By Meesha Halm
Foie gras is polarizing. Diners either love it or hate the very idea. Buttery, ultra-rich duck liver has been one of the most venerated ingredients in a chef’s arsenal for centuries. Whether floating in a soup at Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare or miso-cured at Acadia in Chicago, it’s considered the ultimate luxury.
Not so in California, where foie gras has been banned since 2012. Foie gras hasn’t exactly gone away in the Golden State; it’s just gone underground. The sale and production of it are forbidden but consumption of it is not, so restaurateurs circumvent the ban by sending it out as a “gift from the chef.” But some California chefs, including Ken Frank (La Toque), are willing to fight publicly for it. Last month, Frank and five top toques rallied to host “State of American Foie Gras,” a protest luncheon at his Napa Valley restaurant.
Fifty guests — chosen for their posts on La Toque’s Facebook wall addressing why the ban (SB 1520) was foolish — indulged in nefarious hedonism featuring duck liver delights. The luncheon started with mini duck dogs topped with foie gras foam, which was followed by a five-course meal showcasing the culinary contraband in myriad forms: in chilled parfaits topped with cherry-blossom gelee, in terrines accented by stone fruit, floating in duck-dashi consomme, and slow-roasted with black truffle-infused creamed corn. Luscious liver even had its close-up moment as dessert, draped over pain perdu with boysenberries and caramel cremeux.
“We’re hosting this event because SB 1520 is stupid, unfair, and as this luncheon suggests, unenforceable,” explained Frank. Cathy Kennedy, spokesperson for C.H.E.F.S., the Coalition of Humane and Ethical Farming Standards, voiced frustration that rather than be leading new standards for responsible production, “California’s been banished from the discussion.”
At issue is “gavage,” the force-feeding of ducks, resulting in enlarged livers that give foie gras its signature high fat content. “It sounds horrible,” concedes animal-rights advocate and Top Chef Masters winner Douglas Keane. “But you have to study and witness it in action. I visited the Sonoma farm. The ducks weren’t in distress.”
Chef Patrick Mulvaney (Mulvaney’s Building & Loan) observed production in California and the Hudson Valley and was impressed how they “talked a lot about Temple Grandin” and the ducks’ well-being. His concern? “How can we teach new cooks when a product used for 5,000 years is off the table? I learned to clean, cook and respect foie gras from Madeleine Kamman. I was learning about food not only from her, but from a long line of her predecessors.”
Losing that culinary heritage is a big reason why chefs like Mark Dommen (One Market) are stepping out against the ban. Training under the late Jean-Louis Palladin — “a man with foie gras pumping through his veins” — was essential to Dommen’s education. “It’s such an expensive ingredient,” he says. “Palladin taught me the importance of utilizing every ounce and treating all ingredients with respect.”
Photographs by Megan Menicucci