Chef Russell Jackson And His Fight To The Finish For Foie Gras
By Luisa Montes
Photography by VCrown Photography
Diners at Lafitte had a choice to make last Sunday. Not red or white, or chicken or fish, as one might expect, but the choice to bypass the handful of protesters on Pier 5 and join chef Russell Jackson in his crusade against the impending foie gras ban that goes into effect in California this July.
Armed with bull-horns and posters, activists gathered in front of the restaurant, discouraging diners from attending an event at an establishment that, in their eyes, supports the torture of animals. Demonstrators take issue with how foie gras, literally “fat liver,” is procured via the gavage process, which is described as force-feeding corn to produce a fattened liver in a duck or goose. For demonstrators, it’s a matter of animal rights and respect.
For Chef Jackson it’s an issue of choice and education. As Jackson respects their right to demonstrate – he offered them cookies, which they declined – he is looking for a similar level of respect for his choice to serve and diners’ choice to consume. One might say it’s the culinary equivalent of the debates over some social issues taking place in the current political arena.
Jackson’s response to the ban is to metaphorically “go for broke” and host a series of “FU Foie Gras” dinners, featuring, or perhaps honoring, the controversial delicacy. The first event took place in October 2011, with the five remaining dinners happening once a month until the last event on July 11, the night before the ban is enacted.
But the events are more than just an act of defiance; they’re also intended to be a forum to enlighten the public about the existence of ethical foie gras production taking place at farms such as Hudson Valley Foie Gras. During the pre-dinner cocktails, guests were encouraged to browse articles about Hudson Valley Foie Gras and other related pieces featuring interviews with well-known chefs who share Jackson’s position and defend foie gras’ place on a menu.
This, Jackson believes, allows guests to “move beyond the rhetoric” to a more nuanced understanding of foie gras and responsible consumption. Animal rights activists have good reason to protest poor conditions for animals, but the foie gras issue is not far removed from the issues the meat industry has faced in years past. The public has grown in its awareness of the importance of ethical sources of meat in general, so under the right circumstances, the same shift in public perception could happen with foie gras that is produced in a way which comparatively respects the animal.
As the colorful dinner series title and Jackson’s signature Mohawk might suggest – he’s not one for subtlety. And in no place is this more true than the series’ menu, which changes with each event. When Jackson’s around, if you want foie gras, you get foie gras.
While guests sipped rum cocktails, enlightened themselves on arguments against the ban and paid minimal attention to the protesters holding posters outside, servers circulated through the crowd carrying trays of Lafitte Strasbourg pie – brioche topped with foie gras and a blackberry coulis – and oysters sprinkled with foie gras and bacon marmalade to begin the evening.
Around 7 p.m., guests were ushered into the dining room and invited to take their seats at any of the three communal tables set up for the event. The high-ceiling and industrial-style dining room and kitchen gave off a decidedly casual feel to a food item so closely associated with luxury while also offering something of a visual distraction as patrons waited for the main event to begin.
The first course, preceded by Jackson’s impassioned speech (with a few salty words thrown in) thanking attendees and solidifying his stance on the issue, elevated gnocchi to another level with bite-sized foie gras dumplings swimming in a black truffle broth in miniature lion’s head soup bowls for each diner.
Where the appetizers and first course let guests dip their toes in the water to begin the night, the second course offered more of a dive into the deep end. A seared foie risotto with nettle puree and almond praelene presented diners with foie in its purest form for the night – barely kissed by the heat of the pan before its final resting place on a mound of creamy risotto. The dish could only have been improved by adding a few more praelene bits for a stronger textural contrast to the rich combination of foie and risotto.
The rest of the dishes integrated foie gras in more subtle ways – tucked in with pieces of lamb and a garlic sherry sauce or in a roulade of guinea hen and side of red rice. The final savory course put the spotlight on duck as a whole in a pot au feu with duck prosciutto, confit tongue and wild mushrooms.
As much as they enjoyed the main courses of the evening, guests were no doubt wondering how Jackson would integrate foie gras into the dessert course. That question was soon answered as the wait staff balanced a foie gras doughnut, foie gras vaudouvan caramel and coffee cream on the plate for each diner. The doughnut resembled a Portuguese malasada more than its traditional coffee shop counterpart and had a denser consistency that paired well with the shot glass of brandied foie gras cereal milk and savory caramel on the plate.
From start to finish, Jackson’s commanding use of foie gras left diners with a decadent experience not easily replicated. His focus may shift once the ban is in place, but if Jackson’s dedicated foie gras menu is any indication, diners are in a for treat when they sample Lafitte’s broader range of offerings.
Lafitte’s next FU foie gras dinner will take place on March 15. Tickets are available for $89 or $150 for the Chef’s plank seating for kitchen-side seating.