City's foie gras foes put heat on chefs

Activists protest at restaurants in an effort to rid them of the French delicacy

This article was published June 3, 2007

 

To chef David Ansill, foie gras is rich, silky liver, the perfect topping for his signature dish at his Queen Village restaurant.

To animal-rights activist Nick Cooney, foie gras (pronounced "fwah GRAH") represents the freakishly engorged liver of a brutally force-fed duck or goose.

So Cooney and about a dozen fellow placard-wielding protesters have gathered twice a week in front of Ansill and other Philadelphia restaurants that serve foie gras. Their goal is a foie-gras-free city.

Philadelphia has become a new battleground in the war against foie gras, not only regarded as a delicacy but as a cherished symbol of French culinary pride. Primarily prepared in restaurants and not at home, foie gras is deemed by fanciers as the epitome of luxury, one of the pricier ingredients, usually sliced into medallions and quick-seared or sauteed as an appetizer or garnish.

Restaurateur Stephen Starr removed foie gras from his menus, emboldening protesters to crank up their threats in the last month. Some restaurateurs have conceded just to get rid of them, while others have dug in.

In one recent skirmish, chef Georges Perrier took Cooney and his group, Hugs for Puppies, to court to shoo them from the Walnut Street doorstep of his world-renowned Le Bec-Fin, where he whips up foie gras compote and foie gras ravioli in Périgourdine sauce.

Foie gras, facing a ban in California and wiped off menus last year in Chicago (though its mayor is seeking to overturn that ban), is on the block in Philadelphia.

A bill to ban its sale is pending in City Council's Licenses and Inspections Committee. Sponsor Jack Kelly plans to meet with new Council members after January's swearing-in before he moves on the bill, said his legislative director, John Cerrone. A more immediate issue, Cerrone said, is the city's homicide rate.

Wholesalers, meanwhile, say sales are better than ever. "All this publicity has been doing good so far," said Ariane Daguin, whose gourmet wholesaler, D'Artagnan in Newark, N.J., deals extensively in foie gras. "But I worry about the future." Under a new law, foie gras may not be produced or sold in California after 2012.

Animal-rights activists insist that the feeding process, called gavage from a French word meaning "to gorge," is cruel and diseases the livers. (Most foie gras in the United States is made from ducks. Birds used for conventional liver and paté are not force-fed and are not the target of activists.)

Foie gras' fans, including producers, distributors and chefs, counter that this is a canard - that the ducks do not suffer when being pumped with corn mush, and that U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors would not allow diseased livers to be sold.

Daugin said she believed that the U.S. foie gras industry - mainly two farms, one in California, one in New York state - was being picked on unfairly while other industries were largely ignored. Foie gras is "the easiest target because it's easy to show a tube in the neck of a duck," she said.

The issue has brought national groups to Philadelphia. The farm-advocacy group Farm Sanctuary held protests here as part of its annual meeting in late April. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals plans leafleting on Wednesday in Center City.

The loudest voice - and the reason the foie-gras movement has come to Center City - is a group under the warm-and-fuzzy name Hugs for Puppies.

Its leader is Cooney, 25, a lanky, long-haired Northeast Philadelphia native who became a vegetarian at 18 and shares a West Philadelphia house with friends and fellow Hugs for Puppies members.

In 2004, an FBI task force raided Cooney's house, searching for materials related to a campaign to shut down an animal-testing company. Cooney and other members targeted Huntingdon Life Sciences, protesting at its New Jersey headquarters and at the homes of employees and business associates. Cooney also was accused in 2004 of violating a court order restricting protests against a corporate executive.

Cooney said he had turned his attention to foie gras and to community vegetarian outreach. He also said he was not opposed to picketing restaurateurs' homes and had once picketed Starr's.

Cooney was "inspired" when Starr pulled foie gras from Barclay Prime, his Rittenhouse Square steak house. But Starr declined to credit protesters with his change of heart.

"Deep down, I did agree with them," Starr said last week. "I think it is cruel - probably ethically wrong - the way it's raised."

Starr pulled foie gras from his other restaurants, including Alma de Cuba, Morimoto and Striped Bass.

Hugs for Puppies members found several dozen other establishments serving foie gras. Picket lines went up.

Some restaurateurs - including Audrey Taichman at Twenty Manning and Peter Mooradian and Anthony Bonett at Oceanaire - have been receptive, Cooney said. But Perrier "has not been good," Cooney said. "They have never been willing to meet with us."

Perrier sent his lawyers into Common Pleas Court to seek an injunction to bar pickets. In a compromise signed Friday by Perrier's attorneys and the American Civil Liberties Union, as many as eight protesters may set up near, but not in front, of Le Bec-Fin. Protesters also must remain 10 feet from Brasserie Perrier, another Perrier-owned restaurant, and may not shout at patrons.

While protesting Friday night outside Le Bec-Fin, Cooney and eight followers spotted Perrier stepping into his black Mercedes and screamed, "Shame! Shame! Shame!"

Perrier drove off.

Cooney and four others protested yesterday across from Di Bruno's Bros. near Rittenhouse Square, which sells 6-ounce packages of foie gras with truffles for $19.99.

The impact of protesters is not clear. Danguin said sales at wholesaler D'Artagnan were at their peak, but foie-gras foes are dubious.

"Demand is dropping once people learn how the product is made," said Gene Baur of Farm Sanctuary, based in Watkins Glen, N.Y., which picketed outside Philadelphia's Four Seasons Hotel on April 28.

A Four Seasons spokeswoman said foie gras was no longer offered at its top-rated Fountain restaurant.

In January, Hugs for Puppies approached management at Oceanaire, a seafood restaurant on Washington Square. Foie gras was removed. "It wasn't selling that well, anyway," said Mooradian, the general manager.

Along with the Starr restaurants, Oceanaire appears on Hugs for Puppies' roster of restaurants no longer serving foie gras. The list contains wishful thinking. Cooney said last week that the Jose Garces-owned restaurants Amada and Tinto were in the process of taking foie gras off the menu, but a spokeswoman said Friday that it remained.

Other restaurateurs - besides the feisty Perrier, who did not wish to comment for this article - will not be cowed.

Ansill, who owns the boutique restaurants Ansill and Pif, called the protests "self-defeating. People who didn't know what foie gras is, now they are interested in trying it. We sell a little more when they are out here. I thought about hiring them."

Terry McNally, an owner of the London Grill in Fairmount, which dribbles foie gras butter on its hanger steak, cheekily said she was thinking of planning a foie gras festival.

"We're not giving it up," she said. "We've certainly looked into . . . the farming methods. We're 100 percent behind sustainable agriculture. We're no dummies. . . . There's no arguing with these kids."

Asked whether he would remove foie gras, Ansill said: "Now it is such a hard question. At Pif, we change the menu every day. It was never on the menu, but we used to get a lot of requests for it. That is when I started making it. . . . People liked it, kept asking for it."

He added that at Ansill, "it is one of our signature dishes, shirred eggs with truffles and cream with a little piece of foie gras on top. But I have now made the foie gras optional on that dish. . . . I'm not forcing anybody to eat it. If you want to eat it, eat it. If you don't, don't."

 


Contact staff writer Michael Klein at 215-854-5514 or mklein@phillynews.com.