ChefTalk: First off, I greatly enjoyed reading your book. For the person who knows nothing about foie gras, how would you explain it in a nutshell?
Michael A. Ginor: To begin with, the interesting thing about foie gras is its illustrious history. There is no other food product that has such a history. Unlike things like truffles, caviar, or lobster, foie gras has been popular as far back as 5000 years ago and has always been a gourmet product. Only a hundred years ago, lobster would wash ashore and was used as fertilizer. Also in America, caviar was given away in bars to encourage more beer consumption.
Foie in French is liver and gras is fat. Foie Gras is a natural process for the most part. Water fowl (mainly ducks and geese) gorge themselves before their migratory flights. The excess food was stored as fat in the liver and used for fuel during the long flights. The story is that the Egyptians discovered the large fatty, silky smooth liver in the birds prior to their migratory flights. With this discovery, the Egyptians started producing foie gras on a year round basis.
Foie gras was always a labor intensive product. It has been enjoyed by both royalty and farmers for centuries. Nothing from the bird is wasted--the magret (or breast) is sold to be sautéed or roasted; the leg is turned into confit; the fat is rendered down; the tongue and feet are sold primarily to Asian markets. Mitchell and I decided to write this book to explain foie gras. We wanted it to be as comprehensive as possible.
CT: It seems that foie gras is everywhere. It is so much more available now than ever before.
MG: The big reason is that our production has increased dramatically in the last 10 years. Just last year we gave away more foie gras than we produced in our first year of production. There is no reason that the US market will not follow the rest of the world in terms of foie gras consumption. Look at squab, rabbit or venison, you will also see more of these being sold in restaurants. The American is more traveled. The economy has helped also and the restaurant business is growing similarly. We have also spent the last 10 years educating the restaurants and the public about our product.
CT: Is the rising popularity and availability of foie gras diminishing its perceived value?
MG: There is definitely a fad in foie gras in America to today. As Mitchell said when we were talking the other day, "You can't open the New York Times on any given food day and not find something about foie gras." But there are also millions of people who have no idea what foie gras is. Foie gras' long rich history will certainly continue. With such a special place among food, I don't see a lessening in its perceived value . Mitchell Davis: Even the foie gras consumption in France has grown due to increased availability, and it is still seen as something very special.
CT: What's the best way you have eaten foie gras?
MG: Let me answer that in a more general way. Of course, I have had more foie gras in my time than most. Mitchell and I privately had a discussion on this topic just yesterday. For me at this point, the best way to eat it is in its most unadulterated, untouched form. That's the best thing you can say about the product. The least handled, the least cooked. In another words, a straight terrine of foie gras-- cooked for 40 minutes in bain marie, at 200 degrees, to an internal temperature of 110 degrees. It also needs to be perfectly seasoned. To me, I could eat that everyday. Mitchell Davis: My feeling is that the best foie gras preparation is how it was prepared the first time you had it. If you are going to like foie gras, that first moment will be the defining moment. You first need to get over the hurdle that it is liver. There are a lot of people who are not liver lovers. And then you put the foie gras in your mouth, whether a seared piece of foie gras or a terrine. It is amazing. I still remember the first time I ate foie gras. MG: My partner at Hudson Valley Foie Gras is the true foie gras expert. The way he eats foie gras is once the bird is slaughtered and the liver removed from the bird, he will cut a sliver off the warm raw liver with his pocket knife and just eat it. That's how he judges the foie gras. He is not a foodie or gourmet, but he can tell from that taste if there is too much of this or too much of that. It's incredible. I have also come full circle. At first, I was amazed at all the ways chefs were preparing foie gras. But now, I appreciate its simplicity. And I think you will find the American palate doing the same thing. You can prepare foie gras using high heat or low heat. When we started in foie gras, 90% of foie gras served in America was prepared with high heat (sautéed, grilled, etc.). It has a steak-like appearance and is appealing to the American palate. They were not ready for the butteriness of a cold terrine. Now, I would say that it is more 70%/30%. Most are still serving high heat foie gras, but more and more cold foie gras (terrines made using low heat) are being served. MD: Certainly in New York you see a lot more terrines.
CT: When I worked in France, I almost never saw hot foie gras. Everything was cold terrines.
MD: I remember talking with a member of the Lanson Champagne family who told me that he had never seen hot foie gras until he visited the United States. MG: One reason for this was that in France up until about 15 years ago, almost all the foie gras was goose instead of duck foie gras. You really can't use goose foie gras in hot foie gras preparations as it melts too much. Therefore, most of the foie gras was made into terrines. Now though, there is more hot foie gras being served in France.
CT: What was the worst foie gras preparation you had?
MG: The problem is that if I say , the whole country is going to know. I did though do a presentation once on the TV Food Network. The chef that was on the show with me was asked to prepare foie gras. The moment that I got on the set, I knew that this chef had never sliced a foie gras before. The slices were so thin, and the one big sin in foie gras is overcooking it. (It is impossible to correctly cook very thinly sliced foie gras). So I then suggested that I slice the foie gras instead of him. He then proceeded to stack an appetizer composed of French toast, raspberries, foie gras, powdered sugar, caramel sauce, and whipped cream. Now I was very proud since it was one of my first appearances on TV. I told all my close friends, French chefs like Jean Louis Palladin, to watch it and they then stayed home to do so. The next thing I know, my chef friends are calling me up saying "Are you ******* nuts?" Nevertheless, we all live and learn. I once saw Jean Louis just about kill another chef. They were both cooking at an event, with their ranges facing each other. Next thing, the chef facing Jean Louis is sautéing foie gras in olive oil. Jean Louis jumped over the stove and literally had the chef by the throat saying, "Do you know how hard it is to make this foie gras? What are you doing?" But we have all grown together. One of the great things about American chefs is that they are not afraid to experiment, unlike the French who are a bit more bound to tradition.
CT: What are the plans for Hudson Valley foie gras? Do you plan to keep growing?
MG: Farming is always risky--storms, government regulations, animal rights, etc. Every company wants to grow and I imagine that we will also. If we are to grow , we need to grow horizontally and not vertically. We are looking at various possibilities. The US market is ready to accept a prepared product line. Sooner or later, a serious processor will produce a high-end product. If we are going to grow in terms of increased foie gras production, we will have to invest substantial dollars in infrastructure. The foie gras market will continue to grow, although maybe not as much as in the last 10 years, probably 12% per year. Personally, I am also growing (although not around the waist). I am interested in food writing, radio and television.
CT: What about the yearly foie gras shortage around the holidays.
MG: Because we run our infrastructure to produce as much foie gras as possible all year, we cannot increase production for 1 week in December. We cannot all of a sudden have more highly trained personal, more equipment, etc. Foie gras is a fresh product. It cannot be frozen. The only way to keep foie gras is by canning. We are doing the most we can to meet demand, but we will never be able to fully meet the demand this time of year. It is impossible. The only thing we could do is to raise prices in December. But these chefs are my friends and they would certainly be offended by such actions. I'd rather just simply apologize for not being able to meet the demand. That would be taking advantage of the chefs.
CT: Suppose a person has never eaten foie gras and wants to experience it for the first time. How do you recommend they do that?
MG: For the first experience, have it sautéed in a great restaurant. It is perhaps more accessible to the American palate this way. Go to a 3-4 star restaurant and ask the chef to prepare foie gras how he wants to. MD: There are a lot of restaurants that serve it both hot (high heat) and terrine (low heat) on the same plate. MG: Foie gras, in its fresh state is unfortunately still hard to find for the general consumer. But it is still relatively easy to prepare. You might be able to buy foie gras a couple of different ways. For instance, you could go to your favorite chef and ask him to buy one for you. Another way is to call a specialty/game distributor. The third and easiest is to go on line and buy directly form us--www.foiegras.com. We will send it overnight.
CT: Let's suppose I like to cook around the house and get a foie gras. Then what?
MG: I recommend buying our foie gras book. If they don't want to buy the book, they can go again to our web site. We have lots of recipes on the site, some of which are very easy to prepare. Ultimately, foie gras is easy to cook. All you do is heat up the pan, slice a medallion, and sauté. It is what you do with it afterwards that makes it difficult. A great and elegant way to serve sautéed foie gras is with a salad dressed with a balsamic vinaigrette. Our book will give an idea to the realm of foie gras possibilities.
CT: What about animal rights? Foie gras has certainly seen its fair share of controversy.
MG: The foie gras process does indeed appear cruel to the animal. But ducks are not humans and our bodies are not constructed in the same way to do the same things. No one has ever proven that producing foie gras is stressful to the animals. For instance, it has been scientifically shown that the duck's stress levels are lower during force feeding than when the animal is walking around on its own. Also, at feeding time, the ducks go to the humans, which is not a normal behavior. To demonstrate the healthiness of the ducks, if the feeding is stopped, the duck's liver will return to the normal size with no harm done to the animal. Also, it should be noted that the duck's esophagus is calcified and hard, unlike a human esophagus. As a result, the feeding tube does no damage to the duck. Through the ages, foie gras has been produced and eaten by Jews who observed the strict kosher laws. If an animal is to be certified kosher, it must pass a rigorous inspection after slaughter. Anything besides a perfectly healthy duck would be not certified as kosher.