Excusez-Foie: A delicate conversation just got more complicated

Food is more than fuel. Food is comfort, adventure and, if properly prepared, responsible for five of the seven deadly sins. At the tippy-top of the So Wrong But So Right list is foie gras.

Foie is the fatty liver of a duck or goose. It’s also a lightning rod for animal-rights activists. The root of the controversy is gavage (guh-vazh), a cringe-worthy process whereby the waterfowl are force fed to enlarge their livers. Recently, the debate over the ethics of this process has exploded, culminating, at least for now, in a law that banned California restaurants from selling foie beginning July 1.

So, has the harsh light the West Coast has shined on the issue caused chefs here in the Show-Me State to shy away from the crème de la crème of offal? Not quite. In fact, several area white hats are having more fun with foie than ever before – tucking it into nostalgic snacks and even stacking it atop what we typically consider dessert.

But that doesn’t mean they’re ambivalent to the issue. All of the local chefs I spoke with for this story source their foie from Hudson Valley Foie Gras, a New York farm that hand-feeds its ducks in a cage-free, stress-free environment. “I’ve been there. I’ve seen the ducks. Everything is out in the open,” explained Justin Haifley, executive chef at The Tavern Kitchen and Bar in Valley Park. “Those ducks have a better life than a steer on a feed lot.”

It’s a comparison we hear from diners and chefs alike, one that’s voiced throughout the international culinary community and right here in local kitchens. “Any animal could be mistreated. So if you’re going to give up foie, you’ll have to give up beef and pork, too,” stated Joe Hemp, who has been working with the fawned-over delicacy at Robust Wine Bar since he took the exec chef spot back in February 2012. “That’s why you have to know and trust where your meat is coming from. When the animal is treated right, there isn’t any reason not to eat it.”

If foie is on your permanent So Wrong and Never Right list, this information probably won’t change your mind. But me? I’m relieved, because foie and I have been having an illicit relationship ever since I ate my way through the Loire Valley back in 1996, spending my paltry francs on fancy plates of foie instead of fancy glasses of vin. The taste and texture is absolutely transcendent – like the best creamy butter in the world, only creamier and butterier with the sinful decadence of duck fat.

A testament to the supreme powers foie possesses: the Citrus-Scented Foie at Truffles. Here, executive chef Brandon Benack marinates a slab of foie in a sweet and citrusy marinade of Cointreau, vanilla bean, shards of mace and orange zest and then sears it atop a hot griddle. The now delicately crisp foie gets layered on slices of a candied-pecan pound cake amplified with Grand Marnier and orange zest (aka the Best French Toast Ever) that have been soaked in vanilla custard and then fried. House-made apple butter and savory caramel sauce seal in this precise balance of savory and sweet. “I’ve cooked foie 1,000 different ways, and this is my favorite. It’s the pinnacle of years of foie experimentation,” Benack explained to me, as I pealed myself off the floor.

Foie gets a more whimsical treatment at The Tavern, where chef Haifley offers a gourmand’s take on the Hot Pockets of after-school snacking fame. For his Foie Pockets, he stuffs puff pastry with chunks of foie, mushrooms and food-lovers’ other sought-after delicacy: truffles. The bundles are then fried, rolled in Parmesan and herbs, and served with a mild mushroom sauce and beurre blanc (That’s French for a dreamy butter, wine and cream sauce.). While foie purists might resent the mushroom intrusion, those who trust their taste buds will think these are the fanciest, tastiest little pockets they’ve ever tried.

But why did this unpretentious chef put such a fancy ingredient on his menu? “As a chef, you want to give customers the experience of a food that you think is good,” explained Haifley. “People who have never heard of foie can try it and hopefully love it.”

For Hemp, his love of foie struck when he was in the kitchen at Annie Gunn’s preparing foie burgers that oozed with luscious duck fat. (People, I’m telling you: Duck fat is sublime.) Now that he’s at Robust, Hemp prepares a foie pâté using the French torchon technique – French for “towel,” as it involves a four-day-long process during which Hemp soaks the liver in milk, rolls it in a cloth, poaches it, rolls it again and then chills it. The now near-perfect foie later gets whipped into a lighter-than-air pâté that melts lazily and seductively with every bite. In a nod to tradition, Hemp caps it with duck fat and clarified butter, which you can eat if you’re feeling particularly decadent. (Extra calories, for sure. But at this point, what’s a few hundred more?) It’s a worthy preparation, and one that comes straight from the history books, not to mention the kitchens of The French Laundry.

As local chefs keep their finger on the pulse of ethical issues and their palate ever pressed for the Next Big Thing, should we expect even more experimentation on the foie front – possibly something along the lines of the foie milkshake on the menu at Flip Burger Boutique in Atlanta? Not so fast. “Foie is so expensive, I don’t want to waste a piece, or waste the life that gave it, by messing around,” Hemp explained.

And there’s the rub. While these chefs may not be worried about a ban here in Missouri like the one that hit California this past summer, price may ultimately limit the amount of foie we see on menus. Since California foie producers closed their doors, the cost of Grade-A foie has increased 60 percent to approximately $50/pound. At that price, chefs have to make hard choices about how, and how frequently, they offer the treat. Which means foie-lovers must pay for their affair, or end it.