The dish in front of me is devastatingly beautiful: a smattering of translucent, barely green syrup; some bits of slightly more solid orange gelée; dainty grapefruit segments; a soft crumble of pistachio mixed with coriander. Grounding it all is a large, barely pink sphere, a full moon of meat butter sitting regally on the plate.
Its days are numbered. In two weeks, it will be illegal to serve foie gras in California — and this lovely terrine will be off the menu at Mezze, where it's currently served, its key ingredient banned in restaurants across the city.
The arguments surrounding California's foie gras ban are clear: On one side, animal activists believe that it's up to the state to protect the welfare of livestock, and that force-feeding birds to fatten their livers for the sake of a gourmet delicacy crosses a line. On the other, chefs and diners argue that some of the most conscientious small farmers in the country raise these birds; if animal welfare were really a concern, activists and lawmakers would do better to start with the real culprit when it comes to mistreatment: factory farms.
Whatever you believe, the fact remains: On July 1, the production and sale of foie gras will become illegal in California.
So, for the moment, let's put aside the politics of the thing. I know it's hard. For some, it's impossible — to true believers, the very existence of an article that talks about foie in anything less than horrific terms is an abomination. But as someone who spends her life invested in the experience and flavor of things, what interests me is how chefs view foie as an ingredient and what they — and we, as an extension — lose when it goes away.
“You can't replace foie gras,” says Ludo Lefebvre, the chef behind the celebrated pop-up LudoBites. The French chef says that, for him, taking away foie gras would be like taking kimchi away from a Korean chef. “Sure, there are other livers, and other fats. But as a fat, there's nothing like it. It's good hot or cold. Think about eating cold lard. It tastes terrible. Foie gras can be used in so many ways.”
One of its great strengths is its ability to play well with sweeter ingredients, allowing chefs to straddle the line between sweet and savory in ways they can't with other proteins. The best dishes I tried while sampling foie around town played at the edge of dessert, even while pushing back toward salty and meaty.
At ink., Michael Voltaggio toys with these ideas by setting his foie terrine between two wafer-thin waffles. The foie takes on the role of temperate ice cream, mimicking that dense, creamy consistency. On the side, dollops of maple in marshmallow form enhance the carnival-food vibe, while house-made hot sauce sets the dish firmly back in the savory camp and completes the joke. It's an ingredient with almost unlimited potential for whimsy.
The ban doesn't much bother Voltaggio, however. “I think that there are a lot of different ingredients that are going to become inaccessible for many reasons. Foie gras is a legality issue, but, for instance, the price of meat got really high, so it forces us to cook a lot of different things that we wouldn't have cooked five or six years ago. Just the fact that we're being told that we can't use it kinda sucks, but at the same time, I don't think that anyone's restaurants or anyone's creativity is going to suffer because of it.”
Micah Wexler, the chef at Mezze and the brain behind that foie gras terrine I loved so much, agrees.
“I mean, I don't feel like I'm going to lose anything,” Wexler says. For him, it's the principle: “It's really just important to understand what this issue is all about. It's not so much a bunch of chefs whining, 'Oh, I can't cook foie gras anymore and I'm going to miss it so terribly, and I can't be a chef without it.' That's not really what it's about. It's more about the government and a certain group of people trying to tell us what we can and cannot serve in our restaurants.”
While many of the chefs in town say that it's not about the foie itself as much as it is about overzealous government control, some are stricken by the loss of this ingredient specifically.
Lefebvre worries that it will hurt restaurants. “It's expensive, so it makes money for the restaurant,” he says. “It makes money for the waiter. But more than that, people love it. My customers will miss it. It's something they don't make at home. They only get it at a restaurant.”
As a diner, I tell him, I rarely eat foie, partly because many chefs serve it the same way — seared, with fruit, or as a terrine, with fruit. But in Los Angeles I've seen a massive amount of creativity, from Umamicatessen's famous foie donut to the menu at Animal, where it appears in numerous dishes, all of them unconventional.
“It's true,” Lefebvre says. “When I arrived here in '96, people served it as pâté, with a few cornichons. But in the last five years, a lot of great chefs have started to take risks and are doing really creative, interesting things. Of course, that will continue, but foie has been a big part of it.”
As I ate Wexler's dish at Mezze, the subtleties of the mint, saffron and spices shone through. The foie's extreme fattiness provided a rich counterpoint, but its propensity to melt away allowed the other ingredients to be integral to the dish rather than mere garnishes.
I tried to think of another conduit for these particular flavors, another vehicle for the hint of mint in the syrup, the sweet tart treatment of saffron. Over fish, they'd become cloying. Any pork dish with the requisite fat to stand up to the acid and sugar would overwhelm the other ingredients — pork fat coats the tongue, making it perfect for heavy, bold accompaniments (hence the vinegar, tomato and chile of barbecue). You'd never taste half the subtleties of this dish if pork fat were involved.
There are whispers already of an underground movement, of dinners and dishes popping up, like foie speakeasies. Prohibition and its futility are mentioned frequently by chefs. The state's ban doesn't involve transporting foie across state lines — or eating it, for that matter. The only things banned are its sale and production via force-feeding of animals, and it's questionable how enforceable the law will be.
I've heard paranoid murmurs among chefs that special ban enforcers, trained to detect the flavor of foie, will roam the state's restaurants, eating mousses and handing out fines. It seems comically unlikely, even if the state weren't broke. But just imagine — what a beat for some lucky cop!
Foie police or not, for the regular diner, these dishes are going away. But it's worth remembering that it's just one ingredient.
And there may be an upside for diners, as well as ducks — chefs will be forced to look at parts of their menus in whole new ways. As Voltaggio says, “Nobody likes to be told what to do, and that's one of the biggest problems with this whole thing. But at the end of the day, it also forces creativity.”
Additional reporting by Anna Escher