Today is the last day for Californians to get their fill of foie gras.
Or is it?
A legislated ban on the production and sale of the engorged livers of force-fed ducks and geese takes effect on Sunday, and many California chefs and consumers aren’t happy about it. They say government has no business telling people what they can or cannot eat.
If the intent of the foie gras ban was to cut way back on consumption, it appears the effort has failed to date. According to online retailer, Mirepoix USA, increased media attention, coupled with the psychological impact of prohibition has boosted the demand for the delicacy. Online consumers have been purchasing up to 10 pounds at a click, a spokesman for the e-tailer said.
Restaurants serving foie gras are busy, and consumers, only recently realizing they were about to be cut off, are wolfing down the delicacy any way it’s being prepared, according to restaurant officials.
While local chefs pledge to abide by the new law, they’re contributing to industry chatter about how the hospitality industry will be able to do an end run around SB 1520 — introduced by former Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, a San Francisco Democrat, in 2004 and signed into law by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Restaurateurs have indicated they won’t run afoul of the law if they give foie gras away — either as a sample or bonus to a dish — or if their chefs prepare foie gras for customers who buy it outside California.
The issue is only now topical because the legislation included a sunset clause, delaying implementation of the ban for 7 1/2 years that allowing producers substantial time to overcome objections to the practice of force feeding, or gavage, and time to implement changes in production methods.
Even though several veterinarians indicated production methods did not involve inhumane treatment of ducks and geese at the three domestic facilities producing foie gras, no one stepped up in Sacramento to carry legislation to further delay or overturn the ban.
Jennifer Fearing, senior state director for the Humane Society of the United States, calls the practice of force feeding “cruel, inhuman and unnecessary.” In a statement indicating her organization would “fight vigorously to maintain the ban,” Fearing pointed out that “no animal other than humans would eat themselves to the point of disease.”
The foie police
Once foie gras prohibition takes effect on Sunday, chefs who defy it are subject to a $1,000 citation. At present, no one is sure just who will enforce the ban.
Stacey Harrington, environmental management coordinator for Napa County, said a reading of SB 1520 shows enforcement of the foie gras is left up to peace officers and animal control officers around the state.
“I would be remiss if I said we were ready to handle it,” advised Napa County Sheriff’s Sgt. Craig Nickles, who oversees animal control issues in Napa County. “If it comes up, we’ll have to deal with it. But we have no game plan at this point.”
Napa Police Capt. Steve Potter said city patrolmen had been called of late to the scene of local protests over the serving of foie gras. He said officers “would respond to a citizen complaint and take appropriate action. We usually don’t get involved in the restaurant business, but it sounds like we’re going in that direction.”
“The chefs who say they intend to defy the ban aren’t very smart,” declared Lissa Doumani, who with husband/chef Hiro Sone, owns and operates Terra and Bar Terra in St. Helena and Ame Restaurant in San Francisco.
“(California Sen.) Lois Wolk said she will bring an amendment (to SB 1520) to the floor (of the Senate) if we can show there are changes in the feeding program. The gavage process doesn’t hurt the duck at all — animal protection organizations have said as much. She said she would meet with us in September ... we have hope.”
Christopher Kostow, executive chef of the Michelin three-star Restaurant at Meadowood, is adopting “a wait-and-see approach” to the issue. “I don’t believe it’s the job of our Legislature to enact such a law. I don’t know anybody who’s not a vegan who’s in favor of the ban. If people want to protest something, what about factory farms?
“Frankly, I don’t see the policing of it. But I don’t want to be seen as a restaurant flouting the law ... it’s better to change the law than circumvent it.”
Interested as well to “see how it all evolves” is Richard Reddington, executive chef/partner of Redd in Yountville. “We don’t intend to sell it after July 1,” Reddington said, but regular guests may find a lagniappe of foie gras on their plates on occasion.
“It’s insane how much (foie gras) we are selling,” he added. “On a regular day, we sell about a dozen (orders) ... lately that’s been as much as 50.”
A few chefs intend to prepare foie gras if their customers buy the fattened liver legally out of state and bring it to them to prepare. Mark Pastore, owner of the popular San Francisco restaurant, Incanto, indicated he might adopt a fee for service patterned after the fee levied on those who bring their own wine to a restaurant. Instead of corkage, Cosentino said he would tack a “foie-kage” fee onto the bill of those who bring their own duck or goose liver to the table.
“Any law like this is bound to be full of loopholes,” Pastore said in a statement. “There’s always going to be ways around something, which is part of the reason that passing laws like this is futile.”
Earlier attempts at banning foie gras have not stuck. Foie gras was outlawed in Chicago in 2006, but the ban was repealed in 2008 at the behest of then-Mayor Richard Daley. A bill in Maine that would have banned foie gras production was killed in 2009.
Emptying the larder
Diners at Bank, chef Ken Frank’s informal eatery in the lobby lounge at Napa’s Westin Verasa Hotel, have been calling to make sure they’ll get to eat one of the most popular dishes on the menu — the duck burger with seared foie gras.
“We’ve been taking reservations unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” Frank said on Thursday. He indicated that he’d “never sold more foie gras” at both of his restaurants, La Toque and Bank. But, he, too, said he’ll comply with the law come Sunday and “no longer sell foie gras ... unless a legal action invalidates the law.”
Frank also noted that the ban has put a few entrepreneurs into business. He said a new courier service, based in Nevada, has been set up to drive foie gras orders to customers in California, including restaurants where some chefs have indicated they’ll give foie gras away.
“(Sen.) Burton established California as the only place in the United States where people can eat foie gras for free.”
Doumani said that since the middle of June the menus at Bar Terra and Ame have offered diners a bowl of ramen noodles in miso broth with seared foie gras and two duck foie gras wontons for $24.80. “At Ame alone, we’ve served close to 1,000 portions — we can’t keep up. The dish is also doing well at Bar Terra and Terra. Now people are getting mad if we run out.”
In addition to the ramen and foie gras dish being offered at Bar Terra, a check with other restaurants around the valley showed that quite a few will be delivering a swan song to foie gras Saturday night. They include:
• La Toque and Bank — multiple preparations, including seared foie gras and a duck burger with seared foie gras.
• The French Laundry and Bouchon — where chef Thomas Keller said he intends to abide by the new law, multiple preparations.
• The Restaurant at Meadowood — cannoli with hibiscus-cured foie gras and foie gras mousse with radishes and hibiscus jam.
• JoLe — seared foie gras with white chocolate and almond crêpe and blueberry compote.
• Angèle — from the regular menu, Foie Gras en Bocal (foie gras mousse with stonefruit compote), plus seared foie gras as a special.
• Bistro Jeanty — Petit Sale (pork belly topped with foie gras torchon atop a bed of lentils) and Foie Blond (foie gras paté on croutons with port poached pear).
• Auberge du Soleil — Foie gras terrine, plus seared foie gras.
• Redd — Trio of Foie Gras (terrine, torchon and mousse) with local fruit and brioche, plus porcini and foie gras soup; on Sunday, there’ll be foie gras doughnuts at brunch.