July he likely will pull it.

“In my dreams I won’t have to worry about it, but I know there won’t be a seller in California for restaurants. And there’s going to be a $1,000 fine for selling it,” he said.

Exactly who or how the law will be enforced is another question. According to the bill, a “peace officer, officer of a humane society, officer of an animal control or animal regulation department may issue a citation” and the county district attorney or city attorney may prosecute.
Already chefs and enthusiastic foie gras lovers are talking about ways around the law. In Chicago, chefs served $8 glasses of bubbly for $22 and gave a “complimentary” serving of foie gras to patrons. Underground foie gras dinners are likely to pop up, serving foie secreted across borders. In fact, some see the whole prohibition as a boon.

“Demand and production went up in Chicago during their prohibition,” said Richey. “I’m already thinking of speakeasy style communication and off-menu items. People are gonna get really creative.”

Statewide, a number of chefs are planning multi-course foie gras dinners as the end date approaches. In San Francisco, celebrity chef Chris Cosentino, well-known for his nose-to-tail philosophy, organized a meeting of chefs to discuss the ban in October. He plans to continue the fight against the ban with dinners and fundraisers. A petition to keep foie gras legal has been created by the Artisan Farmers Alliance.

Others have a more resigned public stance. “Foie gras has been a mainstay of classical cuisine for centuries and is one of the most popular menu items at our restaurants,” said Dustin Valette, executive chef at Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg. “Although earlier methods may have been primitive, there have been mindful modifications in the way foie gras is produced and we have always been conscious of sourcing from these humane vendors.

“With that said, rules are rules and when SB1520, forbidding the production and sale of foie gras in California, takes effect in July we will abide.”

The big question for many locals, however, is whether Sonoma-Artisan, which produces foie gras in Sonoma County, will remain in Sonoma County. Though the owner did not return calls, an employee of the business said that they are still investigating the possibility of legal solutions for continuing their business from California. Precluding that, however, they will relocate.

Not all chefs are foie gras supporters. Chicago Chef Charlie Trotter banned it from his kitchens in 2005 and L.A.’s Wolfgang Puck eliminated it from his menus in 2007. The expensive, luxury nature of foie gras, along with its sky-high fat and caloric content, aren’t helping its cause in a nation suffering from economic doldrums and epidemic levels of obesity. Animal-rights activists see all the posturing as futile.

“This is a rather embarrassing temper tantrum on the part of these chefs; the bill will take effect whether they like it or not,” said Lindsay Rajt, an associate director with the group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, in a recent interview.


Read SB1520

Chris Cosentino’s “Shock and Foie”
Serious Eats: Why Foie is not Unethical
Dan Barber on a “humane” foie gras production in Spain


Chef’s Directory: Video of duck production at Fortnum and Mason, a foie gras producer

Humane Society page on force-fed animals
PETA’s “delicacy of Despair”
Farm Sanctuary: No Foie Gras