Restaurants are the ultimate mom and pop small businesses upon which many cities have thrived. They can define a sense of place and their signature dishes certainly can as well. Bouchon has Escargot, New York's Daniels has its caviar, and local Naples hotspot has its foie gras.
However, when a 2004 California law banning the production and sale of foie gras goes into effect this July, restaurants around the state will be forced to take the delicacy off the menu, and Michael's owner Michael Dene is none to happy about it.
Foie gras, also known as fattened goose or duck liver, is a delicacy that has been served since ancient Egyptian times.
Dene, along with his head chef David Coleman, are standing with more than 60 other prominent chefs from Los Angeles to San Francisco--Incanto's Chris Cosentino among them--who believe the new law is an over reach by government, but also a reversible mistake.
The group, known as the Coalition for Humane and Ethical Farming Standards (CHEFS) charges that the law banning foie gras is based on years-old information that is no longer correct and that a total ban on goose liver will only create a black market for the delicacy.
Twice a year, migrating birds such as ducks and geese gorge themselves on food before embarking on their long migratory path. This bi-yearly habit results in a naturally-fattened liver that is sought after by chefs across the world. This natural process has since been replicated by farmers who force feed their geese to fatten the birds' livers for use in foie gras dishes.
"State government mandating rules about whether we can eat a certain type food is the epitome of hypocrisy," said Dene, who also owns and added that his two restaurants serve about 30 dishes per night that contain goose liver.
"A food product ... satisfying the culinary taste of millions of people should not be banned," Dene said.
While the sale of goose liver has been banned in other countries, California is currently the only state in the U.S. that has enacted laws banning foie gras and restaurateurs across the greater Los Angeles area and others in Northern California are trying to do something about it.
When the law was passed, proponents of the bill argued that the process of force feeding farm-raised ducks and geese to fatten their livers was both inhumane and unethical.
CHEF, however, argues that since the law was passed, there has been new research showing the process for fattening the birds' livers is actually humane. In addition, restaurants joining CHEF say they only source foie gras from farms with sustainable and humane farming practices.
"My restaurant and many other restaurants in the state of California have built a business around sustainable food and locally-farmed products," explained Dene.
"We buy from farms that treat their animals with respect and maintain humane standards," he said.
Dene says that when he is eventually forced to take foie gras off the menu, his business is going to suffer.
According to Dene what might seem like a signature niche market actually plays a role in an economic food chain in Southern California that helps other related businesses thrive. He says high-end food caters to sophisticated local tastes as well as the business entertainment, business convention diner, and personal travel markets.
"This ban will cause a hardship to our business as well as a financial burden," Dene said in an email. "In this very challenging time, businesses need to offer more to differentiate themselves, not less," he said.