SAN FRANCISCO — In the restaurant where he earned a Michelin star, Chef Gary Danko sears an inch-thick slice of duck liver in a small pan until the meat develops a golden-brown shell.
The delicacy known by its French name, foie gras, is garnished with figs and champagne grapes, a variation on a dish he’s served since opening Restaurant Gary Danko near Fisherman’s Wharf in 1999.
“I sell probably 40 orders a night or more,” Danko said in an interview while salting the meat. “When the protesters are here, double that.”
The protesters are animal-rights advocates who say force- feeding ducks and geese to fatten their livers is cruel. Danko and other California chefs will have to remove foie gras from their menus in July 2012, when the state becomes the first to ban the dish, under a 2004 law.
At issue is the method of feeding the birds, with a tube inserted in the esophagus.
“These birds have done nothing to deserve this fate of being force-fed several times a day,” Paul Shapiro, a spokesman for the Washington-based Humane Society of the United States, said in a telephone interview. “It’s an inhumane practice that should be relegated to the history books.”
Connoisseurs say the process mimics behavior in the wild, where the birds gorge themselves before migrating. Foie gras purveyors say the force-feeding causes no pain, and that opponents are trying to impose the values of vegetarians on everyone else.
The legislation, signed by then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and backed by celebrities such as Paul McCartney and Alicia Silverstone, bans force-feeding of ducks or geese to make foie gras and forbids selling foie gras produced that way. Violators can be fined as much as $1,000 a day.
Some chefs say they plan to defy the ban, arguing that no one should dictate what people can eat.
“When the ban comes in, we’re going to serve it every day,” said Laurent Quenioux, a visiting chef at Starry Kitchen in Los Angeles, who said he’s been cooking with foie gras for about 25 years. “They can send me the foie gras police.”
The California law postponed enforcement of the ban for almost eight years to allow producers to find an alternative to force-feeding. No substitute method has come to light.
Guillermo Gonzalez, owner of Sonoma Foie Gras, California’s only foie gras farm, did not respond to requests for an interview. Hudson Valley Foie Gras and La Belle Farm, both based in Ferndale, N.Y., are the only other producers of foie gras in the United States.
“We are not contemplating changes to our production methods because they produce a premium product that is in full compliance with our federal regulators,” Allison Lee, a spokeswoman for Hudson Valley Foie Gras, said in a telephone interview.
The company, which has sales of $15 million and processes 250,000 ducks annually, is considering a legal challenge of the California law’s constitutionality, Lee said.
“To have an entity regulated at the federal level restricted at the state level creates an unfair trade practice,” Lee said.
While California used to account for as much as 20 percent of the company’s sales, Hudson Valley has shifted marketing to other states to diminish the impact of the ban, she said.
Animal-rights supporters are asking California restaurants to stop serving foie gras now, without waiting for the ban to take effect.
Lindsay Rajt, a spokeswoman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in Los Angeles, said the group had success in appealing to stop foie gras sales at restaurants including those operated by California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s PlumpJack Management Group.
PETA also uses protests “to pressure the target to pull foie gras,” Rajt said.
Thomas Keller, the chef who holds three Michelin stars for the French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., and three for Per Se in New York City, said he’s resigned to the ban.
“Foie gras is a product that we have enjoyed preparing for our guests through the years and has been a regularly featured item on our menu,” Keller said in an emailed statement. “But we will certainly comply with the new foie gras ban law once it goes into effect.”
Traci Des Jardins, chef and co-owner of Jardiniere, a French restaurant in San Francisco, said she’d removed foie gras from her menu and then restored it.
“The feedback from my guests and diners is it’s something that they really wanted,” Des Jardins said in a telephone interview. “Foie gras is an attractive luxury food that people, when they are going to a fine-dining restaurant, want the opportunity to eat.”
“I think we need to get together and fight it,” Roland Passot, the French-born owner and chef at Michelin-rated La Folie in San Francisco, said in a telephone interview. “We eat meat. We raise those ducks to be eaten. We don’t raise them to become pets.”
Passot, who makes three foie-gras dishes, said he’d remove them from his menu when the law takes effect.
“You have to obey the law, but you work around it,” Passot said. “The foie-gras lovers will get their fix somewhere, somehow. It’s going to be an underground thing.”
A duck foie-gras lobe, or entire liver, costs $99.99 per 1.85 pounds on average at D’Artagnan, a foie gras distributor in Newark, New Jersey. Owner Ariane Daguin said the industry has formed a group called the Artisan Farmers Alliance and intends to fight the California law.
“We are looking right now at the different ways to overturn that ban, encouraged by our success in Chicago,” Daguin said in a telephone interview.
Chicago, the first city to outlaw foie gras in 2006, lifted the ban in 2008 at the behest of Mayor Richard Daley.
In California, John Burton, former president pro tem of the state Senate, said he introduced the legislation at the prompting of animal-rights activists.
“If you ever see how they cram this food down the geese’s necks, it just ain’t right,” said Burton, now chairman of the California Democratic Party, in a telephone interview.
Emily Patterson-Kane, an animal welfare scientist at the American Veterinary Medical Association in Schaumburg, Ill., said it’s hard to judge how distressing it is for the animals to be fed by tube.
“We know that they are eating more food than they would voluntarily choose to,” Patterson-Kane said in a telephone interview. Ducks don’t have a gag reflex and have a more robust esophagus than a mammal’s, “so they can gulp down relatively large things,” Patterson-Kane said.
“It’s still probably unpleasant to some extent,” she said.
Danko, the San Francisco chef, said he plans to follow the law when it goes into effect.
“I’ll have to come up with a new menu item to fill its void,” Danko said. “Many people will miss it.”