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Sep 21, 2012
11:00 AMBe There
IN Celebrates the Art and History of Foie Gras - Updated
When Chef Mike Andrzejewski and Feed Your Soul founder Christa Glennie Seychew (Spree's food editor) announced to a room full of chefs, food writers, and other industry professionals that their next industry night (IN, a bimonthly event hosted by Seychew and Andrzejewski at SeaBar) will celebrate foie gras, applause erupts and cheers of support echoed into the street. Poeticized by Anthony Bourdain and beloved by foodies everywhere, but often misunderstood and controversial, foie gras is as divisive as it is decadent. “It’s one of my favorite things to eat, and this event will be a lot of fun for people who care about food,” says Andrzejewski, owner of Seabar, Cantina Loco, and Mike A @ Lafayette Hotel and a proud foie gras advocate. “I see way too many rumblings of people thinking foie gras is bad, that it’s an evil practice. There’s so much misinformation out there and I want to nip it in the bud.”
Embellishment aside, foie gras is the fattened liver of waterfowl, either duck or goose. It’s that word––fattened––that tends to elicit alarm: because birds don’t naturally gorge themselves on high-fat foods the way we might, say, at Paula’s Donuts, waterfowl must be fed via tube (the process is known as gavage) to make their livers sufficiently fatty to produce the velvety-smooth consistency for which foie gras is famous.
While force-feeding sounds horrifying to us, it’s important to realize that there are significant anatomical difference between waterfowl and humans. Ducks and geese have no gag reflex and sturdy throats, and can breathe normally while being fed. (If you’ve ever watched a pelican gulp down an entire raw fish, scales and all, you’ve seen the hardy gullets of waterfowl in action.) Three times a day, a farmer feeds the fowl corn pellets through a gavage tube in a process lasting approximately three seconds. It’s not the appalling situation many envision.
“People seem to think that the animals are nailed to the floor and force fed and tortured throughout their existence. From [visiting the farm and watching the feeding process] firsthand, it's not true,” says Andrzejewski. “They have the best life of any farm-raised animal that I’ve ever encountered, as far as being free range and clean and well fed. Even the feeding is not uncomfortable; the birds come running up and waiting for feeding. It’s a humane practice, as much as any animal being raised for slaughter can experience.”
Furthermore, unlike the factory farms producing most meat in American restaurants and supermarkets, where animals are kept in small cages and crammed together meant to maximize the number of animals contained at once, the ducks at Hudson Valley Foie Gras are cage free. At this well-known farm, featured on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations and the foie gras source for Monday night’s IN event, care for the well-being of the animal is seen as crucial to ensuring a quality product. “Hudson Valley is the only foie gras farm I deal with,” says Andrzejewski. “You can’t beat them, from the cleanliness of their processing to their farm. They really are just the best.” Andrzejewski points out that unlike factory farms, Hudson Valley Foie Gras encourages cooks, chefs, and journalists to visit and view the feeding process. “They’re very proud of what they do, and they should be,” he says.
Hudson Valley’s wonderful foie gras will be showcased at IN with three preparations displaying its versatility. Before IN kicks off at 9 p.m. on Monday, September 24, Andrzejewski is offering a special six-course foie gras dinner, a reservations–only foie gras celebration starting at 7 p.m. The evening's menu follows:
Asked what he loves so much about foie gras, Andrzejewski doesn’t hesitate: “Everything. First of all, the amazing culinary history of the product––it originated back in ancient Egypt four thousand years ago, continued through Roman times, and through the Middle Ages it was carried on. Modern-day foie gras is a byproduct of kosher cooking; they needed to raise the fat content and create a fat product to use instead of butter. It became a cottage industry and has become a sought-after ingredient for European chefs.” That sense of heritage, both noble and humble, is part of what makes foie gras enduringly treasured among chefs. “It’s important to look at what ingredients like this have meant to chefs throughout culinary history,” says Andrzejewski. “It wasn’t a fly-by-night, money-grabbing, profit-oriented process; it’s something that was really evolved artistically and economically throughout centuries. That’s why it’s important, not just because of the flavor or expense but because it signifies the best that a cook can offer.”
When it comes to foie gras’s unique taste and texture, a chef couldn’t ask for a more fascinating ingredient. “The versatility of foie gras is really just amazing for me. I think really what it signifies is the upper echelon of culinary greatness,” Andrzejewski says. “I like a lot of contrasting flavors with it. If you’ve got a super rich, warm piece of foie gras I like a little bit of sweetness and a little acidity to it. I like when you have something in there to give it a little bit of texture, not to completely mask that unctuous, silky that you can feel running all over your mouth but just something to accent it. Cold foie gras as it hits your tongue and kind of melts and really coast the inside of your mouth––it’s just a really wonderful experience. I could go on and on... it starts to sound kind of dirty.”
Andrzejewski recalls his first taste of foie gras as vividly as if it was yesterday. “I had just started working at Rue Franklin in the mid eighties, and the owner, Joel, had just opened up a fresh terrine of foie gras––and he made really great ones. He trimmed the ends off and gave it to us and I tasted it and was just blown away. I can still close my eyes and relive that experience, and the allure of the foie gras hasn’t changed for me. It’s still just a wondrous taste and experience every time I eat it.”