THE BLOG

The Inside Story How Foie Gras Returned to California!

04/24/2015 03:51 pm ET | Updated Jun 23, 2015

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All photos by Jay.

seared foie gras

Seared foie gras!

It was a celebratory dinner with some of the prime movers in the return of foie gras to the California culinary scene. The dedicated lawyer who led the charge, Michael Tenenbaum, was there as we raised a glass to the fact that the ban was overturned by a Federal court on January 7th of this year. There was Junny Gonzalez, whose family is involved with some of the largest foie gras duck farms in the country. For added color and 'surf' contrast to the 'turf' being served, there was MH Tiffany Le, who is V.P. of one of the largest lobster suppliers in the nation, Three Premium Lobster, top source of Nova Scotia crustaceans hereabouts. (She told me that the Nova Scotia lobsters come from somewhat colder waters than the Maine bugs so they're slightly sweeter. She praised the West Coast versions, which don't have those meaty claws.) The dinner host was Jim Miller, the tzar of Kolikof Caviar and Smoked Salmon. The opening tidbits were small chunks of lobster topped with his golden caviar. The dinner was foie gras and duck in all its configurations. Platters of duck pastrami and duck prosciutto from La Belle Farms were first out. Oh, my, how I love foie gras. The large lobes of foie gras had been seared 'til just tender but before they began to melt, the sign of a highly-skilled cook in the kitchen. And the roasted duck had crispy, crackling skin and juicy meat, with an accompanying pineapple sauce from fruits brought in that very day from Hawaii. Jim had also made a kumquat sauce from fruits from his backyard tree. The Magret, duck breasts from birds which had offered up their foie gras, were served last, pan-fried 'til well-done. I am used to having duck breast blood-rare, so it was a new experience for me. (The first duck breast served in L.A. years ago was by French chef Michel, who sent it out the way it was served in his country....slices of blood-rare meat rimmed with fat. Most customers sent it back, saying it was not cooked enough. It took a long time for people to catch on to how good the rare magret could be.) The dinner ended with Jim's incredible homemade chocolate tiramasu. Plenty of champagne flowed.

michael and sophie gayot at dnner
Attorney Michael Tenenbaum and Sophie Gayot of the Gayot Guide.

Those pesky (obnoxious) PETA people had contended that ducks were being harmed by the gavage funnel inserted into their esophagus for a moment, which helped produce their fatty livers which become foie. The inch-wide tube is inserted for several seconds and the ducks are fed pellets of corn two times a day. Duck farmers and scientists have reminded the world that ducks don't have a gag reflex against it since their esophagus is pliant and expandable. In nature, they swallow fish whole the same way to store food while breathing through their tongues.

duck breast
Roasted duck breast.

Michael briefly outlined for me the years-long fight to overturn the ban, whicb went into effect in 2012. I mentioned my research which indicated the fight began a dozen years ago with two animal-rights groups suing the Sonoma Foie Gras Farm, charging animal cruelty. When the ban went into effect three years ago, no farm could force-feed birds to enlarge their livers and this prohibited the sale of foie created with this process. Restaurants in the state could not sell foie gras. I think that most restaurants and customers were outraged, and the fight began nationally to overcome the ban. Chefs like David Chang in New York actual added foie gras dishes to his menu in protest. Over 100 chefs in California (Thomas Keller, Ludo, etc.) signed a protest against the ban. Eventually, about four months ago, Judge Stephen Wilson of the U.S. District Court for California's Central District invalidated California's ban on restaurants selling foie gras. Michael told me that his client, Exec Chef/Owner Sean Chaney of Hot's Kitchen in Hermosa Beach, was the only restaurant plaintiff in the case, along with the largest foie gras farm in the U.S. and an association of foie gras farms in Canada. Michael went on to explain that they had argued that the statute was unconstitutional on several grounds, including that it violated the Commerce Clause. Ultimately, they prevailed because the court recognized that, when it comes to poultry products regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture - such as foie gras - federal law is supreme as Congress specifically provided that the federal poultry laws essentially trump the California statute.

junny is the foie gras ambassador
Junny Gonzalez is the Foie Gras Ambassador"

Junny told me that production of foie gras is still banned in the state, so her family's Sonoma Artisan Foie Gras Duck Farm, here for almost 30 years, has allied itself with New York State's La Belle Farms to provide the products for California's restaurants. Describing herself as the "Foie Gras Ambassador," she then told me: The difference in flavor and texture between our foie and others is that we feed our ducks with cooked sweet natural corn." She smiled as she outlined the various products which La Belle is offering to restaurants and the public: "We have smoked duck breast, that duck prosciutto and duck pastrami you just had, terrine of foie gras, confit of duck legs and drumettes, foie gras sausages (a must try for me), and the whole lobes, usually about a pound and a quarter, pouches of ten individual slices, fresh legs, Magret....even duck fat, hearts, tongues. We sell everything but the 'Quack" and you can now even get that on your cell phone." So if my friends call my cell and get a 'quack' in response, you will understand that it is my way of empathizing with the foie gras folks. By the way, you can order all of these foie/duck products on-line at Kolikof.com.

these ducks are the source of it all
Foie Gras ducks...photo from Sonoma.

My earliest memory of eating foie gras au torchon was in France in 1956, when I was living there for a month (at the old Royal Monceau, in a tiny room costing $26 a night) while prepping the Cinerama unveiling. I think it was goose foie. (Foie gras is French for 'fat liver.') And my most memorable memory of foie gras was eating almost a whole lobe of it at The French Laundry which Thomas Keller had poached in truffle juice. Before the ban, Jose Andres served it as cotton-candy-foie-on-a stick at SLS. The city of Chicago had outlawed foie in 2006 but reversed the ban two years later. At that time I wrote an article about the luxury hot 'dawg' place there that defied them by serving foie gras hot dogs, delicious. The PETA people are still fighting the ugly fight, having picketed a foie gras dinner at the SLS Hotel sponsored by Gayot only this week. While I was sympathetic with the PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) when they first began their fight to ban fur coats, they seem to have become a kinky group of fearmongers....I just read they want to rename fish as 'sea kittens.' A recent article in San Diego Magazine wrote" "Unlike foie gras, factory-farmed chicken is a true American disgrace - a brutal evil affecting 6 billion animals a year, compared to a few thousand ducks for foie...some famous chefs said, 'Do Californians have any idea what seven levels of hell their chickens go through before they become dinner?'" Let PETA concern themselves with that.

I want to start a campaign to overturn the ban on producing foie here in the state so the Sonoma Artisan Foie Gras people can again furnish us with their delicacy. Junny's husband Guillermo Gonzalez and family came here from El Salvador in 1986 after they learned how to make foie gras at the Dubois family farm in the Perigord region of Southwest France. At Sonoma they have run an ethical operation which meets the highest industry and government standards, all the while doing enormous charitable and fundraising efforts for their native country of El Salvador, a nightmare killing place these days. Their alliance with New York State's La Belle keeps them in business while awaiting the day they can began producing duck products again in Sonoma. In the meantime, enjoy foie gras again at your favorite restaurants. It's luscious.

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