Cautious Defiance as Foie Gras Ban Nears

Chefs have long had an extended love affair with fatty, luxurious foie gras. But in California, where a ban on the sale and production takes effect on July 1, some chefs are learning they shouldn't be too public about their good-byes. As foie gras faces its last few months in California, anti-foie activists are organized and angry, determined to derail foie eaters' last few months of legal eating.

Protests have ranged from petitions, picketing, and chanting to alleged death threats. San Francisco chefs Russell Jackson (of the recently shuttered Lafitte) and Daniel Scherotter (Palio D'Asti) both say they've been threatened. Jackson (pictured below) is so creeped out by the angry emails and voicemail messages he says he now wears a bulletproof vest when leaving his house to go to work. Scherotter forwards all threatening emails to the FBI (they're investigating).

But even law-abiding protests, featuring signs with horrific images of poultry abuse, are making a lot of chefs edgy. "To walk out of my restaurant and have 60 or 70 protesters, people screaming horrible things about me," Jackson says emotionally, "your brain just doesn't know how to compute that." What gets to him is the lack, so far, of a reasonable debate. "They're talking about your family and your children," Jackson says, "asking if I'd like it if they stuck a tube down my child's throat and force-fed them."

Dana Portnoy, one of the organizers of the Lafitte protests, vigorously denies that anyone was "screaming" at Jackson, or that her group threatened Scherotter or Jackson in any way. She dismisses Jackson's assertion that he feels like a target as a "publicity stunt." "We advocate peace and nonviolence, and that extends to the restaurants and chefs we protest for serving this food produced by animal torture," she says. Portnoy claims to have video of Jackson coming out of the restaurant to thank protestors for being peaceful. "The next day he says he's wearing a Kevlar vest? Come on."

Jackson hasn't exactly been shy about flaunting his love of foie. Information about Lafitte's monthly "FU Foie Dinners" was featured prominently on the front page of the restaurant's website. And he was selling T-shirts (pictured) that read "I got your foie gras right here mother f*#ker." So, um, there's that. In contrast, Scherotter tries to disarm the protesters, one time even bringing out a tray of vegan appetizers for them. Still, he fears they'll bum out his customers and affect business.

Scherotter and Jackson aren't alone in feeling the state's anti-foie heat. In Oakland, Bay Wolf's Michael Wild canceled a foie dinner in March after a protest turned ugly. San Francisco's Campton Place quickly pulled foie from the menu when protesters merely threatened to show up.

The result: extreme caution. DishCrawl, the social networking dining group that's throwing a series of foie-centric dinners in Bay Area restaurants this spring, won't release location details until 24 hours before each event. "We've kept it low key and announced it to the media after so that no protestors have showed up," says Tracy Lee, one of DishCrawl's founders.

Meanwhile, Jackson, who won't comment on reports that he's now carrying a gun, says he thinks most foie protestors have an agenda that calls for eliminating all animal-based foods. "Foie gras is just low-hanging fruit," Jackson says. "They're not going to stop there."

Ridiculous, says Portnoy. "The view of Californians is that animals raised for consumption should be treated humanely," she says, adding that her group is merely exercising its First Amendment rights. But why spoil the fun of diners who have only two months left to enjoy foie anyway? "Animals are still being tortured," Portnoy says, for a delicacy she calls "unnecessary."

Image sources: Top, Lafitte / Facebook; above, LafitteSF.com

Former CHOW contributor Joyce Slaton is an editor and writer in San Francisco. She takes her tea with sugar and milk and will sew you an apron if you ask nicely. Follow her on Twitter. Follow CHOW, too, and become a fan on Facebook.