Authors: nytimes Diners Journal
M. Wells Dinette, the highly anticipated reincarnation inside MoMA PS1 of a celebrated Queens restaurant, has been open for only five days, but its chef and owners have already removed a controversial item planned for the menu.
The restaurant’s chef and co-owner, Hugue Dufour, said Thursday that he would not serve horse meat tartare, in response to outrage from animal rights advocates and concern about legal ramifications from health officials.
“Horse meat is off the menu at the Dinette, and it is not likely to return,” the restaurant said, beginning a passionate statement that Mr. Dufour; his wife and partner, Sarah Obraitis; and their lawyer and co-owner, Adam Cohn, drafted after a busy lunch service on Thursday. “We took it off because it upset so many people, which truly surprised us. That is not the effect we look for in our food, so away it goes.”
Mr. Dufour, a French Canadian who ate and cooked horse meat when he trained as a chef in Montreal, had not imported the meat yet from Canada. But after he announced his plans in an interview with New York magazine two weeks ago, animal rights advocates formed two petitions through change.org that drew approximately 1,300 signatures demanding its removal.
The controversy erupted around the time Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey signed a bill banning horse slaughter in his state, after the public urging of advocates including Bruce Springsteen’s daughter Jessica, an accomplished equestrian.
Mr. Dufour and Ms. Obraitis said they had been receiving angry e-mails and postings that threatened their personal safety. The museum, they said, also received letters demanding that its upscale cafeteria not serve the meat.
Mr. Dufour said he had intended to get the horse meat from the same strictly regulated slaughterhouse in Canada where he acquired the meat for a food festival in Brooklyn in May. At the time, he said, he had approval from government agencies.
But in August, the United States Department of Agriculture changed the policy on importation of horse meat, said Dirk Fillpot, an agency spokesman. He said the agency was prohibiting the imports until it was “able to finalize our processes and methods” for inspections of domestic horse slaughterhouses. Jean Weinberg, a spokeswoman for the city’s health department, said the city was following the U.S.D.A. guidelines.
Mr. Dufour said that in the last week he and his lawyer received conflicting information from officials in both the city’s health department and the federal Department of Agriculture.
Sitting at a communal table in a space remodeled to look like a schoolroom with diner accents, Mr. Dufour said: “I love horse, but I’m not going to start killing my neighbor because he doesn’t want to eat horse. I can serve other things.”
His M. Wells Diner was a foodie phenomenon in Long Island City, Queens, that lasted 14 months and was named one of the top 10 new restaurants in 2011 by Sam Sifton, the former restaurant critic for The New York Times, who had awarded it two stars in his review. But Mr. Dufour and Ms. Obraitis closed it because of a rent dispute.
In the new restaurant, the menu, chalked on a blackboard, changes daily.
On Thursday, the selections included foie gras oatmeal, smoked herring Caesar salad, braised veal cheeks, braised rabbit bucatini and blood pudding.
In explaining why it had planned to serve horse meat tartare, the restaurant said: “We get tired of beef-chicken-pork all the time and we assume diners do, too. Whatever else horses are — draft animals, companions, transport — their meat is also delicious and affordable.”
Mr. Dufour said that at the Great GoogaMooga food festival at Prospect Park in May, he served 5,000 grilled-cheese sandwiches made with horse-and-pork bologna and foie gras.
“Nevertheless,” the restaurant said, “scandalizing animal lovers is not what we want to be famous for. It was certainly not our intent to insult American culture.”
Full statement from M. Wells Dinette:
Horsemeat is off the menu at the Dinette and it is not likely to return. We took it off because it upset so many people, which truly surprised us. That is not the effect we look for in our food, so away it goes.
We thought about serving it because we like to offer customers new things. We get tired of beef-chicken-pork all the time and we assume diners do, too. Whatever else horses are – draft animals, companions, transport – their meat is also delicious and affordable. In Quebec, where our chef is from, the presence of horse on a menu is unremarkable. Canada is far from the only culture where eating horse does not rise to the level of taboo.
Here in New York the law is ambiguous. We received contradictory opinions from two different government agencies with overlapping jurisdiction. All we can say with certainty is that the law appears to be in flux.
Public opinion here is split, too. Last summer, at a food festival in Brooklyn, we sold over 5,000 horse bologna foie gras grilled cheese sandwiches to many happy New Yorkers. Nevertheless, scandalizing animal lovers is not what we want to be famous for. It was certainly not our intent to insult American culture. However, it must be said, part of living in a city like New York means learning to tolerate different customs. If our critics can forgive us, we invite them in for a drink and a bite of whatever animal they do consume (if any). At any rate, we cry uncle.
M. Wells Dinette