Chef Joey Elenterio on the Future of Foie Gras in California

The Chez TJ chef talks about Foiehibition

Too often the debate over the fate of foie gras in California either gets boiled down into over-simplified terms or boils over into barely coherent invective. The ban against producing or selling foie gras went into effect July 1, in accordance with Senate Bill 1520 which outlawed gavage (or the process of force-feeding ducks or geese) and the selling of any product resulting from the practice, but some area chefs have found ways to continue serving foie gras to customers who want it.

The Presido Social Club, which sits within a small patch of Federal land in San Francisco and as such is beyond the reach of state law simply left the item on its menu — that is until protests made that untenable and the restaurant capitulated. Other local haunts simply kept right on serving foie gras, whether in defiance of the law or simply out of apathy towards it.

Chef Joey Elenterio, executive chef of Chez TJ in Santa Clara has been outspoken in his criticism of SB 1520. To both raise awareness of the issue and support CHEFS (Coalition for Humane and Ethical Farming Standards) — a group founded to oppose the foie gras ban and of which he is a part — he continues to serve foie gras at Chez TJ — though in accordance with the law, the restaurant does not sell the banned delicacy. Instead it is served to guests in exchange for a contribution to CHEFS.

Chefs everywhere, and especially in California, are hyper aware of where their ingredients are sourced. The funny thing is that with foie gras you’re not talking about something people buy in supermarkets; you are talking about a food item that is pretty much only prepared by skilled professional chefs, who are generally deeply conscientious about where their ingredients come from. The formation of CHEFS was the reaction of one group of professionals to California’s unusual step of enacting a ban.

We spoke with Chef Elenterio about how and why he is flaunting the foie gras ban (though not breaking the law).

TTG: What’s your goal in serving foie gras?
Elenterio: It’s more to bring awareness to what is happening. Awareness of how the ducks are actually raised. Awareness of what the government is trying to do. Awareness of the whole issue in general.

Do you think more chefs should paint in these grey areas of the law as part of this effort?
Well, for one I’m not doing anything wrong. I’m not breaking any laws. We’re not selling it. It’s not part of any menu. But beyond that, at the end of the day, what am I doing? I’m just doing what I was doing before July 1st.

I’m luckily enough in a situation where the owner of the restaurant supports me and supports the decisions that we’re making together as a team here. And not all chefs are able to do that. Whether it’s their general manager or whether it’s their owners, or whether it’s their landlords, but I think you’re going to start to seeing more and more chefs step up to the plate and really put some pressure on this law.

It was a little bit of a sticky situation at first. No one knew what to do. But I think more and more as we’re talking together in the chef community, you’re going to see more and more people really try to challenge what’s going on.

What types of things specifically are you trying to make people aware of?
If you look at all pictures and video that you’re seeing from the demonstrators and the protestors, they’re all from the early nineties and late eighties. It’s the same photos — the same 10 photos — the same videos.

And the three companies that are — that were producing foie gras in the United States — now that there’s only two [Artisan Foie Gras in Sonoma, the only farm in the state of California that practiced gavage has closed as a result of SB 1520], they take great pride in what they do. They take great care of these birds. These birds are happy. And there’s a wide misunderstanding amongst Americans about what’s really happening to these birds and ducks. Unfortunately, a lot of people aren’t willing to take the time out of their day to go and find accurate research, and they’re just believing what they’re being gavaged, if you will, with the bad press on what these farmers are doing.

I’ve been to the farm, I’ve seen these ducks. These are happy ducks. And it’s unfortunate. This process they are using to enlarge these ducks’ livers, which is something that these ducks do on their own — yeah sure, any chef will tell you that we are exploiting the process; we are definitely exploiting this process — these ducks though, they do it to themselves. And with this process that they’re using that activists are using the words “ramming a pipe down their throats,” it’s absurd. Because this is the same exact process that they use to bring half-dead birds that are the victims of oil spills and things like that, that can’t even feed themselves, back to life. If this process was truly torture than it would kill those birds that are already half-dead.

It’s about now bringing awareness of the reality of foie gras, the reality of what the government is trying to do. It’s really scary. Because what is next? What is the government going to tell us we can and can not eat next?

Why raise awareness in this way?
The more people that see it. The more people that are actually educated and want to learn about it are going to go out and find the information and learn about it. Those are the people we’re trying to reach.

If we don’t do anything about it and we just let the law happen then no one is going to know what’s really going on. No one’s going to know about these birds. They’re just going to believe what they see. And CHEFS has been spreading the word as much as possible. I was actually one of the chefs who went up and lobbied at the state capital here in California. It’s a very, very scary issue.

But really, let’s look at it. What’s a bigger issue in America? The pork. Tyson Chicken. How about these cows? It’s scary that the reason foie gras is being attacked is because it is the low hanging fruit.

But if you look at, say, your Thanksgiving turkey is a great example. Do you really think that 60-pound bird is a real thing? Is that a natural thing? 60 pounds? That’s ridiculous.

The Chicago ban didn’t last long, partly because there was a real lack of public support for spending any money enforcing a what many saw to be a fatuous law. While there are wild differences between the political climates in Chicago and California, are there any lessons to be gleaned from what happened there? Have you felt public support against the ban where you are?
I think we’re at a 50/50 split at the moment. I get a lot of people that are really against what we’re doing and against foie gras. And I would say a good deal of those people aren’t really educated about what’s really going on, or what the law actually is. Which is unfortunate, because trying to educate the people who are against what we’re doing — who have no idea what’s really going on — we’re trying to educate them and give them all the tools to make an educated choice on whether they believe in it or not.

If I was an outsider and I had no connection to the restaurant and I didn’t eat foie gras, or wasn’t aware of it, and I saw all these videos and photos, sure, I would probably do the same thing. I would probably jump on the bandwagon and say “It’s torture,” and “you’re evil,” blah, blah, blah.

But at the same time, I have people coming in from a couple hours away just to try foie gras for the first time. And they’re supporting just the fact of standing up to the government and putting forth the effort to try understand it.

Have you had specific conversations with chefs who are interested in doing the sort of thing you are at Chez TJ?
You’re already starting to see it. Txoko in San Francisco is starting to do “Free Foie Wednesdays” where they’re giving foie gras away for free to the first 25 people.

I think you’re going to start seeing it more and more. Others are doing it in their own way, like the chef in Napa kind of doing it under the radar, because of maybe their landlord or they don’t want to deal with the DA or this and that, that’s understandable. I happen to be in a situation where I can speak out against it because my owner backs me. And at the end of the day, we are not doing anything wrong here. We’re not selling it. We’re not producing it. We are not breaking the law here.

You’ve surely gotten some cranky Yelp reviews and you received a letter from the Santa Clara DA. What has been the fall out for you?
You can go on Yelp right now and see the negative reviews from it. And we haven’t really been getting that many emails any more; we were definitely getting a few emails at first. But really it’s starting to calm down a little bit. And I think that a lot of the people who were sending emails and making phone calls at first were the people who were just jumping on that bandwagon and really don’t understand the process these ducks are going through and aren’t looking at the picture as a whole.

How do you see this playing out as an anti-prohibition strategy?
What we’ve been doing at CHEFS for a while — we’re really not trying to anything than set the bar in California for the highest standards in the world. That is our goal.

We’re not just trying to make foie gras legal. Our idea, and what we’re trying to get the government to do, is if we’re going to serve foie gras and produce foie gras in the state of California than it’s going to be produced to the highest standard possible in the entire world. And you’d be hard pressed to find a chef who doesn’t care about where their produce and protein comes from. Hard pressed. I mean, I know where my garlic comes from. I know where my salt comes from. I so olive oil tastings to make sure I’m getting the best olive oil. It’s ridiculous for people to say that we’re evil and we don’t care about the product we’re using.