If you want to upset some of the area's top chefs, bring up the subject of the California foie gras ban scheduled to take effect on July 1. Then stand back and watch the fireworks.
"It's stupid. It's just a misguided law," said chef Doug Keane, of Cyrus restaurant in Healdsburg.
Others use words like "crazy," "unfair," "ridiculous," and a host of less savory terms when it comes to a food many toques consider sacred.
Keane is among a handful of chefs who have toured and watched foie gras production before deciding whether or not to keep it on the menu. Few politicians, he contends, have done the same. He is also among a number of chefs who have been picketed and assaulted by protesters for serving the controversial meat, and continues to keep it on his menu.
"This is a tradition that is thousands of years old. To deny this right of passage for any chef, who spends their life in the most fruitless of industries, just isn't going to work," said chef Doug Richey, currently in the planning stages for a new restaurant and former chef of Santi. Across his knuckles the words FOIE GRAS are tattooed as a permanent and very public statement about a food product he passionately defends.
At the center of this polarizing gastro-feud among animal-rights advocates, politicians, chefs and luxury-food consumers is a specific bit of offal. Prized for centuries by the French, foie gras is the fatted liver of a duck. The birds in nature gorge themselves in the fall as they prepare for long migrations, storing fuel internally for the energy they'll need. The unctuous fat content and indescribably rich, creamy flavor makes it highly sought-after and revered by chefs.
Taking advantage of the duck's natural proclivity to overeat, production facilities use a controversial method of force-feeding the French called gavage. Advocates say the ducks, which lack a gag reflex, don't mind the feedings and, in fact, come running for the extra food. Detractors point to documented injuries to foie gras ducks who have suffered ruptured organs and misery as a result of poorly performed gavage. As a result, California enacted Senate Bill 1520 in 2004, completely banning the production and sale of foie gras throughout the state beginning on July 1, 2012. The city of Chicago enacted a ban on foie gras in 2006, but overturned it two years later.
With eight years between Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's signing and actual enforcement, the threatened ban has been mostly static for foie gras lovers, who have continued to indulge at dozens of Bay Area restaurants that serve it without reservation. But with the deadline looming, chefs are beginning to think about what a future without legal foie gras will look like.
"I think its a shame, because the majority of people who voted for the law have never tried (foie gras) or don't know what it is," said Josh Silvers of Petite Syrah restaurant. "They saw a bunch of posters and pictures that, frankly, are ugly but not representative of how purveyors like Sonoma Artisan Foie Gras do things. Those ducks live a really nice life, and they have one really bad day and that's it."
His menu has long featured the delicacy, but come July he likely will pull it.
"In my dreams I won't have to worry about it, but I know there won't be a seller in California for restaurants. And there's going to be a $1,000 fine for selling it," he said.