From Napa’s fine-dining establishments to chic eateries in San Diego’s Gaslamp District, when California’s foie-gras ban went into effect on July 1, 2012—barring restaurants from selling the fattened goose or duck liver derived by overfeeding the animal with a tube—most chefs simply moved on.
Some substituted ingredients in attempts to recreate a signature foie-gras dish. Others proved that a good chef adapts quickly based on (just like seasonal vegetables or fish) what’s available.
“It’s a nice thing, with beautiful texture and wonderful, amazing flavor, but I’m a good enough chef that I can cook with or without it,” says Peter Rudolph, executive chef of Madera (http://www.maderasandhill.com) in Menlo Park.
June sales of foie-gras dishes (including Rudolph’s roasted foie gras with English scone, assorted Hamada Farm citrus, Marcona almonds, and mustard seed) were more than the previous six months combined.
Chef Jeffrey Jake, of Silverado Resort & Spa (http://www.silveradoresort.com) in Napa, agrees. “As a chef, it’s your job to fill a void—just like taking heirloom tomatoes off the menu,” says Jake, who replaced his Foie Gras Torchon with steak tartare, admittedly “not quite as decadent, but there really isn’t a substitute for it at this point in time.”
Prior to the ban, he paid between $32 and $36 a pound for foie gras. “There was some slight pushback from customers [about the menu price],” Jake notes. “It was for people who were really going to appreciate it.”
Most California chefs were sourcing foie gras from the state’s only foie-gras producer, Artisan Sonoma Foie Gras (http://www.artisanfoiegras.com) in Sonoma, which shut down in July after losing its California customers. The only other domestic supplier is in Hudson Valley, New York. All others are overseas. For chefs in other states, “We create this frenzy where we’re getting lesser-quality meat,” says Rudolph who, like many other chefs, argues that the treatment of ducks and geese is far better than that of most livestock in the state, from chickens to pigs. Fueled by the ban, chefs joined together to form Chef Standards (http://www.chefstandards.com) to advocate for farms that follow humane and ethical standards.
To kick off the ban, some chefs hosted foie-gras celebrations. Chef Greg Daniels of Haven Gastropub + Brewery (http://www.havengastropub.com) in Old Pasadena, California, in concert with other chefs, hosted two foie-gras dinners. Before the ban, Haven served a foie-gras cheesecake, which Daniels promptly replaced with another dessert. That he’s a gastropub, and not a fine-dining restaurant, worked in his favor. “My customers don’t expect to see foie gras on the menu.”
David Feau, executive chef at The Royce at The Langham Hotel (http://www.roycela.com) in Pasadena, hosted a “30 ways in three days” event from June 28–30 that educated participants in how to prepare the delicacy at home by offering a la carte dishes starting at $20, with a minimum of three dishes per order. (California residents can still order foie gras online.) “Foie gras is a delicacy and it has been cooked throughout the world in so many different fashions. We tried to capture the flavor and the essence,” he says.
Chef de cuisine Mark Pensa at San Francisco’s Acquerello (http://www.acquerelle.com) substituted with duck liver in a customer favorite for 20 years (foie-gras pasta, with marsala, cream, butter, truffles, and foie gras tossed over noodles). Despite costing much less (about $8 a pound), because of its labor-intensive preparation (such as soaking for four hours) the menu price stayed the same. “It seemed worth it to keep the continuity of the dish,” says owner Suzette Gresham. In the weeks leading up to July 1, she hosted blind tastings of the two pastas with journalists—nobody guessed correctly which contained the foie gras. “I count myself lucky. It was a sauce and not a straight-up piece of foie gras. Searing a piece of duck liver does not taste anything like foie gras.”
Similarly, Matt Gordon (owner of Urban Solace (http://www.urbansolace.net) in San Diego) saved his foie-gras pate with chicken liver and extra butter. Still, says Gordon, who opposes the ban, “it’s not constitutional. If the animal was truly abused, the FDA would not allow its sale. Like most foie-gras proponents I don’t serve beef from factory farms or that has antibiotics and hormones. Why through one appetizer would I blow my whole ethos?”
A loophole allows foie gras to be served as a complimentary, on-the-house ingredient alongside brioche bread, for example. But because the menu price does not factor in foie gras the restaurant loses money. “You want to do what’s best for your business,” says Daniels, who refuses to serve it for free. “You’re not really fooling anyone. I’m taking the high road and having faith in the government.” While the details of the ban are still being worked out, many chefs fear fines or a negative reputation if they do serve foie gras, even if it’s at no cost.
For Chef Roland Passot of San Francisco’s La Folie (http://www.lafolie.com), the ban affected his menu in a drastic way. He’d been serving several dishes featuring foie gras, including foie-gras soup, foie gras with caramelized peaches, and even foie-gras chocolate mousse. He now serves monk-fish liver with sweet bread, a far cry from the decadence he once offered diners. “Unfortunately, politicians are getting involved in something they should not be involved with,” says Passot.
Next up is a bill sponsored by Democratic Senator Lois Wolk before the state legislature early this year that would, if passed, hold farmers to standards but not ban the food they produce.
By Kristine Hansen