Robin Abcarian Commentary, news and analysis

The return of foie gras to California menus offers food for thought

'Foie gracias' is the message from one California chef. But what do we really know about what's on our plates?

Chef Ken Frank, one of California's most outspoken proponents of foie gras, opened the door of La Toque's walk-in refrigerator. All sorts of wonderful aromas hit me in the face — mushrooms, savory reductions, the iron smell of raw meat. Frank bent down next to a dangling pig carcass, looking for foie gras. No luck.

A few minutes later, executive sous chef Daniel Gomez Sanchez wandered over holding a small lobe of foie gras that he found in the prep kit of one of La Toque's line cooks. Wrapped in plastic, it was pale yellow, almost as firm to the touch as cold butter. The rest of the restaurant's stash had already been portioned out for the evening's $80 four-course tasting menu, where it would be served seared, with persimmon and cherry vinegar oolong broth, for a supplement of $15.

On Jan. 7, a federal district court judge unexpectedly ruled that California's ban on foie gras conflicted with federal law, which regulates poultry ingredients. And just like that, after an absence of two and a half years, the fatty liver harvested from force-fed ducks has reappeared on menus all over the state.

Thrilled chefs say they can hardly keep up with demand. At Barnyard, on Pacific Avenue in Venice, chef Jesse Barber posted his joy on the restaurant's outdoor message board: "Foie Gracias."

Foie gras never truly disappeared from menus. Frank, for instance, skirted the ban by giving customers foie gras, randomly delivered, he said, with a note explaining the gift was a protest.

"I went to great lengths not to violate the letter of the law," Frank said.

That remains to be seen.

A lawsuit against Frank and La Toque, filed by the Animal Legal Defense Fund in March 2013, is far from settled. Both parties were in court Thursday, presenting arguments to the California Court of Appeals in San Francisco.

It is also unclear whether the foie gras ban is gone for good. California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris has until Feb. 6 to appeal the federal court decision lifting the ban.

To delve into the subject of how we raise our protein — pigs, chickens, calves, ducks — is, on some level, an exercise in horror. Veal calves spend their short lives in crates. Pregnant sows are confined in quarters so small they can't move. Egg-laying chickens are piled into cages where they are virtually immobilized. In 2008, by a large margin, California voters outlawed all of those practices.

Though a handful of other states have followed suit, most of the country's factory farms continue to raise animals in appalling conditions.

The only foie gras farm in California, Sonoma-Artisan Foie Gras, closed its doors when the ban went into effect in 2012. The proprietors were Guillermo and Junny Gonzalez, Salvadorans who had moved to France to study foie gras production before buying the farm in Sonoma.

I found it appalling that the architect of the foie gras ban, then-state Sen. John Burton, now chairman of the California Democratic Party, recently admitted that he had never bothered to visit the Gonzalez farm before deciding it should be shuttered.

"Had no reason to," he told Vice Media Munchies reporter Dave Arnold, a food writer and chef whose open-minded online documentary about foie gras, which includes a brief, profanity-laced interview with Burton, is well worth watching.

It's tempting to anthropomorphize a duck. Who wouldn't gag from a tube inserted in the throat for up to 10 seconds, two or three times a day for two weeks? But ducks don't have a gag reflex. They breathe through their tongues, not their throats. Their airways are not obstructed during the "gavage" process. It may not be a pleasant way for ducks to eat, or to spend their last two weeks on Earth, but I can't quite bring myself to call it torture.

Still, I was moved by a conversation I had with Fedele Bauccio, chief executive of Bon Appetit Management Co., which operates hundreds of cafes and bistros at universities, museums and corporations that include Twitter, Google and LinkedIn.

Bauccio is a meat eater who served on the independent Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, which spent 21/2 years assessing the industry's impact on public health, the environment, farm communities and animal well-being. The commission's report was grim.

"It made me sick to see what was going on with poultry, swine, pork and cattle," he said. Bauccio's food company was one of the first to embrace sustainable farming as a business principle. He switched to cage-free eggs in 2005, banned foie gras and veal from crated calves in 2012, and has committed to stop buying pork raised in "cruel gestation crates," as he put it, by the end of 2015.

He believes foie gras has no place on menus.

Force-feeding ducks is no different, he said, "than shooting up the chickens or pigs with non-therapeutic antibiotics to raise them faster."

On Tuesday night, I settled into a seat at the bar of Bistro Jeanty in Yountville. I ordered seared foie gras on a bed of lentils de Puy. Could I be certain the duck had been raised humanely? All I knew was that it came from New York, where purveyors have tried to be transparent about their practices.

So yes, probably so. And frankly, what little I knew about that duck liver on my plate is more than I know about all the beef in my freezer.

robin.abcarian@latimes.com

Twitter: @robinabcarian

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