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Foie Gras Frenzy Hits California: A New Era of Prohibition

Amanda Martinez |
June 28, 2012 | 1:48 p.m. PDT

Staff Writer

Protestors from both sides of he argument stake out in front of Melisse. (@josiahcitrin/Twitter)
Protestors from both sides of he argument stake out in front of Melisse. (@josiahcitrin/Twitter)
Chef Josiah Citrin hovers over a counter in his kitchen, instructing a young cook how to properly slice the foie gras sitting before him — two clean cuts to trim the ends — before sending it over to the vacuum sealer.

Around the kitchen of Mélisse in Santa Monica, foie gras is sprinkled across different stations, prepped to fill ravioli or star in a sweet-but-salty luxury dessert.

But this Saturday, any trace of foie gras will disappear from Citrin’s kitchen.  His restaurant is not unique: the ingredient will vanish from menus and tables throughout California when a ban on serving foie gras takes effect July 1.

As the ban nears, chefs across the state are celebrating foie gras with pop-up parties and menus honoring the controversial food.  The traditional French delicacy has seen a resurgence in popularity as it receives increased attention from chefs and the media.

Last month, more than 100 California chefs who’ve formed the group Coalition for Humane and Ethical Farming Standards (CHEFS), staged a six-course prix fixe dinner to garner support against the ban. Four Los Angeles-area restaurants simultaneously hosted the dinners, where the coalition of chefs banded together to cook with the controversial ingredient.

In January, Citrin introduced a “Foie For All” menu at his French restaurant, featuring over seven foie gras-based dishes, including a truffle foie gras agnolatti with chicken oysters and a foie gras flan with blood orange geleé.

“I kind of wanted to make a statement,” said Citrin.

Such statements do not sit well with animal-rights activists who fought for the ban.

“There are a handful of chefs and restaurants that are throwing kind of temper tantrums about the upcoming ban and go out with a bang serving as much of the cruel, diseased organs as they possibly can,” said Ryan Hueling, the manager of college campaigns for PETA.

Foie gras, the fatty liver of a duck or goose, has come under fire from animal rights groups who believe the process of force-feeding birds is inhumane.  PETA said some farms have been found to pump up to four pounds of food down a bird’s throat with the intention of fattening up the liver for harvest.

The new law, approved in 2004 by former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, bans the product from being sold in the state if it comes from a force-fed bird.  A similar ban passed in Chicago in 2006, before being overturned in 2008 at the request of Mayor Richard Daley.

Hueling said PETA is not concerned that the ban could be overturned in California.  He called the industry “inherently cruel” and said it was banned for good reason.

“There’s nothing natural about the way these animals are being force fed,” said Hueling.

Despite the controversy, chefs like Citrin defend their right to use the ingredient.  Citrin has used foie gras for almost his entire career, upon his introduction to the delicacy while working in France.  

“I’m not really happy that choices are being made about what we can serve and can’t serve.  I don’t think that’s right,” said Citrin.

His restaurant, a French fine dining establishment, serves foie gras and products that come from force-fed ducks, like the fat and legs.  In the past Citrin has received letters of complaint but continues to serve it because of its popularity among his customers. Earlier this month, protestors and media, alike, flocked to his restaurant as he hosted a pro-foie gras dinner benefiting CHEFS.

Jung Kim, a foie gras enthusiast, said his initial response to the ban was to question not whether it was ethical, but rather whether it was necessary.

“(The ban is) people sticking their noses in other people’s business. If you don’t like it, just don’t do it,” said Kim.

Connie Wong, who recently learned of the ban, said she was surprised to learn the state was outlawing the food she describes as “fat and juicy and good.” 

As an occasional consumer, Wong said she feels compelled to eat the delicacy more often as the ban approaches.  With a July deadline, Wong has her eye on Umamicatessen’s foie gras donut, offered in Downtown Los Angeles.

Restaurant owners are quick to take advantage of patrons whose interest has peaked in wake of the ban.  Ryan Maxey, owner and general manager of Txoko in San Francisco, said he’s seen an increase in first-time consumers and regulars who are taking advantage of the dish while they still can.  Maxey couldn’t estimate how many dishes a night Txoko sells but said that the ordering of it has grown considerably in the past month.

“People are coming in here saying, ‘I’ve never had it before and I’m not going to be able to get it so I might as well give it a try,’” said Maxey.

Maxey’s restaurant feeds the demands of the foie gras frenzy by offering a foie gras prefix every Wednesday night.  Neighboring restaurants feature similar events, hosting foie gras dinner parties once a month.  He said events like this will only increase as the ban moves closer.

Although some chefs say they will discontinue using foie gras once the ban takes effect, there’s talk of underground dinner parties, so-called “duckeasies,” popping up across the state in the post-foie gras world.

“We’ve definitely heard talks about it,” said Maxey, who believes the biggest issue wouldn’t be getting caught and coughing up the $1,000 per infraction fine, but about the supply. He said a black market in foie gras would likely spring up.

“How do you get your hands on it?” said Maxey.  “There will be someone who wants to make money by getting restaurants product.  You’ll have to pay a lot for it but it’ll be available.”

Many chefs who cook with the ingredient daily, like Dan Davidson of Table 24 in Orinda, don’t believe there’s an alternative to the luxury item.

“It’s an ingredient that really takes on flavors well and compliments other flavors,” he said.  “It’s a very unique taste…it’s a product that there’s no substitute for.” 

 But while Davidson and others raise practical questions about banning the controversial food, many chefs also decry interfering with a tradition of French cuisine.

“It’s a question of affecting culture and the fact that its lineage has been around for hundreds of years,” said Maxey.

Reach Staff Writer Amanda Martinez here



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