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The Toronto chefs on a mission to source ethical foie gras

 As Manhattan passes a bill prohibiting its use, we ask if ethical foie gras exists and meet the chefs striving to make it work.

Ethical foie gras | a dish at Bar Isabel

Foie gras, along with truffles and caviar, is a symbol of excess. "I've never considered not using foie gras," says chef Nicholas Trosien, chef de cuisine at Café Boulud. "It's almost an expectation from our menu."

But not everyone feels the same. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) scorns the ingredient, pointing out that it can only be made by force-feeding birds.

Over 100 restaurants in Toronto serve foie gras, from formal dining spots to fast-casual eateries. Café Boulud serves it in many ways: seared, covered in a blanket of cherries, or in charcuterie. At Mother Tongue, a Filipino and Pan-Asian-inspired spot on Adelaide, alongside a menu of bao buns, Guangzhou chicken wings and lemongrass chicken, chef Francis Bermejo carefully folds foie gras into delicate duck confit dumplings.

AloBar does a mousse version, piped onto house-baked brioche, while the beer sippers at Bellwoods Brewery can spoon foie gras terrine on toast points. Holy Chuck offers it as an add-on to burgers and poutines. ("Want foie gras with those fries?") But south of the border, New York chefs are losing this luxury. Thanks to Bill 1378, Manhattan menus will be wiped clean of foie by 2022. Chefs are mourning the loss of a dear friend. "It's like taking letters from our alphabet," one New York chef said.

It's trickling north. Outside Bar Isabel (who serves it shaved atop Balearic cured sausage) last November, animal rights activists drew picket lines, standing outside with signs decrying the product. Foie gras is a contentious, polarizing product: chefs are either strongly for or against it but usually not in between. It is not alone in its divisiveness: horse meat, beluga caviar, shark fins and unpasteurized milk have all met debates over ethics, public health or animal endangerment.

But foie gras has had a particularly large target on its back. The price tag (averaging $50 a pound) makes it a delicacy. Chefs argue that it's far more than a pricey topping. It's essential to culinary history. Removing it is an infringement on the craft. "Everything I grew up reading or researching in my education – it always comes back to foie gras, as a delicacy or in a classic recipe," recalls Boulud's Nicholas Trosien.

Other chefs simply find it redundant. Roger Yang, owner of Avelo, has never seen the draw and is appalled at the process, though he does offer that mock "faux-gras" version made of mushrooms and herbs on his bar menu. "We can get the same kind of texture, the same kind of experience without actually using liver."

Even the Titanic's final dinner served foie gras, baked en croute

Roman and Greek gourmands ate it. Roman Jews ate it – the product met kosher dietary laws. Louis XIV and his Sun Court fawned over the ingredient, and the French upper crust followed his lead. With that, foie gras solidified its home on high-end menus across the globe, where it has reigned ever since. (Even the Titanic's final dinner included foie gras, baked en croute and sprinkled in a snowfall of truffles.)

Scholars think that in ancient times, the birds weren't force-fed: wild geese and ducks would chubby up, stocking fat in their liver and doubling their weight, before migrating. Egyptians learned to domesticate geese and waterfowl, gently hand-feeding them – a process we now know as gavage – with local figs to replicate the natural gorging.

With industrialization, force-feeding got less personal. Hands were replaced with mechanized feeding tubes. Fruits were replaced with low-cost grain mixes. It was no longer a seasonal ingredient. Birds were fed earlier in life, and slaughtered at a young age, usually just 100 days old.

Today, the process is astonishing: ducks are force-fed for a 20-day feeding regimen that swells the liver up to 20 times its original size. "It's unnatural – you have to make a bird sick," explains Ashely Byrne, associate director of PETA. Animal activists liken it to cockfighting or dogfighting – cruel and archaic.

Why are people so enamoured? How can foie gras join Wagyu beef, caviar and truffles as part of the small cult of astronomically priced, prestigious products?

"People believe that foie gras's high price tag means birds are raised in exemplary conditions," explains Byrne. Truffles are found through foraging, and caviar prices fluctuate with rarity. Wagyu farmers massage their stock to reduce stress. Some even sing to the cattle, or serve them cold beers to bliss-out the cows and increase appetites. "But foie gras is not the same. Ducks are raised on filthy factory farms, just like other animals."

Often, the ducks are just farmed for their liver; the rest is discarded. "At Hudson Valley Foie Gras," Byrne explains, referring to the massive New York foie operation, "15,000 birds drop dead a year, too sick or injured to finish out the feeding regimen."

Investigators have snuck into the factory, finding birds broken, battered and bloody, shoved into tiny cages.

But many chefs say it's the large-scale, factory farming that skews public perception. "Some companies give foie a bad name," advocates Trosien. "There are tons of small farmers who are going about it the right way."

"A lot of the controversy regarding foie gras comes from irresponsible farming practices," adds chef Jason Bangerter, who heads Langdon Hall's award-winning, sustainably-minded culinary programme. On a trip to France he visited a foie farm and saw first-hand how the process "can be done with care and respect for the animal." Ducks, who wag their tails when happy, like a dog, were running free, tails shaking with glee.

Ethical foie gras | On Mariposa Farms
Ethical foie gras | ducklings on Mariposa Farm

This visit set the bar for him on what to look for in a Canadian-based supplier. Now, he works with two different farmers (Quebec's Rougié and La Canardière) who pride themselves on animal welfare. "They maintain a stress-free environment to produce a quality ingredient."

Ottawa's Mariposa Farms imports foie gras and sells it to restaurants, yes, but they don't produce foie themselves. Owner Ian Walker says they make 'blonde livers': fatty livers created when free-range geese naturally over-feed to get ready for the frigid Ottawa winters.

Only 50 per cent of Walker's geese produce this pale, foie-like liver at Mariposa Farms. He doesn't force it, he says: "It's just a bonus for me." It happens, or it doesn't.

To Walker, and to many chefs, the debate shouldn't be for or against foie gras, it should be a conversation about the industry as a whole. "There are many, many, many agricultural issues in our industry," sighs Walker. "How we're feeding our population is extremely dubious."

He's frustrated that people are spending energy banning one product, rather than tackling the issue of mass factory farms. "What about the chickens in small cages? Why aren't they banning eggs, then?"

"Overusing, overfishing... There are so many things we have to be aware of," continues Trosien. "You always need to be conscious about where your products, from fruit to vegetables to pork, are coming from, how they are treating the animals. You really have to do your homework."

Bangerter knows that it is his responsibility to "take the time and effort to understand where my ingredients come from and build a relationship with the supplier to ensure we share the same values. These values never waiver when sourcing any ingredient – even foie gras."

Norway and Denmark banned the force-feeding of animals in 1974 and 1991 respectively, with Italy making the ban in 2004. By 2005, Israel had banned foie gras while Prince Charles had it removed from royal menus in 2008. France holds strong – in 2006, the product was declared part of the country's "protected cultural and gastronomic heritage."

Ethical foie gras | Plating up at Mother Tongue

California banned sales in 2004, and Chicago in 2006. The latter ban was pulled back two years later. California reversed its ban in 2015, but in 2019 went back to the ban.

The incoming laws in New York – one of the biggest foie markets in the world – will leave the industry in flux, with American farms bracing to close.

When asked if this ban will rock the Canadian industry, Ian Walker, owner of Ontario's Mariposa Farms, is confident. "Historically when these things start to happen they increase the market, oddly. Chefs stock up – they're pissed off and they want to support the industry."

Chefs ordered more foie gras, slipping it onto their menus with pride

He's right that when New York City voted to ban the ingredient, sales ballooned by 20 to 30 per cent. Chefs ordered more and more, slipping it onto their menus with pride. It was a political statement: "We support foie gras. We stand behind it!"

Bangerter is watching foie gras technique disappear from the industry, but he stands by it. "The culinary world is constantly evolving and our ingredient choices are being guided by sustainable choices."

He'll use it, but seasonally, and with a zero-waste mentality: conjuring the product into terrines, and parfaits and off-cuts. The excess is frozen and grated or rendered into fat for basting. "Nothing is ever wasted."

PETA's Byrne knows foie gras's future will depend on consumer awareness. "Young people value things that are ethical, sustainable and good for the environment," she says. "Compared to prior generations, the idea of what is valuable and luxurious and worthwhile is different now."

As society veers to healthier and more sustainable options, it's becoming increasingly impossible for companies that are cruel to the environment or to animals to survive. "And it's hard to greenwash foie gras," she points out.

"The thing with bans," says Avelo's Yang "is even for people who don't eat foie gras, it will make them think about their food a little bit more. It starts a discussion." When he opened up his first high-end, plant-based spot five years ago, vegetables were a "weird, hippie fringe thing." Now, it's the norm.

Even chefs who cling to foie gras recognize they're conduits for change, and it's their role to be educators. "We need to give our guests the best product," explains Trosien, "But also the best story and the best information."

Will foie gras continue to be invited to the party? Time will tell, but diners will decide.

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