Foie and Loathing in Las Vegas

As a California ban turns a delicacy into an illicit product, Las Vegas chefs invite liver lovers to take a foie-cation

Last month, chef Jason Quinn and a couple of friends hopped in his car and took a road trip to Las Vegas with the express intent to flout the law.

At Artisanal Foods, a gourmet food shop near McCarran International Airport, Quinn bought 100 pounds of foie gras and drove it back to his restaurant, the Playground, in Santa Ana, Calif. He just couldn’t stomach a new California ban on producing or selling the fattened liver of ducks and geese. As of July 1, he could not buy the delicacy from the state’s only producer, the now mothballed Sonoma-Artisan Foie Gras Farm. Nor could he have it shipped in from out of state or overseas. But the law says nothing about transporting or serving it.

So, to reward diners when they contribute to the “haircut fund” for one of his shaggier chefs, for example, the Playground’s kitchen sends out a gratis foie gras dish. “When we’re in awe of the generosity of our customers,” Quinn says carefully, “we’re moved to give them a gift.”

With just such wink-wink-nudge-nudge antics, California diners can have their foie gras and eat it, too, as rebellious chefs find their way around the vague law and organize to have it repealed. A similar ban in Chicago was reversed in 2008, two years after it was enacted.

Nevada establishments, meanwhile, are enjoying the bump in sales that the controversy over the ban has caused. The torchon du foie gras at Marché Bacchus jumped in popularity in July. Artisanal Foods, which primarily sells to chef-clients along the Strip, is moving double the amount of foie gras than normal for this time of year (although it still isn’t quite as much as during the end-of-year holidays).

“The summer crowd usually isn’t a foie gras-buying group,” Artisanal Foods owner Brett Ottolenghi says. “I think food enthusiasts who’ve not yet tried it are now, because they don’t want to lose the opportunity.” With Sonoma-Artisan on hiatus until a partnership to bring its practices to a Canadian company starts yielding product, prices are rising [in L.A., restaurants reportedly pay up to $50 per pound, whereas in Las Vegas it’s about $34 per pound], and availability is starting to become an issue. Marché Bacchus executive chef Dave Middleton has had to substitute the brand he prefers with another.

The ban stems from objections—primarily from animal-welfare organizations—to gavage, the traditional practice of fattening the birds. Through a tube the birds are force-fed, usually corn, for the last two weeks of their lives. It was developed to mimic the gorging that waterfowl naturally do to prepare for migration.

Celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck took foie gras off his restaurant’s main menus in 2007 (though it was sometimes available at catered events). In February, he wrote an open letter to fellow California chefs urging them to accept the ban: “We chefs have the ability to create delicious and original dishes our customers will love without causing torment to animals.”

“It sounds graphic,” Ottolenghi says, as he describes the gavage he witnessed at the Sonoma farm. But he points out that ducks do not have nerve endings in their throats, which makes swallowing even writhing fish whole an easy task.

“I am actually a PETA member,” Ottolenghi said. “It’s important to me that the products I source are produced humanely. If stopping the mistreatment of animals was the goal, [animal-welfare groups] picked the wrong fight here. It was an easy target because few people—and primarily wealthier people—eat it.”

When the American Veterinary Medical Association last examined the issue, just before the California legislation being passed, it cited a lack of credible studies and did not adopt a stance one way or the other. It noted the potential problems—such as injury from the feeding tubes and animal distress—could be mitigated by good animal-management practices. Which is the point that foie gras supporters, particularly in high-end restaurants, try to make.

“Animals that are treated well, that aren’t stressed out by poor handlers or cramped conditions, will produce quality product,” Ottolenghi says. In other words, great foie gras comes from happy ducks—just as the California Milk Advisory Board ad campaign touted, happy cows make for great cheese. “That sort of care for the animals’ well-being is just as much a good business decision for these small farms as it is the right thing to do for the animals.”

André Rochat, chef-owner of Alizé and Andre’s, dismisses objections to foie gras with all the disdain a Frenchman can muster. “You want to see disgusting? Go to an industrial chicken farm. [By comparison] these ducks live the good life,” he says. “But that’s California—they have a silly solution for everything. Even when there is no problem.”

Despite his support for foie gras farmers, Ottolenghi isn’t satisfied that gavage is the only way to achieve an extraordinarily plump duck liver. Working with a farmer in nearby Amargosa, Calif., he’s been developing a nutrient- and calorie-dense feed to see if ducks will fatten up on their own. Progress is slow, and mostly through failure. It didn’t work, for example, to segregate one duck at time to test the formula. Ducks don’t dine alone. So now he’s expanded his experiment to a flock of eight.

“One thing the ban did, at least for me, is that I realized I can’t be so passive,” Ottolenghi says. “That maybe there is a better way, even if the current way is so unfairly maligned.”

Back in Santa Ana, having made his point, chef Quinn is ready for the demand for foie gras to return to normal. “We’ve done such huge quantities as we prepared for this ban,” he says. “Frankly, we’re sick of cooking it.”

Seven to Savor

Sushi Roku’s foie gras wrapped with yellowtail sashimi with tamari soy and black truffle. $38-$45 (depending on truffle availability).

Marché Bacchus’s torchon du foie gras with strawberry-jalapeño gelée, country toast and pistachio. $20.

RM Seafood’s duo of foie gras with endive, pickled Swiss chard and togarashi meringue. $32.

At Old Homestead Steakhouse, add pan-seared foie gras to any steak for $21.
The Range Steakhouse’s seared foie gras with passion fruit pearls and chive oil. $18.

Restaurant Guy Savoy’s seared, diced foie gras with horseradish, braised and grilled celery stalk ‘serpentines’ and potato chips bouillon. $348 for the prix fixe Innovation-Inspiration menu.

Andre’s Marti-Gras martini of pan-roasted foie gras with brandy, vodka, Tahitian vanilla and honey. $18.