Fighting the law with free foie gras
Chez TJ chef believes loophole in new legislation puts restaurant in clear
Animal rights activists are up in arms over a local chef's decision to continue serving foie gras despite a new state law banning its production and sale.
They can quack all they want about it, as far as officials at Chez TJ are concerned. "We're not doing anything wrong," said an unapologetic Joey Elenterio, executive chef at Mountain View's only Michelin-rated restaurant.
Philosophically speaking, Elenterio said he believes the "bird feeding law," as it is sometimes called, is a governmental overreach. The law, which went into effect July 1, bans both the production and sale of the fattened duck or goose liver dish in California.
Beyond Elenterio's personal views on the matter, he said he is certain that he found an entirely above-board way around the legislation, which he called "watered down" and "vague."
The Cupertino-born chef reasons that as long as he is giving the the traditional French delicacy away, "for free," the restaurant is in the clear.
The language of the law states "a person may not force-feed a bird for the purpose of enlarging the bird's liver beyond normal size, or hire another person to do so" and that "a product may not be sold in California if it is the result of force-feeding."
No one at Chez TJ is force-feeding any ducks or geese, and according to the restaurant's general manager, Jessamine McLellan, foie gras is not on the menu and is only given to customers when the chef sees fit.
"We're not breaking the law," Elenterio said.
But Yen Dang, supervising deputy district attorney for Santa Clara County isn't so sure. "I don't necessarily think they've found a loophole," Dang said. "Right now, we can't come to conclusions. We have to look into the allegations and that's what we're doing."
It is all very early in the process, Dang said. The DA's office was made aware Chez TJ was continuing to serve foie gras about a week after the law went into effect. The Mountain View police received the initial complaint, but the department quickly turned the case over to the county without conducting any investigation.
Dang said investigators will be primarily concerned with two questions: "First, has it been sold, and secondly, is it the result of force-feeding a bird?"
For Alfredo Kuba, a Mountain View resident and animal rights advocate, when it comes to the second question, the answer is quite clear: the only way to make foie gras, he said, is through force-feeding — a process he described as "horrendous."
Kuba, who runs the Defend Animals Coalition out of his Mountain View home, said producers of foie gras stick a tube down the throat of a duck or goose, funneling food in until the bird's stomach is filled to the brim. This process is repeated day in and day out, Kuba continued, until the animal's liver grows to twice or three times its natural size.
"There's no humane way to make that product," Kuba said, emphatically. That's why state legislators passed the bird feeding law, he continued, to put an end to the "inherently cruel" practice.
Elenterio is incredulous when he hears arguments such as Kuba's. "I can't speak duck," he said. "Nobody can."
He said that animal rights activists are attempting to project a human experience and anatomy onto an animal with an utterly different anatomy. "These are water fowl," he continued. "They naturally undergo the process of overfeeding themselves to migrate in the winter."
Elenterio claims that the same technique employed by foie gras producers is also used to get food into the bellies of birds rescued from oil spills. "I don't see how the same process that they use to save ducks' lives can be used to torture them," he said. "I'm an animal lover, and if I truly thought the ducks were being tortured, I wouldn't serve it."
Elenterio said he believes foie gras is simply a wedge issue, used by vegetarians and vegans to foist their morals upon those who eat meat.
Kuba, a vegan, rejects this assertion, flipping it around on Elenterio. "He has no feelings toward other feeling creatures," Kuba said. "That is a problem. He is imposing his will and views on animals that cannot defend themselves."
The animal rights activist also took issue with Elenterio defending foie gras on the grounds that migratory birds naturally overeat. In Kuba's view, an animal gorging itself to prepare for a long, harsh winter is not comparable to a human force feeding an animal for slaughter. "That is something they do themselves; they know when to start and when to stop. These animals (raised for foie gras) suffer tremendously."
Kuba went on to say that ultimately his opinion doesn't matter, because as far as he can tell, Elenterio and Chez TJ are breaking the law. "The real question is, what are the authorities going to do?"
It is a question that will likely take some time to answer, according to Dang. In the meantime, Elentario does not plan to stop serving foie gras to his customers — on the house, of course.