Foie Wars

Force-feeding amounts to either animal farming or grotesque torture, but do our chefs give a duck?

Eleven months ago, Johnny V, like Giancarla at Escopazzo, removed foie gras from his menu. "I had been contacted by several of the organizations trying to stop the production of it. They sent me a pretty graphic video, but it was unclear if the footage was shot in the United States. So I began to research it and realized the movement was quite large and gaining momentum. I was only using foie gras as an accompaniment to one of my entrées, so after a couple of comments from customers who were supportive of the movement, I decided I would serve something else. It just doesn't mean than much to me."

Many chefs regarded the argument against gavage with skepticism, but after delving into the subject further, they took the potential for abuse more seriously — although most are still straddling the fence. "I tend to receive a pretty decent number of e-mails — some polite, some not so much — requesting that I remove the dish from my menu at Wish," says Bloise. "I follow the links, watch the videos. I can't say that I'm 100 percent in either direction — but what I really want, honestly, is to get to the bottom of all of this and figure it out for myself." Toward this end, he plans to take a trip to Hudson Valley Foie Gras (and has invited New Times to tag along).

Van Aken and Curto are likewise hesitant to take a stand without having visited the farms to witness things first-hand. Curto admits that until she does so, "I can't say I know what's going on. But I want to believe that [the bad] stuff isn't true. If it is true, then I have something to think about." Van Aken, too, vows to one day judge with his own eyes, and meanwhile "continue to think and reflect on this very meaningful subject." Hutson is "not swayed either way. I know about the stories of inhumane treatment, but I've never seen the gory details that people talk about." So we asked her to take a closer look at the argument for both sides and get back to us. She did not. Maria Frumkin (Duo Restaurant, downtown Miami) promised to discuss ducks and geese with us but then chickened out. She asked us to call back, asked us to call back again, and finally requested we e-mail the questions, but never responded to any of our queries.


Some started out skeptical and remain so. Oudin, like a majority of chefs, takes into consideration the important role foie gras has played in "history, tradition, and culture," and stresses personal choice: "Chefs in the United States are becoming more skilled and refined, and the clientele have become more aware of delicate foods. Why deny this pleasure of life to everybody? Any individual is free to decide for him- or herself to enjoy it or not." Susser takes the same slant: "You have to let people vote with their fork rather than dictate what they can or can't eat. If you don't like it, don't buy it. That's why we've got vanilla and chocolate ice cream."

Two chefs who were on the fence jumped off. Haas doesn't proffer foie gras at Chispa "because it doesn't work within our price point or with our style of cooking. You don't find a lot of foie gras in Central or South America." But he consults for numerous restaurant groups, and places foie gras on quite a few menus nationwide. "I always knew how it was produced, but I hadn't given the issue much thought. Now that I've seen photos of it and watched videotapes of it, I'm not going to serve it anymore." But he won't be getting in line to picket or making speeches against it, either, because he agrees with Oudin and Susser that it's up to each person to decide. "If there's no market for foie gras," he says by way of deduction, "the producers aren't going to produce it."

Foie gras hasn't been on Pacific Time's menu for some time, either, at least partly owing to bloated costs. "There was a large price increase about ten months ago, and I was concerned at seeing a $25 appetizer on my menu. It looked like it belonged in the entrée section. But we were contacted by a few groups, and though I've ordered it in other restaurants and eaten it, I've sort of subconsciously removed it from use. I think it's a worthy boycott — I mean I can live without it." Yet while Johnny V points to "an endless bounty" of products from all over the world to fill the foie void, Eismann isn't so sure about substitutions. "As far as I know, there's no tofu foie gras yet."

Nervous chefs who fear that foie's goose may be cooked have begun to contemplate alternatives. Jorgensen speaks of how he could "just as well be dealing with chicken livers. You can use them in pâtés, stuffings — and rabbit livers can be used as well." He recognizes, however, that these options will never hold the same mystique and awe as foie gras. "Do I want a piece of seared rabbit liver with blueberries on top?" he asks himself. "No, I don't." Haas, too, talks up chicken liver. "This Balkan chef at the Bakery, in Chicago, used to make a chicken liver pâté, that if you closed your eyes ... it was so silky, it was so good, you didn't need foie gras. I think there are enough creative guys out there to do stuff like this." Haas pauses and then adds, "On the other hand, it will be hard to get $19 for a chicken liver appetizer."

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