Qua-ack! City Chefs Take Sides in Great Duck Liver War of 1999

Michael Ginor was being plied with rich mouthful after rich mouthful.

As he stood in the dining room of Roy’s New York, a Euro-Asian restaurant which opened near Wall Street on Feb. 18, waiters shoved trays loaded with bites of fusion-style cuisine under his nose at regular intervals. But something was fouling Mr. Ginor’s appetite. On Dec. 23, his reign as the country’s largest supplier of foie gras–a guilty epicurean pleasure made from fattened duck livers–was threatened when the United States Department of Agriculture lifted a 25-year ban on the import of raw poultry products from France. Since then, he and his distribution partner have been at each other’s throats.

“Right now, he is panicking,” said Ariane Daguin, co-owner of D’Artagnan, the pre-eminent supplier to New York’s top chefs and gourmet groceries, which has been the only distributor of Mr. Ginor’s Hudson Valley Foie Gras and Duck Products for 10 years.

Almost immediately after raw French foie gras was legalized, D’Artagnan began marketing French duck livers alongside Hudson Valley’s–only cheaper. In response, Mr. Ginor began selling his foie gras directly to some of D’Artagnan’s biggest clients, including Le Cirque 2000, at a discount. From D’Artagnan, the French La Quercynoise foie gras is $29 per pound, the Hudson Valley $37 per pound. From Mr. Ginor, the Hudson Valley is about $31 per pound.

“He started a price war,” said Ms. Daguin. “And he’s forcing me into a corner, which I don’t like to be.”

Mr. Ginor is forcing the city’s chefs to choose allegiances, too. One by one, Nobu’s Nobu Matsuhisa, Patria’s Douglas Rodriguez, Mesa Grill’s Bobby Flay and Lutèce’s éminence grise André Soltner (wearing a festive vine garland twirled around his neck) approached Mr. Ginor at the Roy’s opening to crush his soft-edged, rather forlorn frame with hugs and handshakes.

“I think that the American is better quality,” said Mr. Flay. “It just seems like it’s firmer .”

Le Cirque 2000 owner Sirio Maccioni also told The Observer , “We use only American foie gras. I think it’s better.… Here, the animal has more movement, and what happens when the animal has more movement, the foie gras, it is solid. It’s simply that it’s better.”

But Le Bernardin chef de cuisine Chris Nuller said his restaurant has chosen to go with its countrymen. “We use the French one coming from D’Artagnan,” said Mr. Nuller. “It’s, uh, richer, and deeper. You know, a more balanced flavor, I think, rather than a fattier, meaty flavor.”

The remission of the dread Exotic Newcastle disease, a sort of bird pneumonia which has plagued French ducks in the recent past, comes at a time when foie gras is on the menu of practically every notable American restaurant from New York to South Carolina to Hawaii, thanks to Mr. Ginor. His furious marketing of foie gras–after he left Wall Street with a bundle 10 years ago and went into business with a fellow Israeli, Izzy Yanay, who owned a foie gras farm in upstate New York–raised its profile from a weird pinkish pâté served in stuffy French restaurants to a mainstay on fashionable menus.

“Mostly I sauté it,” said Mr. Flay. “We do these sort of, like, faux tacos.”

Tom Colicchio, chef of Gramercy Tavern, prepares a whipped foie gras mousse–though he prefers a slice of pizza, personally. Patria’s Mr. Rodriguez said he puts the specialty liver in an empanada. At Roy’s, party guests were cooing over the Ultimate Wonton, with roasted shiitake mushrooms, basil, garlic–and a healthy dollop of foie gras. “It’s kind of a decadent thing,” said creator Alan Wong, who flew in from his eponymous restaurant in Hawaii for the occasion.

Even Hudson Valley loyalists have found the new French product seductive. “Suddenly, there is this sort of, like, vision of ‘Well, here comes the real thing,'” said Mr. Ginor of the French influx. “There is this sense of romanticism, like suddenly they have the forbidden fruit.”

Are the French Ducks More Stressed?

There are no end to the comparisons. Hudson Valley hatches about 8,000 Moulard ducks per week through a closely guarded process of artificial insemination. For the last 28 days of their 41/2-month lives, the ducks are force-fed–as all foie gras-bound birds are–three times per day by hand. One human feeder ministers to 350 animals per month.

As force-feeding goes, said Mr. Ginor, “it’s a very sort of mellow process … I think that the human interaction really helps–I don’t mean, you know, singing to the ducks, but the fact that each duck is individually observed. And it is ! That duck is handled by the feeder three times per day. They’re literally almost friends .”

Mr. Ginor claims his livers are “rounder in shape, more fistlike” than the French. “We process a duck when we sort of feel it’s ready for processing, when it gives signals that it’s time,” he said. “You just can tell. The stomach bulge seems proper.”

The Gallic method, said Mr. Ginor, is rather more coldhearted, using a pneumatic feed pump, with the ducks lined up in a row, their necks sticking out. The French ducks, he said, “are more stressed.”

“Let’s go to the major differences,” said Ms. Daguin, 40, who has been doing business with Hudson Valley Foie Gras since 1984, when Mr. Ginor’s partner, Mr. Yanay, bearing samples of his unctuous delicacy, walked into a Manhattan charcuterie where she was working called Les Trois Petits Cochons (Three Little Pigs). “In France, the ducks are fed only corn. The corn gives a natural sugar content to the liver. It will be, naturally, sweeter. At Hudson Valley–no. They do mixed cereals, mostly soy protein, in pellets, if you will, a moosh, like a purée.”

“Absolutely incorrect!” said Mr. Ginor, of his associate’s version of things. “In the nursery stage, we– and the entire world –give the babies a measure of protein, of soy. To have healthy young ducklings, you need to give a measure of protein! We’re not the ones who invented this. The whole world does that! And in the final stage”–the days leading up to the slaughter–”it’s a hundred percent corn. It’s all corn.”

Ms. Daguin wasn’t finished. “In France,” she said, “they cannot put in at any moment, anywhere at any time, any growth hormones or any medication whatsoever. Whereas in America you can give antibiotics until 15 days before the slaughter. The lack of the antibiotic is a good thing if you don’t want any trace of it in your body. You may not see any trace on the microscope, but you’re going to swallow some, anyway.”

“Absolute nonsense!” said Mr. Ginor, who insists he’s never used growth hormones, and only uses antibiotic medication when strictly necessary. “There’s sort of, like, this mentality of ‘let’s minimize giving antibiotics.’ But let me put it this way. Even if one were to consume 4,000 pounds of foie gras a day, and even if we did use antibiotics for a whole lifetime [of the duck], it would come to less than one prescribed antibiotic dosage for a cold.”

French ducks are force-fed for only 14 days, which speeds up the process, said Ms. Daguin from her Jersey City headquarters. The French product she is selling is making it to market in the United States faster than that from Hudson Valley, and being sold in smaller portions.

“In France,” she said, “a duck that is processed on Monday morning will go in a truck to Paris that afternoon. It will leave Paris Tuesday morning and arrive at D’Artagnan all cleared of Customs Tuesday afternoon. The Hudson Valley method is different. They process the duck and they let it hang overnight. In the morning, they open it, take the liver which is now nice and firm, and because of the feeding time it’s still very veiny inside, so now they’re going to put it on ice for another night. On Wednesday morning, they truck it to me, and I have it in the afternoon. So I’m gaining 24 hours with the French.”

Hitherto, you could only buy duck livers whole–in “lobes,” as they’re known throughout the trade. Americans will soon be able to cook with French foie gras at home, said Ms. Daguin. “I’m getting right now slices, which I’m selling to gourmet stores, and this is tremendous!” she said.

Even so, according to Rosario Safina, owner of Urbani Truffles and Caviar (clients include Daniel and the Four Seasons), the shelf life of the French product is unreliable. On the other hand, Le Bernardin’s Chris Nuller said as much about Hudson Valley. “You know, I’m an American guy,” he said, lowering his voice to a whisper. “But myself, it seems like the Hudson, it just turns. You open the Cryovac container, and two days later it’s garbage, it’s sour.”

Vongerichten Flip-Flops

Chefs are finding use for both. Jean-Georges Vongerichten got all excited when the ban was lifted–at last, a taste of the foie gras he remembered from his Alsatian childhood! But after two weeks of blissful wallowing, he grew disenchanted. “At first it was great,” he said from his car phone, “and then it turned out that some of the liver had a very grainy texture to it.”

Now, he’s back on American. “For me, the best one for sauté is the Hudson Valley,” said Mr. Vongerichten. “It’s kind of firm, and creamy inside.” But for cold terrine, he eschews both, choosing instead a Canadian product.

Remi Lauvand, chef of Montrachet, said, “Most of the time I use the French one. The quality of the American over the last year has been very shaky. A lot of blood inside. With the French process, the evisceration–all the blood leaves the foie. So it’s really clean, and really unbruised, which is very important when you make terrines because you don’t have any red marks. Even for me it’s kind of a turnoff if I have to get a slice with a red mark in it!”

“For cold preparation, I like the French, for hot preparation I prefer the American,” said Mr. Colicchio of Gramercy Tavern, who diplomatically presents them practically on top of one another. “It’s nice to have the two on a plate.”

Meanwhile, over at Zabar’s, the foie gras debate was news to product consultant Harold Horowytz. “I’m surprised to hear it!” he said. “You know that France hardly produces enough livers to feed themselves. They buy from Hungary, and Israel!” (Mr. Vongerichten and Mr. Maccioni also mentioned this.) But Mr. Horowytz said he’d be looking into the new import. “Yes, I like it, I like it very much,” he said of the specialty. “But I don’t eat it, because I want to make sure I don’t get any gout.”

Jeffrey Steingarten, food critic for Vogue and author of The Man Who Ate Everything , had just returned from Paris and took a sanguine tack. “I think there is a lot of confusion in the market right now,” he said, “and it probably will straighten out, and the quality of the foie gras will be better.”

Said Sheila Lukins, former co-owner of the Silver Palate, “I enjoy foie gras very, very much and I see nothing so terrible about the Hudson Valley situation.” Ms. Lukins has served D’Artagnan foie gras two different ways, on brioche toasts and stuffed into prunes.

“This reminds me of the days when everyone was saying, well, California wine isn’t as good as French wine,” she said. “Then they turned right around. It’s–I don’t know what the difference is!”

A Duck Liver in Every Pot

Before the lifting of the ban, Ms. Daguin contributed a recipe to Mr. Ginor’s upcoming book, Foie Gras: A Passion , which will be published by John Wiley & Sons this May. “We’re sort of in a wait-and-see period right now,” said Mr. Ginor, who compared the relationship to a marriage, with its ups and downs. “It’s very tenuous.”

“You have to understand, for 10 years, he was king of the castle!” said Ms. Daguin. “It’s difficult for him to all of a sudden look at the market and say, hey, I don’t have my leverage anymore. Euuuh, it’s difficult. He is a difficult man to deal with. But, eventually, money talks.”

But Mr. Ginor seems prepared for a long battle. “If necessary, we will be able to purchase a lot more of this product [the French] than D’Artagnan can,” he said. “We have assets. We have farms and processing plants. They can only mark it up so much, they can only compete so much. We have a facility. We have assets. There is zero reason for us to panic.”

“The man is overreacting,” said Ms. Daguin.

Or maybe not. “I think the French are opening the market in new directions that I never thought would be possible,” Ms. Daguin added. “For example, and this is just a dream now, but I would love to see the day T.G.I. Friday had foie gras on the menu. And why not?”

“I don’t think that’s going to happen,” said Mr. Colicchio, of Ms. Daguin’s dreams of a duck liver in every pot. “The American palate doesn’t want it. It’s liver .”