The Shot Heard Round the Culinary World
"Maybe we ought to have Rick's liver for a little treat. It's certainly fat enough."
Charlie Trotter is notoriously prickly, but even for him, threatening to eat a rival chef's liver was a bit much. True, Rick Tramonto had called him "a little hypocritical," yet there are some things that four-star chefs just don't do. They don't trash one another's cooking publicly. They don't gloat upon winning Iron Chef. And they don't suggest snacking upon one another's possibly fatty internal organs.
What happens when you cross this line? In Trotter's case you trigger an often-surreal chain reaction that leads to actress Loretta "Hot Lips" Swit taking to the Chicago City Council floor to compare the treatment of force-fed birds to that of Iraqi war prisoners at Abu Ghraib. You see yourself excoriated by internationally renowned chefs who are your peers -- and celebrated by animal-rights activists whom you consider to be "idiots." You look on as you're credited with placing a 5,000-year-old delicacy in the city's crosshairs, even as the fatty livers of force-fed ducks suddenly are showing up on pizzas, hot dogs and soul food. Now that you've shot your mouth off, people who'd never heard of foie gras are making special trips to chow down on the stuff. Meanwhile, Roger "007" Moore is solemnly narrating over grisly footage of a rat burrowing up an enfeebled duck's bloody butt.
What the hell.
Well, Charlie Trotter didn't become Chicago's most celebrated chef with an international reputation and a national TV show (PBS's The Kitchen Sessions with Charlie Trotter) by following convention -- or being nice. When his elegant, self-named restaurant opened in 1987 in a converted townhouse in upscale Lincoln Park, it almost instantly was hailed as a flag bearer in a national haute cuisine revolution. Charlie Trotter's discarded heavy sauces and "classic" preparations in favor of more spontaneous, surprising combinations of bold, clean flavors and textures that emphasized the purity and freshness of an exotic array of ingredients. The young chef's approach was exacting, his results stunning. Each bite would offer a different taste experience depending on where the fork traveled on the plate. Each day the menu would change -- he claimed never to repeat the same dish twice. Trotter didn't try to polish a dish into fixed perfection the way the French Laundry's Thomas Keller would. He saw himself more like a jazz musician, a John Coltrane of the food world, and you had to be there to catch the magic of his improvisations.
That he was hell on his staff just came with the package. He was a brilliant artist, after all, and brilliant artists are difficult. When he speaks, most of his rectangular face doesn't move; it's as if all of his energy is concentrated into his piercing, deep-set eyes and tart tongue. When Trotter is in a room, there's no question of who's giving the orders. He preaches excellence, excellence, excellence until his underlings want to plug their ears with their spatulas. He's been known to give cooks reading assignments (Ayn Rand, for instance) and spontaneously to screen movies that end an hour before service, thus sending the kitchen into a mad scramble. In his early days especially, he has yelled, smashed plates and fostered an atmosphere of constant anxiety. He has eviscerated aspiring chefs for the tiniest of infractions and jettisoned them to the sidewalk if they resisted buying into his program of constant, complete commitment. For a while Trotter instructed his wait staff to wear double-sided tape on their shoe soles so they could de-lint the new carpet as they delivered the food. If a guest complimented a server's tie, former employees recalled, Trotter required the server to place it into a box and offer it as a gift -- even though Trotter might reimburse the server only a fraction of the tie's actual cost. When Chicago magazine listed the city's 10 meanest people in 1996, Trotter placed second, after Michael Jordan, and he characteristically complained publicly about not being number 1. Trotter frequently cites his sense of humor without cracking a smile. In the 1997 Julia Roberts romantic comedy My Best Friend's Wedding, he barks at a cook: "I will kill your whole family if you don't get this right! I need this perfect!" Trotter alumni often say they appreciated what he taught them -- and they'd never, ever choose to relive the experience.
If animals knew such things, they might have feared Trotter as well. He serves up just about anything that once drew breath. Although he also was ahead of the curve in offering a vegetarian tasting menu, his restaurant became known for exquisite preparations of specialty meats such as antelope, bison, rabbit loin, pork belly, pig shoulder, wild boar, duck gizzards, chicken "oysters," grouse, squab, partridge, pheasant, oxtail, venison, beef cheeks and veal heart, brains, sweetbreads and tongue. "Raising a goat or a calf ora chicken or anything, to raise it and kill it and eat it -- I'm all into that," he told me. "That's life."
Of his great array of specialty animal products, Trotter showed the most enthusiasm and verve for foie gras (pronounced "fwah grah"), the fatty liver of a force-fed goose or -- in almost all cases in the United States -- duck. This delicate delectable has long been a staple of French cuisine, but Trotter applied it to his distinctly American brand of cooking. One night he would sear a slice and layer it with soy-dressed tuna, preserved ginger slices and fried carrot threads atop a bed of puréed parsnip. On another he would extract the foie gras essence to accompany sweet halibut and a red-wine-and-wildmushroom sauce. If he really wanted to impress someone, he would roast a foie gras lobe whole and slice it tableside. The chef's affinity for this pricey product led Chicago Tribune food writer William Rice to refer to Charlie Trotter's as a "foie gras and truffle emporium" in a 1998 story that also reported that Wine Spectator readers had named Trotter's "the best restaurant in the world for wine and food" for the second straight year. Charlie Trotter's was going through more foie gras than any restaurant in the area -- 50 to 60 lobes a week from Hudson Valley Foie Gras and sometimes additional ones from Sonoma Foie Gras. Hudson Valley co-founder Michael Ginor said Trotter's was among his top 10 customers.
Nowhere was Trotter's foie gras passion more apparent than his 2001 cookbook, Charlie Trotter's MeatandGame. In one photo that spans two glossy, oversized pages, Trotter is seen crouching on the barn floor of a Canadian foie gras farm amid a cluster of fuzzy yellow ducklings that will grow up to donate their unnaturally enlarged livers to the cause of sublime dining. Another full-page photo depicts the compact Trotter in a white lab jacket standing stoically under the hanging shackles that, when in use, carry the ducks by their feet around the slaughter room. The book also offers 14 foie gras recipes, including Seared Foie Gras; Cured Foie Gras; Foie Gras Terrine; Foie Gras Custard; Foie Gras Ice Cream; Foie Gras Beignet; Bleeding Heart Radish Terrine with Star Anise and Thyme-Flavored Foie Gras and Seckel Pear; Sweet-and-Sour Braised Lettuce Soup with Foie Gras and Radishes; and Roasted Chestnut Soup with Foie Gras, Cipolline Onions and Ginger.
The influence of Charlie Trotter's was felt far and wide. Just as Alice Waters's Chez Panisse in Berkeley spawned countless restaurants that emphasized greens and meats with local/organic origins, Trotter's provided the template for a wave of high-end eateries, many helmed by graduates of his kitchen, that combined an affinity for natural, small-farm products with robust flavor combinations meant to tantalize your palate without weighing down your stomach. With Trotter and some like-minded colleagues spreading the foie gras gospel -- all while Hudson Valley's Ginor aggressively marketed his product to chefs nationwide -- the dish's popularity soared. By the early 2000s, it wasn't unusual to find seared foie gras, often with a fruit garnish, on the menu of your everyday upscale restaurant.
Yet sometime after he'd posed with those cute little duckies, Trotter underwent a dramatic conversion. In 2002, with his MeatandGame book relatively fresh on the shelves, Trotter quit serving foie gras. He didn't make an announcement. He issued no press release. The product just ceased showing up on the restaurant's ever-rotating tasting menus. Few patrons noticed or complained. A year passed, then another. Finally, in early 2005, Trotter mentioned his personal foie gras ban to Chicago Tribune restaurant critic Phil Vettel, who happened to be working on what would prove to be a particularly loaded article: a head-to-head comparison between Trotter's and Tru, Rick Tramontoand Gale Gand's younger competitor for Chicago's top dining dollar.
This was where I came in.
Knowing of my interest in the food scene (despite my primary job as Tribune entertainment reporter), Vettel mentioned Trotter's revelation to me and suggested I write a story. Why not? I liked foie gras. I didn't like cruelty to animals. This could be interesting.
I phoned Trotter, who told me he'd simply seen enough of how foie gras was produced. "I've had the chance to visit three different farms, and the circumstances are less than pleasant," he said in his raspy rat-a-tat. "I just felt that we don't really need to do this. We don't need to serve this product." The problem wasn't just what he saw at these particular farms, which he refused to name. The problem was inherent in foie gras production anywhere. "It's the same thing all over the world. This is the process. This is how it's done. We have these romantic visions of 50, 70 years ago when a single large and fatted goose would be in a box and a person would kind of hold the neck up and caress the animal and hold the food up and let them eat as much as they wanted, and subsequently they'd have an enlarged, engorged liver, and it would be delightful when the animal was slaughtered. But we don't do it that way now. It's done in a massproduced farming style where literally there's tubes being jammed down their throats. We have cases of ripped esophaguses, chipped and broken beaks and ripped feet. Here's an animal that's just being pumped up as quickly as possible. If they were just eating as much as they could eat and that happened, that would be one thing. But when you're jamming something down their throat and they're clearly suffering..." His voice trailed off.
The rub with foie gras is that the qualities that people find irresistible are inescapably linked to the way it is produced. Unlike conventional duck, goose, chicken or calf's liver, foie gras is velvety and rich, like a mild, gamey flan. Eat it seared, and the crispy surface contrasts seductively with the melt-in-your-mouth interior, the flavor pronounced but not harsh, as if all of the edges have been rounded off. Eat it cold in a traditional French preparation such as a whole liver prepared in a terrine (a covered dish) or torchon (a rolled towel), and it's like butter you can enjoy in large savory hunks. (A foie gras pâté, which might also be prepared in a terrine, is typically mixed with ingredients such as meats or fat.) The decadent silky texture comes from the liver itself, which has grown full of fat. The dish is a guilty pleasure if only for the damage it might inflict upon your arteries. A foie gras liver balloons to six to 10 times the size of the organ in a normal duck or goose, and the reason it grows so fatty is a process known as gavage.
For hundreds of years, foie gras was made primarily from geese, but France has converted the bulk of its production to ducks, which are sturdier and easier to raise on a mass scale. North American foie gras production almost exclusively uses ducks in part because there's little appetite for goose in the United States, and the farms make their money selling whole birds, not just the livers. Gavage, a.k.a. force-feeding, generally begins when a duck is 12 weeks old, a goose often somewhat older. Having spent the previous several weeks free-ranging outdoors or hanging out in a relatively spacious barn, the bird is moved into a group pen (as on all three sizable U.S. foie gras farms) or a cramped individual cage (as on most Canadian and French farms for ducks) for the feedings. These involve a metal tube or pipe being lowered down the bird's throat two or three (or, with some geese, four) times daily over a period of two to four weeks. For about two to 10 seconds each time, the feeder delivers a corn-based meal down the bird's esophagus either by way of a funnel and gravity or via a pneumatic or hydraulic machine. The gullet fills up with food, and the bird digests it before the next feeding. The process is said to mimic -- and exaggerate -- the way birds gorge themselves before taking migratory flight, even if the made-for-foiegras duck hybrid doesn't migrate. When the liver has approached its maximum size -- and the bird's digestive system can no longer process such large quantities of food -- it's slaughter time.
To foie gras farmers, the process is nothing more than standard agricultural practice, certainly no worse than how chickens, cows and pigs are routinely treated on conventional farms -- and on a far smaller scale. To animal-rights activists, it amounts to torture. Despite declaring himself to be "the furthest thing in the world from that sort of left-leaning activist," Trotter was making the latter argument.
Among his fellow top Chicago-area chefs, however, he held the minority opinion. Roland Liccioni, then chef of the venerated French outpost Le Français, complained that Americans are ignorant of farm life, but he had grown up in southwestern France, the traditional home of foie gras, and found nothing wrong with the process. "The liver gets bigger, but he doesn't suffer," he said, adding that if foie gras becomes unavailable, "the customer will be the one to suffer." Jean Joho, chef of the city's four-star Alsatian restaurant Everest, said he had quit serving Chilean sea bass because it was overfished, but "I'm not banning the foie gras. I think it has to be used in moderation." Innovative young chef Grant Achatz, then preparing to open his new restaurant, Alinea (which Gourmet would name America's best in late 2006), said he also would continue to serve foie gras. "Can somebody say pulling a lobster out of the ocean and shipping it across the country not in water so it's slowly suffocating and then dropping it into a pot of boiling water is humane?" Still, Achatz, who briefly worked at Trotter's years earlier, had no problem with his former employer's decision. "He has a very visible stature, both in the gastronomic community and in public awareness, and he knows if he takes this stance, it's going to get a lot of press and maybe he can use his celebrity to make a statement. I respect that."
But Tramonto, himself a nationally recognized chef and cookbook author, was less approving of Trotter's position. Tru is a sleek haute cuisine destination that favors more of a greatest-hits approach than Trotter's constantly changing preparations -- and it had become a chief competitor of Trotter's. The rivalry is anything but easygoing, especially given that Tramonto and his ex-wife and pastry chef Gale Gand had worked in Trotter's kitchen before striking out on their own in a less-than-amicable separation. In a deep-timbred voice made for talk radio, Tramonto told me that he too had quit serving Chilean sea bass as well as swordfish and beluga caviar so the species could replenish themselves, but foie gras just didn't seem like a problem. Given that Trotter continued to serve veal and other animals, Tramonto had no use for his former boss's new stance.
"It's a little hypocritical because animals are raised to be slaughtered and eaten every day," he said. "I think certain farms treat animals better than others. Either you eat animals or you don't eat animals. Either you believe in eating animals for sustenance or you don't."
When I repeated Tramonto's comments to Trotter, he paused momentarily, then matter-of-factly fired the shot heard round the culinary world:
"Rick Tramonto's not the smartest guy on the block. Yes, animals are raised to be slaughtered, but are they raised in a way where they need to suffer? To then be slaughtered for the pure enjoyment? He can't be that dumb, is he? You should quote me on that. What's up with that? It's like an idiot comment: 'All animals are raised to be slaughtered.' Oh, OK. Maybe we ought to have Rick's liver for a little treat. It's certainly fat enough."
I called back Tramonto to relay Trotter's response before it went into print. Tramonto laughed and asked what ol' Charlie had to say. I read him the quote.
In a voice like ashes, Tramonto, a born-again Christian, responded: "I got no comment to that. Charlie's in my prayers -- that's what you can put for my comment."
This celebrity-chef smackdown was catnip not just for foodies but anyone who enjoys a colorful spectacle. The Tribune's editors certainly sensed the clash's public appeal, running the story at the top of the front page on March 29, 2005, with the headline "Liver and Let Live" and subhead "Charlie Trotter now says force-feeding ducks to create foie gras is a cruel, bird-brained idea. Rick Tramonto says he is a hypocrite." (The article, which also recounted foie gras's long, controversial history, was withheld for almost a week due to the ongoing drama of the comatose Terri Schiavo. Some editors feared that readers might connect one feeding-tube story to the other and thus find the Tribune insensitive.) Placing a 60-inch article about fatty duck livers on page 1 was far from standard daily newspaper practice, but the editors guessed right and then some. The foie gras controversy exploded nationwide, in the media as well as around the proverbial water cooler.
Trotter drew much fire, more for his hostility toward Tramonto than his position on force-feeding. On the New York Times editorial page, Lawrence Downes was one of the few to spring to Trotter's defense, writing -- with Timesian condescension -- that the chef "should feel free to use whatever materials he likes. He says foie gras is cruel, but he could have just called it boring -- a cliché slurped by too many diners who, we suspect, would swoon just as easily over the velvety succulence of Spam or schmaltz on rye, if they were prohibitively priced and listed on the menus in French." Newsweek repeated Trotter's liver-eating threat while noting that the chef "continues to serve every other kind of cuddly creature in creation." Tribune political columnist John Kass got four quick columns out of the controversy, ridiculing the chef as "Hannibal Trotter" in honor of the liver-andfava- beans-eating cannibal of The Silence of the Lambs. The feud even received a faux hip-hop tribute from Barrett Buss on his foodieoriented Too Many Chefs Web site ("Charlie Trotter says...'Maybe we should serve some of your liver up as a snack since you so damn fat!' and Rick Tramonto's like 'I know you didn't just go there!'").
Fevered debate over the ethics of foie gras raged on food-related Web sites such as eGullet, and letters to the editor poured in to the Tribune and other publications. Some deemed Trotter a traitor to the gourmet food world. Others proclaimed him a hero for condemning a vile product. The New York Post cranked up the temperature further by reporting in its Page Six column that chefs gathered at FoodandWine's annual Best New Chefs party were "buzzing" about a recent dinner where Trotter had served three courses of foie gras. "What a hypocrite!" one of the anonymous attendees carped in the column. "He talks the talk but can't walk the walk. What -- he can't serve foie gras to the masses but will to his snooty friends?"
As often is the case, though, Page Six didn't get the full story. Trotter hadn't actually served foie gras; the event's menu was assembled and presented by two of the world's most acclaimed chefs, who were featured guests in Trotter's kitchen: Tetsuya Wakuda of Tetsuya's in Sydney and Heston Blumenthal of London's aptly named The Fat Duck. Tetsuya served a salad of langoustine with foie gras and eschalot tarragon vinaigrette. Blumenthal offered one dish featuring quail jelly, pea purée, cream of langoustine and parfait of foie gras and another highlighting roast foie gras with cherry, amaretto, chamomile and almond fluid gel. In allowing them to prepare dishes featuring foie gras, Trotter told me, he was just trying to be consistent in not imposing his personal preferences on other chefs. "Yeah, it wa served," he said. "I didn't serve it. They wanted to have it represent what their cuisine was, and I said, 'Fine, you can do it.'"
Anthony Bourdain, the streetwise New-York-chef-turned-bestselling-author (Kitchen Confidential) and TV personality (Travel Channel's No Reservations), was at the FoodandWine soiree and told me afterward that Trotter's attacks on foie gras and Tramonto were "the talk of the party." That Trotter didn't actually prepare the foie gras at his restaurant's special dinner was, to Bourdain, "a hair-thin distinction," though he added, "I applaud him for choosing friendship over principle, especially this principle." Bourdain thought that Trotter's thorny personality helped fuel the angry backlash against him. "He's easy to pick on. He's a stuffy guy. He's not exactly famous for his sense of humor. There is an element of schoolyard pile-on in this case, vicarious enjoyment of his embarrassment."
But resentment of Trotter went deeper than personality issues. As the chefs saw it, the gasoline in this battle already had been poured, and Trotter, of all people, shouldn't have been the one striking a match. California chefs and Sonoma Foie Gras (the state's sole producer) had been contending with vandalism, threats and the likelihood of the product being legislated out of existence, and activists had been conducting an aggressive campaign against Los Angeles celebrity restaurateur and foie aficionado Wolfgang Puck. New York State, where the country's two other major foie gras farms are located, also was weighing a ban.
Back in Trotter's home state, representatives from Farm Sanctuary, one of the leading anti-foie forces, had been lobbying legislators to move against foie gras, and one of them bit. Illinois state senator Kathleen L. "Kay" Wojcik, a Republican from the mall-heavy Chicago suburb of Schaumburg, introduced the Force Fed Birds Act just weeks before Trotter's statements went public. The legislation initially was intended to ban the force-feeding of birds and the sale of resultant products, but restaurateurs quickly managed to have the bill watered down to apply only to the production of foie gras, not the sale. Of course, no foie gras was being produced in Illinois in the first place, but Wojcik said the activists had convinced her that the state should never even potentially become host to such a horrific practice. Getting the Land of Lincoln to ban foie gras in any way certainly would have been a feather in the cap of the animal-rights advocates. Wojcik had never actually witnessed foie gras production firsthand, but the Farm Sanctuary folks had shown her pictures and video clips, and she didn't like what she saw. "I do fine dining and I do pâtés, but we do the pâté where the duck is killed naturally or the goose or whatever," she explained to me. "It's not being brutalized. I just have compassion for animals." (Somewhere, a duck was keeling over from a heart attack, then being shipped to Wojcik's house to become pâté.)
Part of what made this conflict so compelling was that as you watched Trotter's and Tramonto's arguments crash into each other like high-speed trains on the same track, you still could reasonably think: They're both right. If you're seeking a symbol of culinary decadence, it's hard to top the image of unnaturally obese ducks being sacrificed so rich folks could spend $16 for delectable nibbles of the fatty livers. At the same time, if you think animals suffer too greatly in food production, why go after a tiny niche item such as foie gras?
The delicacy's producers were worried. Unlike beef, pork, chicken and veal, foie gras didn't constitute a full-fledged U.S. industry, and it lacked any corresponding legislative muscle. Tens of thousands of U.S. farms were dedicated to broiler chickens and layer hens. Three were producing foie gras on any scale. The foie gras farmers viewed this disparity as the driving force behind the campaign against their product -- that and the fact that foie gras (a) has a funny French name, (b) is enjoyed by the relatively affluent, (c) remains unknown to your average Tyson chicken eater, (d) is liver, and (e) is made from ducks. We like ducks. What politician would see any advantage in defending a gross-sounding practice toward little quackers so that a minority of rich gourmands could feast on their bloated livers? Sonoma Foie Gras owner Guillermo Gonzalez argued that Trotter and his supporters were serving the purposes of "animalists" using foie gras as a wedge issue. "They may not realize that they are being instrumental in the ultimate agenda of the movement," Gonzalez said, "which is to terminate the consumption of animals for food altogether." Farm Sanctuary president/cofounder Gene Baur didn't completely deny the point, acknowledging that foie gras does offer a fatter bull's-eye than the much larger meat industries. "The foie gras industry is smaller and does not have the resources of those other agribusiness industries, so change is likely to occur sooner," he told me.
True to his libertarian views, Trotter argued against any government action on foie gras, preferring the free market to take its course. (He also opposes laws against drugs and prostitution.) He declined to support Illinois's anti-foie-gras bill, and when Farm Sanctuary representatives requested that he sign a pledge not to serve the product, he turned them away. "How dumb could they be?" Trotter said. "Here's like the only major chef in the country that's basically not using the product. Why would I be a guy who would need to sign a pledge? Even if I wanted to. Which I wouldn't...These people are idiots. Understand my position: I have nothing to do with a group like that. I think they're pathetic. The best thing you can do in any case is just to try to educate people, and some of their tactics are pretty crude and uncivilized even."
But if Trotter didn't want foie gras to be outlawed, what did he want? Merely, he said, for chefs and consumers to know what he knew so they could draw their own conclusions, which presumably wouldn't stray far from his. "I'm not out there trying to preach. I'm not out there trying to tell other chefs and restaurateurs what they should and shouldn't do. I'm just telling you what I've seen, and it's not cool; it's not a good thing."
Yet behind Trotter's words lay a mystery: What did he see, and when did he see it? He wouldn't say, but others were determined to find out. "OK, who's the last person who saw Charlie Trotter on their farm?" Ariane Daguin, whose Newark-based company, D'Artagnan, is the country's biggest foie gras distributor, asked a gathering of domestic foie gras producers. "In fact," she told me, "only one person ever saw him on the farm, and that was Guillermo [Gonzalez], and it was in 1993." A former Trotter's chef confirmed to me that Trotter had visited Sonoma Foie Gras around then. Michael Ginor said Trotter had declined every invitation to see Hudson Valley Foie Gras despite its being Trotter's key supplier for years, as well as North America's largest foie gras farm. The photos in Charlie Trotter's MeatandGame were taken at one of three major Canadian foie gras farms.
So...if Trotter had visited Sonoma Foie Gras in the early 1990s, why wasn't he appalled back then instead of continuing to be one of foie gras's biggest boosters for almost another decade? What had changed between 1993 and 2002? And was he judging the American farms by the conditions at farms elsewhere?
When I initially spoke with Trotter, he refused to get into the specifics regarding his change of heart, but others were less shy about speculating. One of his former cooks theorized that in the 1990s Trotter was still trying to earn the respect of his haute cuisine peers and might have been considered "a wack job" if he'd trashed such a classic fixture of French cooking -- but once Trotter had risen to almost iconic status, he had the liberty to take his stand. Ginor, who had known Trotter for years, saw the chef's public statements as cynical in intent and ill informed in regard to the ducks' treatment. (Trotter had contributed a recipe for Cumin-Crusted Foie Gras with Crispy Sweetbreads, Napa Cabbage, Ramps, Morels, and Red Wine Emulsion to Ginor's 1999 book Foie Gras: A Passion.) Calling Trotter "first and foremost a marketer, a really smart marketer," Ginor complained: "You would think if he visited the farm and felt that the ducks were being abused, he would not have included that in his book. But back then foie gras was fine. Now...there's this massive animal-rights activity against foie gras, and he's smart enough to recognize that that is where the wind is blowing, and that's something he ought to endorse."
Trotter retorted that if he had intended on promoting his position, he would have announced it back when he initially quit serving foie gras. As for this issue of why he made his decision when he made it, Trotter finally told me that his MeatandGame book already was in production when he visited another foie gras farm and the balance tipped. "This was my fourth farm, and I thought: This isn't happening. I can't support this personally." Trotter still wouldn't say which farm he'd visited, but he did confirm that it was one that kept the ducks in the tiny individual cages, which means he most likely was in Canada or France.
Some thought Trotter was having his liver and eating it too, which he literally had done, as he admitted to having sampled foie gras when it was served to him elsewhere even after his restaurant's ban. Bourdain, who calls foie gras one of the world's 10 great flavors, argued that although Trotter might not see himself as an advocate, he nonetheless was a highly influential chef giving "comfort and succor to the forces of evil...Deep inside, most of us believe that the people who agree with Charlie and PETA will win the day. The bad guys will win."
"But maybe they're the good guys," Trotter shot back. "I know it's not making it easier for chefs, but is that a bad thing? Would chefs suddenly feel like they were less of a chef if they were no longer able to serve foie gras? I would hope not."
At least in the short term, both Charlie Trotter's and Tru reaped the benefits of their public spat. Trotter's fans rallied around him and his ethical stand, and the restaurant seemed newly relevant at a time when younger chefs (and Trotter's alumni) such as Achatz, Moto's Homaro Cantu and Avenues' Graham Elliot Bowles (who served the Foie-lipop, a foie gras lollipop coated with Pop Rocks) were being lauded for their creative applications of so-called "molecular gastronomy." Tramonto, meanwhile, kept wondering to himself, What just happened? Who would've figured that two brief conversations with a reporter could alter his life so drastically? His e-mail inbox was constantly overflowing, and his phone rang almost nonstop for months with calls of support and interview requests from, among others, Entertainment Tonight and Newsweek. The feedback he received was overwhelmingly positive, though eventually PETA briefly camped out on Tru's sidewalk.
Still, Tramonto said he was bothered about how ugly his relationship with Trotter had turned, so he wrote his former boss a letter apologizing if there had been any misunderstanding. Trotter called him back in the kitchen, and Tramonto reiterated his apology. Trotter's response, according to Tramonto: "OK." As Tramonto later recalled, "It wasn't like, 'Hey, bud, I'm sorry for calling you names in the newspaper.' It wasn't like, 'Let's shake hands and hug and forget about it and come to my next dinner.'" A couple of years later, Tramonto had an assistant reach out to Trotter to offer to help out with the restaurant's 20th anniversary celebration, which invited back many veterans of Trotter's kitchen. He said he received neither a return call nor an invitation to any of the festivities.
Trotter did tell me after the fact that he respects Tramonto and that the language he chose in slamming him was uncharacteristic. "Sometimes you say what's in your head, and that's the way it is. I'm not trying to hurt anybody, whether it's Chef Tramonto or a foie gras farm or anybody else. That's not my MO. That's never been my MO." But with almost the next breath, he stressed that he wasn't backing off the gist of his statements. "You know what? If I hear something that I don't like, I will say whatever it takes, and I'll send a message. If I have to use some sarcasm or open a can of whup-ass or do whatever, I'll do what I have to do."
One reader followed Trotter's adventures in the headlines with particular interest. Chicago alderman Joe Moore was a left-leaning fringe player in a city council dominated by Mayor Richard M. Daley's supporters. Moore had a reputation for proposing bills that sounded populist, progressive notes that rarely reached an audience beyond those in microphone range. But as he put down the newspaper upon first reading of Trotter's foie gras stand, he sensed that he had found a winner of an issue, one that not only would appeal to his North Side working-class ward (which featured zero upscale restaurants) but also might have a shot of gaining approval from his fellow council members.
The foie gras wars were about to escalate.
Copyright © 2009 by Mark Caro