On July 15, about a dozen people walked into a cozy San Francisco restaurant with a window sign reading “private event” to savor foie gras, California’s newest forbidden fruit.
They paid $100 apiece for “a 10-course tasting of quasi-legal goodness,” according to the online notice for the “Duckeasy” event. Each received an e-mail with the address only hours before the first sandwich of Wonder bread, grape jelly and foie gras mousse was served.
“I want to support the people who believe in foie and who will defy the rules,” Jolanda Nuestro, 48, a homemaker, said at the communal table before a toast broke out: “To foie!”
“To being force-fed foie!” another guest added.
Two weeks after California’s ban on selling and producing the fatty duck liver, chefs are hosting clandestine events, offering it as a free side dish or selling it to regulars without listing it on the menu.
In an unscientific survey, four of eight restaurants visited in the two weeks since the ban offered foie gras. Four that had it on their menus before the ban refused to serve it when asked.
David Rieken, 49, a personal assistant from San Francisco who discovered the Duckeasy dinner through a friend, said he was drawn in part because of its secretive nature.
“I would be lying if I said there wasn’t a certain exclusivity that is cool and a defiance against a law that we think is rooted in double standards,” Rieken said while sipping a glass of French red wine before dinner.
The 2004 law that went into effect July 1 is backed by animal-rights activists who say force-feeding ducks and geese through a tube to produce a fat liver is cruel. Violators are subject to a fine of as much as $1,000 per infraction, and as much as $1,000 for each day it continues.
Daniel Mallahan, 27, a San Francisco resident and one of the Duckeasy dinner’s chefs and organizers, said the event fell within the law.
“We’re not charging for foie at all,” Mallahan said. “We’re charging for tickets to an event. None of the foie is actually from the state of California. That’s not really an issue.”
On July 14, the Presidio Social Club, a San Francisco restaurant, drew a crowd to savor a $20 seared foie gras slider garnished with pineapple and a main dish of steak with an $18 foie gras side in honor of Bastille Day.
Dead Either Way
The restaurant, once a barracks in the Presidio of San Francisco, a former Army post near the Golden Gate Bridge that is now a national park, is on federal land and immune from the state law, owner Ray Tang, 44, said during the dinner.
“We’re really not in California,” Tang said.
Jim Lewis, 43, a San Jose computer engineer, and his wife, Susan, ordered the sliders.
Animals are raised for food and “we’re going to end up eating them anyway,” Lewis said. “It’s not like it makes sense to treat them very well and then turn around and kill them and eat them.”
Outside, about 20 protesters held photos of animals being force-fed and chanted “There’s no excuse for animal abuse!” as police stood by.
“As of July 1, virtually every single restaurant in the state is now complying with the law,” Dana Portnoy, 32, one of the protesters and a Bay Area campaign organizer for the Animal Protection and Rescue League, said in an interview. “So the law is working despite the fact that they’re trying to evade enforcement.”
The threat of enforcement is not deterring some chefs in Southern California.
At Cafe Mimosa in San Clemente, about an hour south of Los Angeles, those in the know ask for the “fancy bread.”
“It’s family, it’s friends,” said Antoine Price, the restaurant’s general manager. “You have to be known. I’m not trying to blatantly put it out there.”
Hot’s Kitchen, just steps from the Pacific Ocean in Hermosa Beach, lists “The Burger” with foie gras as a “complimentary” side. The dish, topped with balsamic thyme onions and whole-grain mustard, costs $13, more than double the other burgers.
Opponents of the law say serving the liver free gets around the ban since the legislation prohibits only its sale. Supporters say it violates the law because customers know they are paying to get foie gras.
Pot With That?
“I live in a state where I can buy marijuana down the street, but I can’t buy foie gras,” Sean Chaney, 45, chef and owner at Hot’s Kitchen, said in an interview at the restaurant. “There’s something fundamentally wrong.”
No law enforcement has attempted to halt the practice, Chaney said.
“I’m never going to stop serving it,” Laurent Quenioux, a French-born Los Angeles-based chef who operates a pop-up, or a temporary restaurant, called Bistro LQ, said in a telephone interview. “There’s law as a society that makes sense, there’s law that you don’t wish to follow and this is one of them.”
The Los Angeles Police Department hadn’t issued any citations, Officer Karen Rayner, a spokeswoman, said in an e-mail last week.
Kathleen Brown, deputy director of the San Francisco Department of Animal Care and Control, said while her agency hasn’t issued any citations, it’s investigating a complaint.
Hot’s Restaurant Group Inc., which owns Hot’s Kitchen; Hudson Valley Foie Gras, a Ferndale, New York-based producer; and Association des Eleveurs de Canards et d’Oies du Quebec, a Canadian nonprofit representing foie gras producers, on July 2 sued to block the law.
The ban has been a boon for private chefs, said Jeffrey Nimer, owner and chef at Haute Chefs in Los Angeles, who prepares French cuisine in people’s homes at a rate of $125 to $350 per person. He said the ban doesn’t apply to foie gras prepared in private residences.
“Demand has gone way up,” Nimer said. “It’s just like Prohibition. The more you say it’s not allowed, the more people are going to want it.”
-- With assistance from Ryan Flinn in San Francisco. Editors: Stephen Merelman, Mark Schoifet