The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Business

June 29, 2012

California’s foie gras lovers scrambling as ban nears

LOS ANGELES — This weekend, foie gras - fattened duck or goose liver - will vanish from California restaurants and gourmet groceries.

And that has sent Sean Jordan on a one-man “foie gras bender.”

The Hollywood television producer knows that the pricey delicacy obtained from force-fed birds has been condemned by animal rights activists. Concerns about cruelty are what drove legislators in Sacramento to make California the first state in the nation to ban sales and production of the product.

But Jordan just can’t help himself. With Sunday’s deadline fast approaching, the 39-year-old said he’s plotting a goose liver spree. Among his planned stops is a trip to Hatfield’s restaurant in Los Angeles for a $25 foie gras appetizer.

“The ban is sneaking up on me with no time to spare,” he said. “I’ve got to hit as much as I can.”

He’s not alone.

Restaurants and fans across the state are bidding au revoir with a passion. Eateries such as Petrossian in the city of West Hollywood, Calif., and Chaya Brasserie in Beverly Hills, Calif., have designed lavish, multi-course tasting menus featuring foie gras poached, seared and even served in parfait and ice cream desserts.

The Bazaar in West Los Angeles has foie gras on a stick, swathed in cotton candy, for $5 a pop.

Diners are organizing group events such as “foie gras crawls.”

In Santa Monica, Calif., restaurant Melisse is offering a seven-course, $185 Foie for All menu. Debuted just three months ago, the menu is now ordered by half of all customers, chef Ken Takayama said.

“I have never bought so much foie gras in my entire cooking career,” Takayama said. “It’s just insane.”

The French specialty, pronounced “fwah grah,” is often served as a complete organ or as a mousse or pate. More than two millennia ago, the ancient Greeks enjoyed the delicacy; it has since been served to French monarch Louis XVI, passengers on the Titanic and countless foodies.

Fans adore foie gras for its rich, buttery flavor. Chefs say it’s a central tenet of their cooking repertoire - comparable to caviar and truffles.

But animal welfare advocates have long decried the force feeding of geese and ducks that’s often used to produce it. Known as gavage, the process involves gorging a fowl with grain via a tube pushed down its throat.

Some experts believe the method doesn’t hurt the birds, which don’t have a gag reflex. Animal rights advocates say it’s inhumane, causing pain and wreaking havoc with the animals’ psychological state.

“Trends shift. People will buy something else,” said Ingrid Newkirk, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. “The world doesn’t turn economically on the sales of foie gras.”

Italy, Britain and Germany have banned foie gras. In the U.S., Chicago outlawed it for a couple of years before reversing its decision in 2008.

In California, a ban was signed into law in 2004 by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger; it forbids the in-state sale and production of products derived from force-fed birds.

Restaurateurs and Sonoma Foie Gras, the only producer in California, were given eight years - until July 1, 2012 - to adapt.

Starting next week, violators face a potential fine of as much as $1,000 a day.

That penalty is enough to persuade Chef Greg Daniels of Haven Gastropub & Brewery in Pasadena, Calif., to reluctantly abide by the law.

“Paying that much a day could sink us,” he said. “Trying to sell foie doesn’t seem worth it for me.”

Some chefs are scrambling for alternatives.

In downtown Los Angeles, the Lazy Ox Canteen will be serving a Forget Foie menu laden with the livers of pork, chicken, rabbit and other animals not included in Sunday’s ban.

In Pasadena, Chef Akira Hirose of Maison Akira is experimenting with monkfish liver. It’s “a little bit fishy” but about a third the price of standard foie gras.

“Sometimes I appreciate conditions like these because they make me more creative,” Hirose said.

Other restaurants are looking into offering Faux Gras, a vegan pate made from lentils, walnuts and onions.

But after decades spent trying to build up California’s reputation as a culinary destination, some restaurateurs worry that food hubs such as Napa, San Francisco and Los Angeles could lose tourism traffic to New York and Vegas.

The Coalition for Humane and Ethical Farming Standards, made up of more than 100 chefs opposed to the ban, has lawyers hunting for loopholes.

“These are the predictable effects of prohibition,” said Nathan Ballard, spokesman for the group.

Foie gras lovers have become more vocal as the deadline looms, creating what John Burton, the San Francisco Democrat who wrote the bill in 2004 while president pro tem of the state Senate - calls “a three-ring circus.”

“Were they sleeping for seven years?” said Burton, currently chairman of the California Democratic Party. “They really, in my opinion, ought to get over it.”

Restaurateurs are still holding on to hope for a repeal. But for now, foie gras’ exile is imminent.

And it’s “going to be a big deal economically,” said chef and French native Ludo Lefebvre.

At his occasional Southern California pop-up restaurants, foie gras was both his most expensive dish and top seller, he said.

Lefebvre recently hosted more than 300 guests at two foie gras dinners, which he said sold out in an hour. A foie gras event at his food truck brought three times as many patrons as usual.

Despite the prospect of a $1,000-per-day fine, a few of Lefebvre’s chef peers are rumored to be stashing away foie gras to quietly serve to favored customers, he said, and some have considered charging a fee to prepare foie gras brought in by patrons. Lefebvre won’t sell any of the product, but plans to “investigate” his options.

“Some chefs are going to have foie gras no matter what. But for me, the law is the law,” Lefebvre said. “C’est la vie.”

 

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