Megan Menicucci
United Foie Front (from left): Mark Dommen of One Market in San Francisco, Patrick Mulvaney of Mulvaney’s B&L in Sacramento, Ken Frank of La Toque in Napa, Victor Scargle of Lucy Restaurant & Bar in Yountville, and Douglas Keane of the Healdsburg Bar & Grill.
magnify Click image to view more.

Faith in Foie

Carolyn Jung - September 2014

Ever defiant (and hopeful), two years after California banned the sale of foie gras, Ken Frank commands the barricades with fellow chefs at La Toque to produce an all-foie-all-the-time lunch.

With a sense of longing and anticipation, 50 hand-picked guests sat down to a special multicourse lunch at a restaurant in Napa, California, in early July that pointedly spotlighted a luxurious-turned-illicit ingredient most had not eaten in quite a while.

The affair began with an hors d’oeuvre of a mini duck hot dog tucked into a pretzel bun and ended triumphantly with custardy pain perdu in a pool of caramel cremeux. On both of those dishes—and every one in between—foie gras was front and center.

The corpulent, engorged liver of a duck was the star of the event, despite being banned in California since 2012. But it was all perfectly legal. Although it’s criminal now for any restaurant in the state to sell foie gras, La Toque, which hosted the event, didn’t charge for the lunch. Instead, it held a Facebook contest to give away 50 seats by asking members of the public to submit a post on “Why California’s Foie Gras Ban Is Foolish.”

Nearly 200 people entered, clamoring to be part of the first-ever all-foie gras restaurant event nearly two years to the day since the law took effect, making California the only state in the nation to criminalize its commercial sale and production.

“I’m not giving up on making this law go away,” said La Toque chef/owner Ken Frank, who has been sued twice in the past by animal rights groups for serving foie gras. “There is still work to do. The fight is not over.”

Foie gras, prized by many chefs for its unctuous, smooth texture, is produced by force-feeding ducks (or geese) via a tube in order to engorge their livers, a practice that emulates a naturally occuring process certain bird species use to “fatten up” before migration, but that animal rights activists decry as barbaric. Although there were no protestors at the “State of Foie Gras” lunch, the event still didn’t go over well with animal rights organizations.

“There will always be people who want to skirt the law or stand in the way of progress,” said Lindsay Rajt, spokesperson for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. “Whether a handful of chefs and producers want to admit it or not, the writing is on the wall. Most people don’t want to spend their money on the product once they see what’s happening.”

In August 2013, the ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the foie gras ban, affirming the lower court’s decision that the state had the authority to enact the law. Proponents of foie gras have petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case on the basis that the ban unconstitutionally interferes with interstate commerce. A decision on that is expected this month.

Frank was joined in the kitchen that day by chefs Victor Scargle of Lucy Restaurant & Bar in Yountville, Douglas Keane of the Healdsburg Bar & Grill, David Bazirgan of Dirty Habit in San Francisco, Mark Dommen of One Market in San Francisco, and Patrick Mulvaney of Mulvaney’s B&L in Sacramento.

All the foie gras for the lunch was donated by various producers. Laurel Pine of Mirepoix USA, a purveyor of foie gras products, also attended. Three years ago, she moved her business from Napa Valley to Reno, Nevada, in anticipation of the ban. Since then, she said, sales have tripled, with 25 percent of her customers coming from California.

“I don’t think the ban has accomplished anything,” Pine said. “There’s more interest and more demand than ever before. It’s been totally ineffective.”