Foie gras isn't allowed to be sold or produced in California. But to some people, that doesn't mean they can't eat it.
The delicacy is produced from the enlarged livers of ducks and geese that have been force-fed corn. It was taken off of California menus in 2012, with animal activists leading the movement and citing the inhumane treatment they say birds are forced go through. "Force feeding a bird means a process that causes the bird to consume more food than a typical bird of the same species would consume voluntarily. Force feeding methods include, but are not limited to, delivering feed through a tube or other device inserted into the bird's esophagus," Senate Bill No. 1520 states. (There are, of course, two sides to this argument. The esophagus of waterfowl is different than that of humans. It has an extra pouch specifically for food storage. For a walk-though of the gavage process, read this Serious Eats primer.)
And according to the bill, a product that is the result "of force feeding a bird for the purpose of enlarging the bird's liver beyond normal size" is not allowed to be sold. California is the only state in the country with a foie gras ban.
While prohibited, chefs have found loopholes around the law: one of those includes not charging people for dinner.
That is what Chris Tzorin (who has a day job as the executive chef of Tortilla Republic) is doing. His goal: "To lead a revolution."
Tzorin isn't the only one trying to bypass the foie gras law. A handful of restaurants in the state have given away the delicacy for free under the conditions that patrons buy something else, like a $55 glass of wine. In 2012, Kevin Meehan hosted a Los Angeles pop-up that served up five courses of foie gras for a requested donation fee.
"You can still buy the breast of that duck that is force-fed," Tzorin says. Tzorin is staunchly against the ban and two years after it began, he is now launching what he calls a series of illegal foie gras dinners. His goal is to host them once a month in the greater Los Angeles area.
We were invited to the inaugural dinner, which was held last Thursday with Tzorin at the helm. Invitations are email-only, or by word of mouth.
"We would like to cordially invite you to an intimate evening of banished delectables and forbidden delights with none other than Parisian transplants, FAKE MUSIC. Join us for a Foie Gras tasting menu brought to you by award winning, internationally renowned chefs Pascal Olhats and Chris Tzorin. This culinary curation will be accompanied by aural treats including the latest unreleased records from FAKE Music, a sponsored bar, and other surprises for the senses. The event takes place at 8pm on Thursday, December 4th. The Secret Downtown Location will be revealed the night of to all who RSVP, so please respond to this email by Tuesday, December 2nd. Due to the grey legality of this event, please keep the location private. Looking forward to seeing you - Yoann, Joss, and FAKE Music."
Sure enough, we were texted an address the day of the dinner, and it led us to the fourth floor of gray residential loft in downtown Los Angeles, where twenty-some local food and music bloggers were in attendance.
"It's not fair that foie gras is not allowed," Tzorin said. "We had to smuggle it. It has to be bought in Nevada and a two-pound piece goes for $200."
His sous chef, Jose Manuel Velasco, added: "You can get it from any poultry company really. Just give them a one week notice and get it from out of state."
Tzorin would not reveal the company that provided him with the liver, but he did note that he had a connection drive it in from the border. "It's not fair that we can buy seven to eight ounce duck breasts and not get the liver. I'm speaking on behalf of all chefs. I want to lead the revolution," he said. "Protein is like paint. You can't take away an artist's colors."
After a toast of tequila mixed with soda, Tzorin and Velasco got to work. The result: four courses that were informally served without any sort of explanation. The items: a duck sausage frisée salad, duck liver mousse pate, foie gras paired with buttered pureed carrots, and a champagne-infused whipped cream dessert.
While the food was solid, dinner was decidedly awkward. After the pre-dinner speech, there was no more mention of foie gras, the music was never touched on, and some attendees had no idea which course was actually the illegal one. By the end of night, the chefs were too drunk to really go through the menu details.
"Foie gras is deeply illegal. My last illegal activity was when I was 13 years old, when I was jailed for graffiti. This is my next one. Can I get in trouble? Hell yes. Do I give a damn? Fuck no," Tzorin said.