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California Chefs to Wield Their Spatulas in Fight Over Foie Gras Ban

Thomas Keller, of the French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., is among the chefs opposed to the state's coming ban on foie gras.

By JESSE McKINLEY Published: April 30, 2012 NEW YORK TIMES

A collection of some of California's best-known chefs, including four-star celebrities like Thomas Keller, began a full-course press on the state's legislators on Monday, hoping to prevent a long-simmering ban on foie gras from taking effect on July 1.

The group, which calls itself the Coalition for Humane and Ethical Farming Standards, delivered a charter statement to lawmakers in Sacramento, advocating a wide variety of new animal-friendly commitments, including cage-free birds and hand feeding, to replace the current law, which would effectively bar foie gras from the state's menus.

"We want to create a humane market," said Rob Black, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, a member of the coalition. "Not a black market."

The ban would prohibit the production and sale of any product derived from force feeding birds to enlarge their livers beyond normal size -- the only way to mass produce the fatty French-inflected delicacy. The law was passed in 2004 but had a seven-and-a-half-year grace period. It is the nation's first such law to pass.

Nate Ballard, a spokesman for the coalition, said that members planned to follow the statement with personal visits to legislators this week, taking them to supper, if they are interested.

"The chefs are going to invite lawmakers to foie gras dinner in their districts, all over the state," Mr. Ballard said.

Regardless of one's tastes in food, supporters of the ban have long argued that it is necessary to prevent cruelty to ducks and geese. They say the animals suffer physical and emotional damage from force feeding, a process known as gavage.

"It's not about foie gras," said John Burton, a former California legislator who wrote the law. "It's about inhumane treatment of those birds."

Of course, California is no stranger to food fights. In 2008, voters approved a ban on restrictive cages for veal cattle, pigs and hens, and last year Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law that forbade the sale or possession of shark fins, an Asian delicacy.

The foie gras ban, signed by Mr. Brown's predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, has seemed to signal the end for Sonoma-Artisan Foie Gras, the state's only producer, whose owner, Guillermo Gonzalez, said he would shut down on June 30.

In the months leading up to the ban, restaurateurs have been increasingly vocal about their opposition.

Greg Daniels, who runs Haven Gastropub in Pasadena, Calif., said he feared it could result in the diminishment of the state's reputation as an adventurous and first-rate place to eat.

"I think the culinary landscape of California will change much more than anybody is realizing," Mr. Daniels said.

That reputation is carried by the likes of Mr. Keller, whose flagship restaurant, the French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., is on the bucket list of many of the food obsessed. Last month, Mr. Keller issued a statement saying simply that his restaurant group would abide by the law when it took effect.

But on Monday, Mr. Keller's name was also among the more than 100 other chefs signing on to a raft of new promises regarding the production of foie gras, including a commitment to feeding methods that do not "harm the animal in any way."

All this seemed disingenuous to animal rights activists like Bryan Pease, a lawyer and founder of the Animal Protection and Rescue League, in San Diego, which has been protesting in front of restaurants where foie gras is still served, something he said was necessary to educate the public about the ban.

"We want people to know it's not this weird thing about banning duck liver," he said. "It's the force feeding that's being targeted."

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The Top 50 Best Restaurants

Denmark's Noma Wins World's Best Restaurant Third Time

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Danish restaurant Noma was crowned the world's best restaurant for the third year in a row in an annual list, beating out top eateries in Spain, Brazil, Italy, the United States and elsewhere.

The S. Pellegrino and Acqua Panna World's 50 Best Restaurants, produced by Britain's Restaurant Magazine, were unveiled in London after voting by a panel of more than 800 chefs, restaurateurs, journalists and food experts who rated chef Rene Redzepi's Noma as the "standard-bearer for the new Nordic movement."

Redzepi said he was delighted to win the award for the third time and added that his main philosophy was to create delicious food using locally sourced produce.

"It's something about the zeitgeist. It's about nature, people growing food, being close to food. Connecting with organic farmers, working hard to maintain a healthy ecology, the utmost deliciousness ties in with this," he said.

But he added that despite Noma's green credentials it still managed to cast off the northern European philosophy that fine food was a bit of a sinful self indulgence.

"Sustainability is not a clear goal, we are a temple of deliciousness and we celebrate it, there's nothing wrong with it. But in our part of the world, if you say you are in love with delicious food and what it does to you, you're supposed to feel remorse. It's a Protestant thing, the Catholics don't have that."

Nationally, Spain and the United States tied with three restaurants each in the top 10, though Spain's El Celler de Can Roca in Girona came second and Mugaritz in San Sebastian placed third. In all, the United States had eight eateries in the top 50 and Spain had five.

The Chefs' Choice award, voted for by the World's 50 Best chefs, was presented to Andoni Luis Aduriz of Mugaritz, which was devastated by a fire two years ago. Spanish winners also included Arzak at no. 8, whose joint Head Chef Elena Arzak was awarded the Veuve Clicquot World's Best Female Chef award.

Eight U.S. restaurants made the top 50 list this year, the highest of which was New York based Per Se, owned by chef Thomas Keller, who was rewarded the Best Restaurant in North America and the S.Pellegrino Lifetime Achievement accolade after spending each of the past 10 years of the awards on the list under one guise or another.

Redzepi serves a new kind of Nordic cuisine such as musk ox and smoked marrow, sea urchin and dill or beef cheek and pear.

The 34-year-old chef is an ambassador for the New Nordic Food program set up by the Nordic Council of Ministers and has headed the restaurant since its 2003 opening.

The Noma approach to cooking is concentrated on obtaining the best raw materials from the Nordic region such as Icelandic skyr curd, halibut, Greenland musk ox and berries.

The two Michelin star restaurant does its own smoking, salting, pickling, drying, grilling and baking, prepares its own vinegars and concocts its own distilled spirits such as its own eaux de vies.

Noma makes systematic use of beers and ales, fruit juices and fruit-based vinegars for its sauces and soups rather than wine, and allows vegetables, herbs, spices and wild plants in season to play a prominent role in its cooking.

Located on the ground floor of a renovated listed 18th Century warehouse in the old Christianshavn district of Copenhagen, the restaurant's fittings and furnishings also embrace the Nordic spirit and atmosphere with smoked oak, stone, leather, water, glass and light.

With six restaurants on the list, Asia has secured its position on the gastronomic map. The event organizer announced the launch of the new Asia's 50 Best Restaurants awards at the ceremony, which will be held in Singapore in February 2013.

The awards, which are also sponsored by S.Pellegrino and Acqua Panna, are welcomed by top chefs from the continent including Ignatius Chan from Iggy's in Singapore, who took the Best Restaurant in Asia title at No. 26.

"Asia has a long culinary history and we offer a deep, diverse and rich gastronomic landscape," he said. "Asia's 50 Best Restaurants is a fantastic platform to educate and showcase some of the greatest Asian restaurants to the world."

South America confirmed its standing on the list with four restaurants spanning Mexico, Peru and Brazil, whose São Paulo eatery D.O.M, run by ex-DJ Alex Atala, rose three places to No. 4 and claimed the Best Restaurant in South America title.

(c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2012.

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