Chef Arie Pavlou sensed something strange when two customers entered Comtesse Thérèse Bistro in Aquebogue several months ago.
After the two women discovered the restaurant sold foie gras, French for fatty duck liver, they stormed out in a huff, he said, and urged the restaurant to stop selling the controversial product.
“They sat down and I could smell they had an agenda,” Mr. Pavlou said.
Foie gras is made by enlarging the livers of ducks by force-feeding them through a tube inserted into the esophagus. The duck’s liver grows much larger than it normally would in the wild, and weighs about a pound.
Animal rights groups say the practice is inhumane.
The customers and Mr. Pavlou sent emails back and forth, in which he said he would not stop selling the popular dish, and he assumed the matter was closed.
But Mr. Pavlou was surprised to receive a message last week addressed as being from the advocacy group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and urging a boycott of the restaurant. Mr. Pavlou was incensed that his eatery was singled out by the national group.
Except it wasn’t.
The email, which stated it was sent on behalf of one of the customers, was a fake.
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“It just goes to show you the lengths of what these types of people go to,” Mr. Pavlou said.
PETA officials said the email was a forgery of a previous email sent out by the group encouraging a boycott of Shop Rite for selling foie gras. A spokesperson for the group said PETA has a policy of speaking with businesses before sending out an email to its supporters.
“They just removed Shop Rite’s name and added this restaurant,” said volunteer coordinator Lauren Stroyeck. “It looks like it was sent by PETA’s news manager, but the formatting is all wrong. We don’t have any contact with the restaurant.”
The customer mentioned in the faux message did not return emails seeking comment.
Mr. Pavlou said he didn’t see the process of producing foie gras as inhumane, adding that “cows and fish go through more torture than these ducks.” He also said the restaurant only added the dish to the menu after customers specifically requested that it serve foie gras.
Susan, a waitress at Comtesse Thérèse who did not give her last name, has been a vegetarian since childhood and said she had no problem with the dish.
The restaurant gets its duck foie gras from La Bella farms, a duck farm in upstate New York devoted to selling the livers.
Farm manager Bob Ambrose said the La Bella has taken steps to ensure the safety of its animals. The ducks spend their first 12 weeks in large open coops, then move to elevated pens that are large enough for them to move around.
When it comes to feeding the ducks, Mr. Ambrose said the farm has done away with the traditional metal funnel and instead uses a smaller plastic feeding tube that makes it easier for the ducks. The employee feeding the duck will also feel the bird’s esophagus and stomach to make sure it is not being overfed.
Mr. Ambrose added that he doesn’t think the traditional methods were inhumane to begin with, because ducks are built differently from humans; ducks, for example, do not have a gag reflex.
“Ducks in nature eat whole fish and can keep swimming on top of the water,” Mr. Ambrose said. “It gorges itself before it migrates. The esophagus is designed to take more rigorous eating.”
Still, animal rights groups like PETA continue the protest the delicacy, and several countries have banned the production of foie gras.
“This is considered a tradition in France but tradition does not justify cruelty,” Ms. Stroyeck said, though she added that PETA was not seeking to protest Comtesse Thérèse’s decision to sell the appetizer at this time.
For Chef Pavlou, the fact that PETA is not singling the restaurant out gives him little comfort from what he calls a “personal attack” from the two customers.
“We’re still being attacked, it’s just not from PETA itself,” he said. “It’s from these other nut jobs.”