Founder and CEO of Artisan Sonoma Foie Gras Guillermo Gonzalez stands in front of an orchard where ducks to produce his foie gras were raised, at his farm in Farmington, California in May. A looming foie gras ban in California is pitting animal rights protestors against high-end chefs. Squeezed in the middle is Gonzalez, lamenting the end of his “American dream.”
In the run-up to the California ban, some of the Golden State’s top chefs including Thomas Keller, the only US chef with two three Michelin-starred restaurants, redoubled efforts to persuade lawmakers to overturn the ban.
Calling themselves the Coalition for Humane and Ethical Farming Standards (CHEFS), they have staged a series of foie gras-rich evenings to raise money for the cause.
But John Burton, the former California legislator who drafted the law, dismissed their calls, likening the tradition of foie gras to waterboarding and female genital mutilation.
“They’ve had all this time to figure it out and come up with a more humane way,” he lamented to the San Francisco Chronicle in April.
“I’d like to sit all 100 of them down and have duck and goose fat — better yet, dry oatmeal — shoved down their throats over and over and over again,” he added.
Animal rights campaigners have, when they got wind of such events, been quick to stage protests outside restaurants, chanting slogans like “Helpless ducks are force fed, eat somewhere else instead.”
But Mark Berkner, owner and chef at “Taste” in Plymouth, 40 minutes east of Sacramento where the bill was passed, said lawmakers should not be allowed to force their ethical choices on his restaurant’s customers.
“We want to have choices here,” he told AFP at one of the support-foie gras events, questioning the precedent it sets. “We don’t want to be told down the road you can’t serve chicken, you can’t serve pork, you can’t serve beef.”
Back on his near-empty farm, Gonzalez said critics of foie gras often simply have misconceptions about the force-feeding process — involving inserting a funnel into ducks’ throats — which he insists is not cruel.
“The big problem is the lack of education for the general public,” he said, stressing the personal relationship between feeder and ducks, and the physiognomy which lets ducks hold and digest large amounts of food.
The process can harm them, if done wrongly, he said — but compared it to a human baby being fed with milk.
“Even a mother of a baby, of a human being, .. if she doesn’t have the skill to give her the bottle can harm the baby. It’s as simple as that,” he said. “You have to have the skill.”
He said the fight to try to keep his business running, including defending lawsuits, has cost him $1.6 million over the last decade. “We essentially lost our retirement fund,” he said.
But sitting next to his wife Junny — who also turned 60 this year and is known locally as “The Foie Gras Lady” — he insisted he is not angry.
“No, I don’t feel angry. I think anger is a very negative feeling that only leads to bad results. I think that sadness and resignation is one that leads to a more constructive positive future,” he said.
Gonzalez is considering various business options, including rearing a particular type of French duck commercially, although he will take some time to decide what to do next.
Reflecting on his American dream, he added: “I believe that what we have done as immigrants is what is expected of any immigrant, which is to work hard, create jobs, pay taxes, incorporate in society, do social service …”
“The experience I’m feeling right now is that it’s being by force taken away from us.”