His foie-gras creations are prized by foodies around the world, causing critics to gush and patrons to abandon diets and cholesterol counts.
Montreal celebrity chef Martin Picard built up an exalted reputation in part for his celebration of engorged duck liver - foie gras. But his signature dish isn't welcome by organizers of Ottawa's winter festival.
The National Capital Commission asked Mr. Picard to omit foie gras from the menu of Winterlude's opening gala next month after a small band of animal-rights activists protested. Mr. Picard decided to pull out instead.
Now the incident has turned into a culinary kerfuffle. Several Ottawa restaurants have decided to add foie gras to their festival menus in support of Mr. Picard, and online postings are comparing the NCC's move to Europe's import ban on seal products in the face of protests. By Tuesday afternoon, a day after the NCC announced Mr. Picard's departure, 20 per cent of diners who had purchased $125 tickets to the event had asked for refunds.
Mr. Picard was ducking the controversy Tuesday, after telling a reporter he and the NCC simply couldn't see eye to eye. Meanwhile, his longtime sous-chef at Montreal's acclaimed Au Pied de Cochon said he supported his former partner.
"Martin took risks all his life and these organizers don't want to take any," Hughe Dufour said from his diner in New York, called M. Wells. "Instead of siding with a pioneer in Quebec, they're siding with a small group of extremists. It's ignorance."
One online posting said asking Mr. Picard to drop foie gras from his menu was like asking a pastry chef to omit sugar.
"Martin Picard is associated with foie gras the way that Michael Jordan is associated with basketball. So it's almost insulting to tell somebody of that stature, 'You can't do your thing while you're in our city,'" said Michael Hay of The Courtyard Restaurant in Ottawa, one of the chefs adding foie gras to his menu in a gesture of support. "Martin Picard is a bit of a hero to most of the chefs in this part of Canada. It's sad to let protesters dictate what we can and cannot serve."
The NCC had sold out all 450 tickets to the dining event at the Museum of Civilization within hours of announcing Mr. Picard's presence. But in a follow-up e-mail to ticket holders, the Crown corporation said it had reconsidered after "concerns" were raised about foie gras, and the dish was dropped "in order to maintain a positive experience for all participants on opening night." PEI Chef Michael Smith was brought in as a replacement and is said to be preparing an Atlantic-themed menu highlighting East Coast cuisine.
At the heart of the dispute is foie gras itself, a divisive dish seen as a delicacy by some and product of cruelty by others. Critics say production is inhumane because ducks and geese are force-fed through tubes to make their livers swell.
Olivier Nassans, sales manager at Elevages Périgord, a large foie-gras operation southwest of Montreal, insisted that the ducks on his farm are treated with respect. The feeding tubes used to force-feed the fowl have been shortened and narrowed in recent years, he added. "You can't make good foie gras if you mistreat the animals."