North County Times: Local Chefs Bracing for Foie Gras Ban

Local Chefs Bracing for Foie Gras Ban
By Pam Kragen

June 14 2012 | North County Times
VIEW THE FULL ARTICLE

Fine dining chefs around the county are bidding a fond farewell this month to foie gras. The pricey delicacy will become illegal in California on July 1.

Signed into law in 2004 (with an eight-year sunset clause), the ban forbids the sale of foie gras, which is French for “fat liver.” Foie gras is created by force-feeding geese and ducks, which animal rights activists decry as cruel and inhumane. Foie fans counter that in the wild, birds naturally gorge themselves to fatten up for the rigors of migration season.

Because of its high cost, very few restaurants in San Diego sell foie gras, and all of the local chefs interviewed for this story said they are prepared to abide by the ban.

Because of the controversy associated with the product, some of the county’s best-known chefs declined to be interviewed for this article. Others have mixed feelings on the process of “gavage,” a technique developed in ancient Egypt of repeatedly placing a tube down a bird’s throat to force-feed it a diet of corn (which swells the liver up to 10 times its normal size).

Nicolas Bour, executive chef of outlets for the Rancho Bernardo Inn and the son of a Frenchman whose family’s farming roots date back four centuries, said he thinks the public misunderstands the process for fattening the birds.

“They think the animals are terribly mistreated,” Bour said. “People do not mind eating chicken, even though many times they are raised even more poorly.”

William Bradley, executive chef for Addison at the Grand Del Mar resort, said he understands the reasons for the ban because he’s a proponent of humane animal treatment, but “as a chef, I feel disappointed that I’ll no longer be able to cook something that our guests enjoyed and I liked eating myself.”

A similar ban was passed in Chicago in 2006, and that city’s chefs were successful in getting it overturned two years later. This past April, more than 100 California chefs —- including Thomas Keller (The French Laundry, Bouchon) —- signed a petition protesting the ban and asking the state Assembly for its repeal.

The original law was carried through the legislature in 2004 by then-State Sen. John Burton (now chairman of the state’s Democratic Party), who told the San Francisco Chronicle in April that the last-minute petition effort is a waste of time.

“They’ve had all this time to figure it out and come up with a more humane way,” Burton said. “I’d like to sit all 100 of them down and have duck and goose fat —- better yet, dry oatmeal —- shoved down their throats over and over and over again.”

Only a handful of San Diego chefs put their name on the petition. One of them is Paul McCabe, executive chef of Delicias in Rancho Santa Fe. One of his signature dishes is a scored slice of foie gras seared on a hot stone — a customer favorite so popular that he has been serving it in different variations since 2004.

“I’ve signed every petition I could find,” McCabe said. “I want to stand up for what I believe in and I think if we stick together we can overturn the ban, but there’s only about six of us in San Diego who are willing to speak out about this. I think it’s possible, but it’s going to be hard.”

Another petition-signer is Matt Gordon, executive chef for Solace & the Moonlight Lounge in Encinitas and Urban Solace in North Park. Gordon’s restaurants have been picketed by foie foes, but he’s been resolute in his opposition to the ban, even traveling to Sacramento to lobby against it. (Reached in France where he’s traveling on business, Gordon didn’t have time for an interview).

Cooking without foie gras is possible, of course, but the local chefs said there’s nothing else like it.

“It’s an irreplaceable ingredient,” said Jason Maitland, executive chef for newly opened Red Light District in the Gaslamp Quarter. “It is such a unique flavor and it takes a good amount of finesse and skill to properly prepare.”

The French-trained Bradley said he likes the ingredient for its “unique mix of sweet and savory qualities.”

And McCabe likes the versatility of foie gras. “You can do anything with it —- make bubbles to a classic torchon to a great custard. It’s sweet, unctuous and delicate. It makes everything else taste better.”

McCabe adds that the loss of foie gras is more than just culinary. The gourmet ingredient also serves as a positioning statement for fine dining restaurants. “It elevates the level of what we’re doing that truffles and caviar can’t replace.”

Chef Mario Cassineri of BICE Ristorante in San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter, said he feels it’s a big loss for diners, but he and his customers will carry on well enough.

“A dish won’t be ‘bad’ without foie gras, so this isn’t the end of the world,” Cassineri said. “Also, I don’t like to think about what I can’t cook with, but all that I can. We have too many options, as far as ingredients go, to play with as chefs.”

In two weeks, foie gras will disappear from restaurant menus and specialty shops, and mail-order companies will be barred from shipping foie to California addresses. Violators will be hit with a $1,000-per-day fine. But websites are already popping up offering ways for ardent fans to get around the ban (one specialty foods vendor vows to set up a foie gras outlet just across the border in Reno, Nev.).

“The reality of the situation is that people will still be able to get it and eat it,” Maitland said. “Those who wish to not eat it need not order it.”

McCabe said he’s been asked by some of his Rancho Santa Fe customers if he will prepare foie gras if they find a way to buy it and bring it in.

To say farewell to foie in fashion, Maitland said he’s developing an elaborate six-course dinner —- with each course containing foie gras, including dessert —- that will be served at Red Light District during the last week of June. Bour said he’s doing some special order torchons for VIP guests, by request. And Cassineri said he held a “Farewell to Foie” dinner on Feb. 29 (with a French vs. Italian dueling chefs theme) that sold out.

But McCabe said he isn’t planning any grand goodbye for the treasured ingredient.

“I was thinking of doing a chef’s dinner, but I just can’t. I don’t feel like going out with a bang. I’m more sad than anything because I feel like I’m losing a lifelong friend. I think I’ll just quietly let it drift off and keep supporting whatever I can do to get it overturned some day.”