With a ban on producing or serving fois gras lurking on the horizon, how are California's top chefs reacting to dropping the delicacy from their menus?
When I think back on some of the most memorable dishes I've ever had, there seems to be bit of a recurring theme: The perfectly grilled steak topped with crumbles of foie gras from a little stall in Barcelona's Boqueria market. A luscious, fat slab of foie gras terrine served with charred bread and thick jam at Derriere in Paris. And just last week, a single plump langoustine, seared and garnished with yes, a tiny slice of foie gras at Le Bernardin in New York City.
If I lived in California, I'd have to forgo these experiences—locally anyway. Because starting in July 2012 a long-anticipated ban on the production and sale of foie gras will go into effect there. Luckily—and for many other reasons that have nothing to do with duck livers—I live in New York instead. It's hard for me to imagine the likes of New York City chefs David Chang and Jean Georges Vongerichten going the way of Los Angeles's Wolfgang Puck and dropping foie gras from their menus without a fight.
But it got me wondering what other chefs in California think about not being able to use the luxe, controversial delicacy in the near future. (If you need a primer on what all the ruffled feathers are about, foie gras is traditionally made from the fattened livers of farm-raised, force-fed ducks; there is debate about whether the practice is a form of animal cruelty.)
"I'm not an advocate for the mistreatment of animals, but people enjoy eating foie gras, and it's something that has been part of finer cuisine for ages. I hate to lose something that has so much tradition," says Jason Maitland, executive chef of San Diego's popular Flavor Del Mar. The restaurant serves dishes featuring the ingredient—but doesn't have the words "foie gras" printed on the menus, to avoid protests by animal rights activists. Instead Maitland keeps it on hand to prepare as specials or when regular customers request dishes containing it.
He says he began the practice when he was chef at Arterra Restaurant in the Marriott Del Mar and the chain wanted to avoid negative publicity. "They said ‘Take it off your written menu, but you're welcome to serve it,'" says Maitland.
So he continues the policy at his current post, but will comply with the ban once it goes into effect. "I met with the Animal Rescue and Protection League, who wanted us to stop serving foie gras," he says. "I told them the product will be illegal soon enough. It's not like they're going to stop production and these birds I'm getting right now will be released and fly south for the winter. They're already being farmed and harvested so this either goes to waste or I use it. And while I have the chance, we're going to serve it."
As for diners, time will tell how much the ban will affect their restaurant habits. "I do love foie gras and have seen compelling arguments on both sides as to the humane nature of its farming—at best it's a relatively painless procedure and at worst, it's a lot better than some other widely adopted farming techniques," says Linden Goh, who is based in Los Angeles and writes the food blog Gastronomnom www.gastronomnom.com. "Will I miss it? Sure, from time to time and I'll still happily eat it when I travel."
What do you think? How do you think the ban will affect California chefs and diners? Chime in with comments below or on Twitter.
CLARISSA CRUZ is the Fashion Features Editor of O, The Oprah Magazine. She is the former Style Editor of People magazine and has written for Entertainment Weekly, InStyle, Food & Wine, and Budget Travel. @clarissanyc1