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Dining

One Las Vegas chef’s defense of foie gras

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Illustration: Jon Sperry
Brian Howard, executive chef at Comme Ça

Editor’s note: We reached out to Strip chefs for reaction to California’s controversial foie gras ban, and Howard responded with this impassioned defense of a process many find distasteful. Weigh in with your opinion through our poll on the topic at lasvegasweekly.com.

On July 1, a ban went into effect preventing the sale and production of foie gras in the state of California. Not only have California chefs and restaurants lost the right to sell foie gras (and diners to buy it, of course), but the only family-owned farm in California to produce it, Sonoma-Artisan, will be forced to close its doors after 20 years.

For those who don’t know, foie gras is the fattened liver of a goose or duck, a 21-day story of life and death involving the process known as gavage, or force-feeding using a long tube that’s slid down the throat of the animal to pump grain into the esophagus, ultimately expanding the liver to 10 times its normal size.

Sounds awful, right? “How would you like a tube shoved down your throat to be force fed?” plead anti-foie activists. Well, we wouldn’t like it. But it’s not a fair analogy; ducks don’t have a gag reflex.

By Day 22, the animals are slaughtered and processed for retail. That’s when guys like me step in, say “thank you” to the farmer and turn those beautiful livers into rich, unctuous slabs of seared foie gras, buttery pâtés and terrines. Simply put, there is nothing like foie gras.

No other liver carries the same rich flavor or that perfect layering of crisp, soft and molten textures all the way through when seared. And foie is a versatile ingredient; it pairs well with almost any flavor profile, from super sweet to highly acidic. It’s unstoppable.

Here at Comme Ça, I do a dish with foie gras terrine—a three-day process that involves cleaning, curing and poaching, all to get a velvety smooth foie gras spread you can smear on toasted bread and top with our vanilla-marinated strawberries and shaved country ham. It’s like peanut butter and jelly for foodies.

You might have seen those terrible propaganda videos showing outdated methods of producing foie from French and Canadian farms, pumping food down ducks’ throats while they’re crammed into tight quarters, falling over from overfeeding and catching diseases. Unquestionably, those are bad farming practices, and those farms should not be allowed to operate. But let’s not confuse those images with what happens at farms in Sonoma and New York’s Hudson Valley, where foie gras is produced the right way. They welcome anyone to see that their practices are humane.

As chefs, we have the responsibility to source our product from the right places. We’re not in the business of animal cruelty, nor do we support it, but we are in the business of supporting what’s right for cuisine. French law states that foie gras belongs to the protected cultural and gastronomical heritage of France. It’s an integral part of gourmet cooking, and it will never go away. Restrictions will only push the product onto the black market, a far worse situation, because there would be no way to regulate it at all.

And why the focus on foie gras? Why not battery acid-treated chickens or cows that are dropped off tractors during shipping? Are millions of oversized, scientifically created dinosaur-chickens treated humanely? Chickens and turkeys just naturally grow to be that big that fast?

Will the California ban affect us in Las Vegas? I don’t think so, but I do think it may affect some other states. Only time will tell. Chefs in Vegas will have to make their own decisions about serving foie gras, as they’ve been doing for years now. Either you’re for it or you’re not, and the decision should be left up to you.

I could argue this matter all day long, that there’s no harm, no fowl, but let’s look at the real problems in America and recognize that foie gras is not one of them. And California chefs, remember, there’s always a loophole … free foie gras with the purchase of that $30 cocktail?

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