By NICK RAVO
Not long ago, a sumptuous slice of fresh foie gras, cut from the fat-rich liver of a force-fed duck or goose, was a rarity on American menus. Even as French restaurants flourished in the 1980's, desperate chefs usually had to settle for canned pates. Those willing to defy Federal restrictions on imports of raw poultry even had the delicacy smuggled from France inside fish bellies.
Nowadays, though, top restaurants across the nation are awash in fresh foie gras. The delicacy is so abundant that chefs have indulged in American-style innovations that might make a Frenchman faint: barbecued foie gras, foie gras pizza, foie gras quesadillas.
The opening of this pipeline can be traced largely to a former bond trader from Great Neck, N.Y., and an Israeli-born duck-breeding expert, who have teamed up to become the largest producer of fresh foie gras in the United States.
The two men, Michael A. Ginor and Izzy Yanay, own and operate Hudson Valley Foie Gras and Duck Products, a 200-acre farm in Sullivan County, two hours northwest of Manhattan. They also operate two 100-acre farms in nearby White Lake, N.Y., and another 100-acre farm outside Montreal.
Their company, formed almost eight years ago, is one of only two in the country that produce fresh foie gras; the other, Sonoma Foie Gras, is in California. Hudson Valley Foie Gras estimates that it produces about 80 percent of the product made in the United States.
"We did it because I could never get it here, and when I did, it wasn't any good," said Mr. Ginor, 34, the company's president, who first tasted foie gras 15 years ago as a college student outside Tel Aviv, where cubes of low-grade foie gras were served grilled and skewered, on a plate with hummus and pita.
David Waltuck, chef and owner of Chanterelle in TriBeCa, said his restaurant would probably not be serving foie gras if Hudson Valley had not started up. "The stuff from Hudson Valley is the best," he said.
To become the kings of foie gras -- they sell 220 tons a year of livers as yellow as the cornmeal they feed their hybrid ducks -- Mr. Ginor and Mr. Yanay, the general manager, have had to surmount several problems that had long held back the industry.
For decades, disease has stymied large goose farms in the United States and in Europe, and to many Americans, foie gras still means goose. Today, however, goose foie gras (foie gras d'oie) is only made in very small quantities in Israel, Hungary and parts of the Perigord and Alsace regions of France. Everywhere else, foie gras comes from a duck (foie gras de canard), mostly the moulard duck.
Besides disease, geese have a number of other problems. They are, some experts say, more intelligent than ducks, which means they will not take food from a stranger, making force-feeding more difficult. They have more fragile necks, another obstacle to feeding. And the rest of the goose ages faster than the liver, rendering the breast and other parts inedible, and making the process uneconomical.
Goose liver also contains a high percentage of fat, so it can be cooked only at low temperatures. "If you are making a terrine, goose is fine, but if you sear it, saute, broil, grill, the goose disappears and you are left with fat melted in the pan and liver," Mr. Ginor said. "Americans are inherently more comfortable with those cooking methods. Like cooking hamburgers."
As for duck foie gras, efforts to use Muscovy ducks have not been economical, because they usually breed only six months of the year, require lots of care and, to a lesser degree, have the same melting problem as geese because of their high-fat livers.
In the late 1970's, though, Mr. Yanay, an expert in poultry production who was then working in Israel, made a breakthrough. He developed an artificial insemination method to cross large numbers of female Pekin ducks with male Muscovy ducks to produce disease-resistant, but sterile, moulards.
The result was that birds with some Muscovy duck characteristics could be bred year-round in large numbers. Better yet, the moulard foie gras is easier to cook than goose or Muscovy foie gras. It is also, many say, more flavorful than foie gras from a Muscovy duck.
"The moulard is so perfect for foie gras production," Mr. Ginor said, "that 70 percent of the livers harvested in the world now come from moulard, including most of those in France."
The only trouble with the moulard, and the main reason no one has yet duplicated Hudson Valley's efforts in the United States, is that artificial insemination on a large scale is not easy. But that is Mr. Yanay's expertise.
"What we do here, nobody else here can do," he said.
On the way to meeting in the Catskills and changing the course of foie gras history, Mr. Ginor and Mr. Yanay, coincidentally, both spent time in Israel.
Mr. Yanay came to the United States from Israel in the early 1980's. With some financial backing, he worked for a while with Commonwealth Farms in Ferndale to get a domestic fresh foie gras industry started. But acrimony developed before the industry did, and Mr. Yanay, 48, soon left the company.
Mr. Ginor, meanwhile, spent the 80's getting an M.B.A. from New York University and then made a small fortune as a bond trader and salesman at David Lerner Associates. He was born in Seattle, the son of a Boeing engineer, and raised in Israel and on Long Island. After a few years on Wall Street, he began searching for more meaning (and, apparently, danger) in his life; he joined the Israeli Army. Upon returning to the United States with dual citizenship in the late 80's, he decided that instead of merely harvesting money each day, he wanted a passion.
"I'm a foodie," he said recently, a few days after his return from a food and wine tour of South Africa. "I made a lot of money in the 80's, and I decided I wanted to do something that I really love, which was work with food. Now, I am almost a celebrity. I have a foie gras cookbook coming out. I'm opening two restaurants. I love the business."
His decision to concentrate on foie gras came after he ate what he said was particularly awful foie gras in an appetizer at the Cafe Rakel in Manhattan in 1989. A complaint to the chef led him to the owners of D'Artagnan, a wholesaler of game and meat products in Newark. They referred him to Mr. Yanay, who was driving a truck after his departure from Commonwealth Farms.
Upon learning about Mr. Yanay's skill and after researching the state of the domestic market for fresh foie gras, Mr. Ginor formed a partnership with Mr. Yanay in 1990. Mr. Ginor and a relative anted up $1.3 million to buy an old chicken farm not far from Commonwealth Farms, which they later bought for $1.4 million in 1992. Mr. Ginor also hounded chefs across the country to try his product, and established links with D'Artagnan and eventually 73 other wholesalers.
n 1993 and 1994, he fended off letter-writing campaigns and demonstrations by animal-rights activists smeared with red paint, who cited foie gras as one of the most cruel animal food products because of what the French call gavage: forcing the birds to swallow up to a pound of feed through a tube three times a day so that their three-ounce livers grow to as much as 12 times their normal size.
Mr. Yanay says the treatment of the ducks is no crueler than many other things done to animals raised and killed for food. He also says that the birds naturally overeat before they migrate and that their esophaguses are calcified, so the funnel and tube used for feeding are not seriously abrasive.
The lambasting by animal-rights activists apparently has had little effect on aficionados of fine food. So popular has fresh foie gras become that earlier this year Hudson Valley was sold out of product, leaving chefs screaming for more foie gras.
"A shortage?" said Mr. Waltuck of Chanterelle. "It was a complete lack."
Since then, the farm has increased production, and Hudson Valley now sells 220 tons of foie gras a year, an average of 7,500 pounds of liver each week, up from 2,700 pounds in 1992 (the average liver weighs about 1.5 pounds). The company's annual sales of all its products total $9 million, and pretax profit margins are 18 percent.
Hudson Valley gets about $50 for all the parts of each bird it sells to its 75 wholesalers; the liver alone fetches about $28 to $36 a pound, depending on the grade. Byproducts include the breast, which is called a magret; the legs, which are used for confit; feathers for down; tubs of duck fat for cooking or, for French-food devotees, spreading like butter on a baguette; the skin for crackling, and what the French call lardon, a pork-rind-like snack.
"We sell everything but the quack," Mr. Ginor said.
GRAPHIC: Photos: Hudson Valley Foie Gras and Duck Products, in the Catskills, is the largest American producer of fresh foie gras, 200 tons a year. It comes from moulards, crosses of Muscovy and Pekin ducks. Michael A. Ginor, left, and Izzy Yanay, owners of Hudson Valley Foie Gras and Duck Product, estimate that they supply 80 percent of the foie gras made in the United States. (Photographs by Joyce Dopkeen/The New York Times)(pg. B1); Moulard ducklings at Hudson Valley Foie Gras. Izzy Yanay, an owner, developed an artificial insemination method to breed the birds, which have advantages over geese and other ducks for the production of foie gras. (Joyce Dopkeen/The New York Times)(pg. B9)
Map of New York state showing location of Ferndale: Hudson Valley is a 200-acre farm two hours northwest of Manhattan. (pg. B9)