The Chicago Ban on Foie Gras Is Long Gone, But the Controversy Isn’t
"The reality is that it's a bit of an antiquated product," says chef Robert Shaner, "but it’s so incredibly delicious."
Back in 2006, Chicago enacted a ban on foie gras, a ban predicated on the perceived inhumanity of the French delicacy of fattened duck or goose liver. It was nothing if not divisive. Some, like Charlie Trotter, embraced it, removing foie from his menu and vocally encouraging others to do the same. Others, like Didier Durand, ducked the ban by selling a $16 “roasted potato” dish, while Doug Sohn of Hot Doug’s flouted it entirely, opting instead to pay the $250 fine.
The ban ultimately proved short-lived. Since its repeal in 2008, Chicago chefs have embraced foie gras, offering a preponderance of dishes ranging from a foie gras cotton candy at Bazaar Meat to a foie gras crème brûlée at Soif Wine Lounge. But 15 years later, not all of Chicago’s chefs feel the same about the delicacy.
Foie’s public difficulties stems in large part from its reliance on a process known as gavage, whereby ducks or geese are tube-fed (read: force-fed) grain in the last few weeks of their lives. This process enlarges their liver, rendering it very fatty (and for some, very tasty). Author, professional cook and foie gras expert Kate Hill of Kitchen at Camont says that there’s nothing inhumane about it.
“Everybody gets really hot and bothered about it,” Hill tells InsideHook, “but they don’t really understand what it means or how long it lasts.”
It all comes down to an understanding of palmiped physiognomy. First off, Hill explains, unlike humans, birds have totally separate feeding and breathing canals, with the former boasting a crop — a sort of pocket that allows the bird to store grain in preparation for migration.
“People often think that they’re cramming something down their throat, when that’s not the case,” she explains.
On a well-managed foie gras farm, the likes of which exist in Spain, France, and even in the U.S., birds will spend most of their lives out of doors, only to be kept in a barn and undergoing gavage in the last two weeks or so. Chicago chef Aaron Cuschieri of The Dearborn sources his foie gras from one such farm, and perhaps the biggest name in humane foie in the U.S.: New York’s Hudson Valley Foie Gras.
“They respect the product, and we respect the process of what goes into making this product,” Cuschieri says. “Because of that, we’re proud to serve it on the menu.” As a young chef in Chicago, he “caught the tail end of the ban.”
“I think there was like a sense of…loss, I guess, if that makes sense,” he recalls. “If we love it, we want to serve it.”
While he understands that foie can be “polarizing,” he also thinks that education is key. As with his chicken and prime beef, Cuschieri’s foie comes exclusively from one source, allowing him to be secure in the ethical and sustainabile practices behind the products he ultimately serves. And he is careful about educating his servers so that they can effectively communicate about foie and the other ingredients on his menu.
“We’re proud to always have it in some capacity on the menu, because we want to educate and inform,” he says. Currently, it’s an add-on option for his cheeseburger featuring Wisconsin cheddar and a brioche bun. “We’re trying to break stigmas like that.”
Chef Don Young was one of the youngest chefs to ever win a Michelin star in the U.S. for his work at Temporis in 2019. A Chicagoland native, he recalls being a high school senior in a culinary vocational class when the ban was lifted.
“I remember how excited my teacher/chef was!” Young says. “This was my start to learning about this product at the time.”
Today, he specializes in duck with his private culinary experiences at Duck Sel, and he has opted, like Cuschieri, to rely on Hudson Valley’s products, thanks to the company’s ethical standards and transparency. According to Young, Chicago currently has a big appetite for foie, with more diners worrying about a livery flavor than any purported ethical quandaries. He himself has served it in many forms, but these days, he’s most excited by an avant-garde approach. His Grand Marnier soufflé, for example, features a foie gras crème anglaise spiked with angostura bitters and caramel.
“The anglaise matches well with the Grand Marnier and orange zest it,” he says of the dish that marries his classic French training and contemporary flair. “I ‘grew up’ using it so much that I, too, fell in love with it.”
Robert Shaner also evokes classic French cuisine in his work as the chef-owner of Robert et Fils, an upscale French restaurant where, he says, it feels “kind of foolish” to not serve foie. That’s despite the fact that, these days, the product is even posing ethical problems in its country of origin, with the mayor of the gastronomic capital of Lyon banning the use of it in municipal dinners. Shaner admits to feeling “mixed” about its use.
“The reality is that it’s a bit of an antiquated product,” he says. “But it’s so incredibly delicious that we have a hard time letting go of it.” His hesitation, however, isn’t necessarily linked to gavage. Rather, it’s part of a bigger picture: that of foie’s place within the greater agro-industrial complex, alongside other more normalized but no less unnatural products like milk or eggs.
“It’s not natural for a cow to give birth to a calf and then be milk-milk-milked,” agrees Hill. “We continue to milk them long after their natural milking life would be.” In the same vein, ducks and geese have a natural predilection for gorging themselves — albeit only in the spring and fall, before migration.
“So you would only have foie gras, available, then, twice a year,” says Hill. “We manipulate the animals’ behavior to have the product that we want whenever we want it.” It’s this side of foie production — and meat production in general — that gives Shaner pause.
“In the world where we live now, where we see how inefficient, in a broader sense, things are — how poorly managed our entire food system is, it doesn’t feel fantastic to serve a product that is a questionable practice,” he says. “My stance isn’t one that will help us promote our restaurant. I’m just saying, in complete transparency, I’m conflicted.”
Foie, he says, has gotten far more attention than other animal products like eggs, cheese and beef, “because it’s in such a unique place.” “But the reality is that the food system is broken,” he says. “It’s not foie. Foie is just an example.”
Cuschieri agrees. “At face value, people think that it’s inhumane and that it’s not fair to the animals,” he says. “But the stuff you’re buying at the supermarket is less fair to the animals than the foie gras that I serve.”
“It’s all broken,” adds Shaner. “And we can focus on foie, or we can focus on other luxury ingredients that have dubious positions in this world, but I think we can’t just focus on one.”
Despite his conflicted state of mind, he does still serve foie at Robert et Fils, opting for a classic preparation: set in a torchon and served with brioche and caramelized onions.
“I’ve done mousses that I’ve set in funny molds with different layers,” he says. “And at the end of the day, when I personally eat foie, that’s what I want: I just want some bread and some foie.”
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