As California gets ready to bid farewell to foie gras on July 1, customers who love the fatty foodstuff — the liver of a duck or goose that has been over-fed — are snapping it up at a record pace.
"Our demand for foie gras has rapidly increased as the end draws near," said Dustin Valette, chef de cuisine at Charlie Palmer's Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg. "We've seen a 300 percent increase in our foie gras sales."
When California Health and Safety Code 25980-25984 goes into effect July 1, California will be the first and only state in the nation to ban the sale of foie gras. The law will criminalize the sale of any product that is the result of force-feeding and carry a fine of up to $1,000 a day, enforceable by a humane society, animal control or police officer.
More than 100 chefs in the state have formed a coalition against the ban, and the dispute between animal-rights advocates who view its creation as animal cruelty and chefs who see it as a sensuous, essential food delicacy remains deeply polarized.
Of a handful of Wine Country chefs interviewed who serve foie gras on a regular basis, all expressed sadness and frustration over a law they say appears frivolous, at best, and an infringement of personal rights, at worst.
"Your freedom to swing your fist ends at my nose," said Josh Silvers, who has served foie gras at Santa Rosa's Petite Syrah since it opened 13 years ago. "I don't go to a vegetarian restaurant and make them cook bacon."
Silvers was among several Wine Country chefs serving special "Farewell to Foie" dinners this spring, despite threat of protests from animal-rights activists.
"It's a delicious delicacy that people have been eating for thousands of years," he said. "It's a special-occasion thing."
Others regard the ban against force-feeding as a step in the right direction.
"It's cruel, and I think there's enough cruelty in the world," said Jeff Stanford, proprietor of the Stanford Inn by the Sea and its all-vegan Raven's Restaurant in Mendocino. "By changing your habits, and what you put in your mouth, you can make a huge impact."
Chefs who serve foie gras say it's an easy target because it's a niche product consumed by a small group of people and easily misunderstood. Instead, chefs ask, why don't the activists go after the inhumane practices of the big, commercial beef, pork, chicken and egg industries?
"A lot of what we read about foie gras is one extreme," Valette said. "Having watched both the chicken and the foie gras production, I would much rather purchase the foie gras."
Valette, who joined the chef's coalition that is asking for stricter laws for regulating foie gras production, fears that the ban will only worsen conditions for the birds.
"We don't want to see a black market start," he said. "We don't want to see the industry regress."
Valette also believes the ban will make it harder for California to compete in the fine-dining, luxury arena.
"People come here to drink amazing wine and food," he said. "If you take away foie gras, it's like saying you can no longer have cabernet. 'Welcome to Wine Country, but you can't have that.'"
And there are many issues the law does not address. What if you purchase foie gras out of state and transport it over the state line? What if you buy it online, from a purveyor outside of California?
What saddens the chefs the most is the fact that the ban is going to put the state's only producer, Sonoma Artisan Foie Gras, out of business.
"The effect of the ban is the closing of a successful family business that for over 25 years has provided the highest quality duck products with utmost respect to animal husbandry practices," said Guillermo Gonzalez, founder of Sonoma Artisan Foie Gras, who is still contemplating whether to move outside California.
Local chefs also source foie gras from France and the two remaining U.S. farms: Hudson Valley Foie Gras and La Belle Farm, both in New York's Hudson Valley region north of New York City. But even if the ban were repealed in the future, as it was in Chicago in 2008 after less than two years, losing one of the competitors, chefs say, will mean higher prices in the future.
Among luxury food items, foie gras hovers somewhere in the middle. Wholesale, it costs chefs about $35 a pound. That's pricier than lobster, which sells for $10 to $15 a pound. But compared to caviar, which costs $40 an ounce, or white truffles, which go for up to $1,200 a pound, it's relatively inexpensive. Most chefs agree that serving foie gras is not about making money.
"It's the cool factor," said Mark Stark, who has served foie gras poppers at Willi's Wine Bar in Santa Rosa for the past 10 years. "When you're running a restaurant that serves foie, for cooks it's a little bit of a status thing."
Chef/owner Ken Frank of La Toque in Napa, who built his reputation on foie gras as a young chef, said he visited the Artisan Foie Gras farm 20 years ago when it was in Sonoma, to see how it was being produced. "I anticipated that I would come home and take it off my menu and never serve it," Frank said. "But having looked those ducks in the eye, I had no concern at all that they were mistreated."
Doug Keane, chef/owner of Cyrus restaurant in Healdsburg, said he was also prepared to take foie gras off his menu when he arranged to visit the farm, now located in the Central Valley.
"We went into the gavage room and witnessed them feeding," he said. "The process did not bother me whatsoever."
Keane said the ban will hurt customers and young cooks the most. Like other chefs who work with foie gras every day, he doesn't eat it very often.
"Personally, it's not hard to give it up," he said. "But the young kids are not going to be able to work with it unless they leave (here)."