This is how a love affair starts.
At age 15 I had just finished three months working as a stagiaire in one of Paul Bocuse’s restaurants in Lyon. Three months of back-breaking (and unpaid) work, 18-hour days of dawn patrols and late nights, a summer spent peeling onions, gutting fish and fowl, and mopping floors. A learning experience bar none, but no less soul-sapping for all that.
I remember walking along on my one free day, the last before returning home to Ireland, and spotting a chef smoking in the doorway of his café, a blackboard advertising seared foie gras with pain d’épice and a glass of rosé – thinking that sounded a grand treat to end off my summer, I scratched in my pocket and came up a few francs short.
I walked over and asked the chef if I could have a smaller portion for my francs. “Come”, he said, waving me to a table, and reappeared with not a glass of rosé but a jugful and more like a double portion of the foie gras than the half I’d hoped for.
After those three months of grind, I’d been thinking hard about whether being a chef was really the career for me.
But on that last day as I sat in the autumn sunshine, relishing the wine and that dish, so simply prepared but so delicious, the rich butteriness and delicate flavour of the foie gras melting into the toasted spice bread, cheered by the generosity of the chef, I felt like I was in heaven, and there was no more question in my mind.
That’s what foie gras did for me on my journey as a chef, and it’s been an abiding love affair.
Not long after, I worked for Laurent Manrique in his Peacock Alley restaurant at the Waldorf Astoria in New York – he came from a long line of foie gras farmers in Gascony and was a huge fan of it on his menus. Almost every dish we served had some element of foie gras and as a young sous chef, I came to think of it as essential to luxury and fine dining.
Manrique sent me to work for Alain Ducasse in Monte Carlo and in that world of opulence, foie gras was of course a given, and so it has continued weaving itself through my career as an ingredient that I’ve always loved and will always serve if I can.
Like Manrique and others, I’ve had animal rights activists picketing outside my door and while I absolutely don’t support cruelty to any living thing, I’ve come to accept that consuming any kind of animal product is going to involve some form of what humans would consider to be cruel.
And I consider it the diner’s personal choice whether or not to consume.
Although some chefs have stopped using it – or using it as much as in the past – you’ll find very few true fine dining restaurants that don’t have foie gras on the menu.
As chefs and restaurants, ours is not to dictate what people farm or eat, but as with any other ingredient that’s served on my menus, I will always seek out foie gras reared in the most humane, ethical way possible.
It’s a beautiful delicacy, this fattened liver of duck or goose, a luxury product to be treated with respect.
Foie gras is an incredibly versatile ingredient – traditionally a thick slice quickly pan-seared, browned crunch giving way to soft, melting centre, or prepared as a classic, rich buttery pâte, through to delicate parfait, torchon or mousse. More recently, chefs use foie gras innovatively in dishes such as a savoury ice-cream, served as a starter or an unusual dessert.
I like to use the trimmings from a foie gras mousse or terrine blended through a sauce or soup to give it richness and depth of flavour, and a favourite dish is beef filet topped with a slice of sautéed foie gras.
For all its richness and decadent appeal, the watchword is simplicity – letting the unique flavour, aroma and texture shine through rather than overworking and complicating the dish with other competing flavours.
The richness and sweetness of the foie gras works well with sweet-sour fruit flavours, dried or preserved fruit – figs and stone fruit like peaches or sour cherries especially – and crusty bread to offset the creamy texture.
The traditional preparations involve just salt, pepper and a sweet Sauternes or a brandy like cognac or Armagnac, paired with a similar wine or brandy.
For me, a piece of seared foie gras with a little rhubarb or quince, a glass of an aromatic, off-dry gewürztraminer or Alsace wine – that’s heaven.