In the debate over foie gras, chefs take out their knives.
BY VICTORINO MATUS
In a Newsweek column last May, chef and restaurateur Wolfgang Puck explained how he would run his food empire from now on: "It's about getting every one of us to eat the right foods," he said, outlining his plans for serving pesticide-free vegetables and free-range chicken, beef and pork. "As for foie gras," Mr. Puck said of the delicacy of buttery rich duck (or goose) liver, "my customers and I can easily live without it."
The classically trained Austrian chef, who earned his fame at Spago and whose products can now be found at both the airport and the frozen-food section, has clearly touched a nerve in, as they say, the celebrity-chef community.
"I think he should stop worrying about cruelty to animals and start worrying about all the customers he's flopping his crap on at airports," says chef Anthony Bourdain, the author of "Kitchen Confidential" and the star of the TV series "No Reservations." Mr. Bourdain elaborates: "He does a lot of business in California. He got squeezed and pressured and phone-called from all angles, and like a good German shopkeeper he folded and sold out the people hiding in the cellar next door. I got no respect."
"A German shopkeeper"? How has a debate over goose liver gotten so nasty? And when did being a chef become so, well, political?
Chefs have always had their opinions. Julia Child's biographer Laura Shapiro writes that, "as she saw it, irradiation didn't pose nearly the threat [to our way of eating] that, say, vegetarianism did." In the 1970s, Paul Bocuse led the way toward simpler dishes with fresh ingredients, launching nouvelle cuisine. And Alice Waters emphasized local and organic foods with her "earth-to-table movement." But the question of whether to serve a dish or not because of humanitarian concerns is a relatively new one.
Banning foie gras has become a rallying cry for animal-rights activists across the country because the delicacy requires the insertion of a feeding tube into the duck's or goose's esophagus for several seconds three times a day toward the end of the bird's life; this force-feeding causes the liver to swell to well over its normal size. California plans on banning foie gras by 2012, and it's already illegal in Chicago. Last month the Humane Society of the U.S. sent the Agriculture Department a petition pushing for a nationwide ban.
But now the delicacy has caused a split among celebrity chefs--some of whom believe their job is preparing food, while others want to use their fame to score political points. In an email, Mr. Puck said his decision was not the result of being bullied. Reflecting on Spago's 25th anniversary, he writes: "I realized that . . . we had built a very successful company . . . and I wanted to use this success as a platform for doing something more socially responsible--something that needed leadership. Removing foie gras is a small part of our larger initiative . . . about values and eating and living WELL." (Mr. Puck's nine-point WELL program stands for "Wolfgang's Eating, Loving and Living.")
Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society, whose organization worked with Mr. Puck on WELL, says the group did not engage in pressure tactics. But Michael Ginor, co-founder and president of Hudson Valley Foie Gras, disagrees: "There was an awful lot of pressure. I know from Wolfgang Puck's own chefs who are friends."
Some chefs view the criticism of foie gras as a direct assault on their tradition and heritage (it has been eaten since the time of the ancient Egyptians). "The intimidation [animal-rights activists] gave me and my staff--this is a big political problem," says Daniel Boulud, New York's four-star restaurateur and host of the TV show "After Hours" (in which the chef throws a dinner party for friends at a different restaurant each week). "Animals are treated here for the purpose of food--I think the duck has a pretty nice life." Culinary elder statesman Jacques Pépin calls the banning efforts "a sham." (Both men are respectful of Mr. Puck but believe, like Mr. Ginor, that he was pressured into his decision.)
Bill Buford of The New Yorker considers the activism of chefs "a good thing because food itself is and always has been more than just a plate of food. It is also history, identity, family, biology, culture, and, yes, politics." Fair enough. But like other celebrities who campaign to save the rainforests or to stop global warming, chefs may eventually push the limits of their fame. And Mr. Puck's customers may decide they've had enough.
On the other hand, Mr. Buford, the author of the best-selling "Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany," couldn't care less about the specifics of this debate: "It's a fat bomb," he says of foie gras, "the swollen testimony of a goose that has lived a luxurious life, offered up as an inflated luxury to the people prepared to pay for it. . . . Who cares? Do you? I don't." Clearly, some others do.