SAN FRANCISCO - Diners are lining up to get their last bit of foie gras at Santa Monica's Mélisse restaurant, where chef Josiah Citrin is offering a "Foie for All" five-course tasting menu.
"We're super busy," maitre d' Matthew Greenberg says. "About 30% of our guests are ordering foie gras."
Other California restaurants are also seeing a rise in orders of the gourmet duck liver, a delicacy that will become illegal to sell in the state on July 1.
Critics object to how the ducks and geese are raised: Three-month-old birds are force-fed by inserting a tube in their throat and pouring in grain. Over the two- or three-week feeding period before slaughter, the birds' livers enlarge from 3 ounces to about a pound and a quarter. More than a dozen countries ban the practice.
California chefs haven't given up hope that they can keep dishes such as Mélisse's "foie gras flan with blood orange gelée" on the menu. More than 100 have submitted a petition urging the Legislature to lift the ban.
The group, which calls itself the Coalition for Humane and Ethical Farming Standards (CHEFS), is proposing new rules that would require farmers to raise geese and ducks in a cage-free environment, minimize stress and use feeding methods that do not harm the birds' esophagus or beak.
The chefs need a two-thirds vote in both the state Assembly and Senate to overturn the ban.
Animal rights activists say there's no humane way to force-feed ducks and geese.
"Shoving a pipe down a duck's throat three times a day to force him to eat far more than he would eat on his own is just inhumane," says Paul Shapiro, who leads the farm animal protection division at the Humane Society of the United States. The ducks "have difficulty even walking by the end of the process," he says.
It's just part of life and death on the farm, chefs say - and worth it. Foie gras is rich and luscious, tender when served hot, and when cold, "it's like eating really delicious salted, duck-flavored butter," says Daniel Scherotter, executive chef at Palio d'Asti here.
Hunters have always known that geese and ducks gorging themselves on grain before flying south for the winter developed fat livers - in French, foie gras.
Farmers as far back as Greek and Roman times began to deliberately overfeed geese, which eventually developed into a method of force-feeding geese and ducks called gavage. Ducks, the farmers note, have a strong, insensitive esophagus that allows them to swallow fish whole.
Hudson Valley Foie Gras in Ferndale, N.Y., is one of the USA's few foie gras producers. "We let hundreds of people on our farm to see the process," operations manager Marcus Henley says. The company has posted YouTube videos in the belief that if the public sees the actual process, people will understand that it's not damaging to the birds.
Foie foes are naive, Scherotter says. "It attracts the kind of loony-left animal rights activists who are urban and suburban white people who are unaware of how food is produced, so when they actually see it they're grossed out by it. Rural people don't have these issues."
John Burton, who introduced the original legislation in 2004 when he was Senate president pro tempore, told the San Francisco Chronicle, "I'd like to sit all 100 (chefs) down and have duck and goose fat - better yet, dry oatmeal - shoved down their throats over and over and over again."
Chef Mark Pastore, owner of Incanto restaurant in San Francisco, condemned what he called Burton's "use of violent rhetoric" in an opinion piece in the Chronicle on May 10 and asked for a public apology.
Burton, now chairman of the state Democratic Party, says the chefs had seven years to work out a plan. "There was a deal cut" to give California's only producer, Sonoma Foie Gras, time to "either figure out how to do this right or figure out how to make money doing other stuff," he says. "Nobody heard a peep out of anybody" until now.
"The effect of the ban is the closing of a successful family business," Guillermo Gonzalez, owner of Sonoma Foie Gras, said via e-mail. "Our farm is being forced to close its doors at the end of June, and the most unfortunate fact is that science has not been given a chance to play a role in this debate."
Foie gras is "an integral part of gourmet cooking," and the ban could lead to a black market, says Nathan Ballard, a spokesman for the chefs' group. "If you have smugglers and bootleggers who are willing to risk criminal prosecution to sell foie gras in California," he says, no one will be able to watch over how the ducks are raised because it will be happening in secret.
He says that when Chicago passed a foie gras ban in 2006, "chefs started selling $25 croutons and giving away the foie gras for free." The Chicago ban was overturned in 2008.
Banning foie gras "knocks California down a peg as a culinary destination," Ballard says. That, he suggests, could lead to fine diners bypassing the Golden State for the restaurants of Las Vegas.
Burton isn't convinced. "Right," he says sarcastically. "California has wineries, Disneyland, but ... 'They don't have foie gras - let's go to South Dakota instead.' "
By Elizabeth Weise