PARIS -- Jean Legrand powers his motorcycle into the traffic zooming around the Place de la Concorde, casually shooting across five lanes while shouting an explanation of why he threw away his chef's hat to make foie gras.
'Independence. It is the only way to live,' he yells over the shoulder of his black leather jacket to the passenger behind, barely glancing at where he is going.
The hazel-eyed, 6-foot-4 Legrand embodies what the French call 'joie de vivre' -- the joy of living. He seems to want to give every moment a bear hug.
He began a chef's career peeling vegetables and sweeping floors at age 14, reached the top of what is one of France's most esteemed professions, then gave it up for his own business -- 'making the best foie gras in Paris.'
He is now 41 and on the prestigious Gault-Millau food critics list of the 10 top makers of foie gras, the velvety textured jewel of French haute cuisine made from the oversized livers of force-fed geese and ducks.
'When someone tells me my foie gras is the best they've ever tasted, I say 'I've known that for 15 years,'' he says.
Legrand can discuss his artistry only one way, of course -- over a good meal.
He guns his motorcycle onto the sidewalk of the fashionable Jean Claude Ferrero restaurant on a quiet street in a wealthy neighborhood. He wrestles off his biker's helmet, freeing a thick shock of gray hair. Helmet under arm, in jeans and cowboy boots, he strides in among the dark-suited businessmen lunching at linen-clad tables.
Instead of a raised eyebrow, Legrand gets a broad smile and handclasp from chef-owner Ferrero and an escort to the best table.
No menu is offered. The two discuss the meal to come in the language of fellow insiders -- the chef 'proposes' several dishes, truffles are in season, maybe some game to follow, and the decision is made.
A blue box of Gitanne cigarettes arrives on a silver tray. Legrand is ready to talk about his passion.
'I love foie gras,' he says, sipping a ruby Bordeaux. 'You cannot do anything without loving it. The day it no longer gives me pleasure, I will not be able to make any more. I will stop.'
When he began his business, Legrande persuaded some of Paris' best restaurants to serve his foie gras in a typically flamboyant style. He appearedat the back door of their kitchens, motorcycle helmet under his arm and white ceramic terrine in hand, and invited the chefs to taste his creation.
It is now sold in gourmet boutiques and 'about eight' of Paris' best restaurants. Legrande won't say which -- the information would cause a few red faces in those that serve it as their own. He sells his foie gras under his own name from a shop on the Rue des Mathurins in the chic Madeleine quarter.
Foie gras is expensive, delicious, difficult to make -- and controversial. Farmers force-feed grain to geese and ducks, then slaughter them for the enormous livers created by the constant intake of food. Animal lovers protest the practice as 'torture.'
Legrand himself would quote the French proverb -- 'If you love to eat good food, don't look at what goes on in the kitchen.'
To the uninitiated, it might seem like much ado about very little. Foie gras looks like a rosy beige, butter-smooth pate -- but to compare the two would be to put a rough red table wine up against a fine champagne. It takes just one bite melting on your palate to understand.
In the kitchen Legrand calls 'the laboratory,' sparkling white walls, bright yellow tile floor and stainless steel counters are a surprise after the walk through a stone courtyard and down stairs crowded with cooking equipment, boxes and stacks of ceramic terrines.
A refrigerator box has just arrived with huge raw goose livers Legrand buys from three farms in southwest France, the foie gras heartland. He hefts one in his hand -- the livers grow to an astonishing size, up to 4 pounds.
Legrande douses goose livers lightly with salt, pepper and cognac and leaves them for 48 hours -- 'enough for perfume.' (With smaller duck livers, Legrande substitutes port for cognac.) The livers are cooked, usually two to a terrine, into the shape of small tubular bread loaves.
'Cooking is the dangerous part -- you can lose everything,' he says, peering through an oven window at four simmering terrines. 'The first day, I cook one just as a test. It's different every time.'
Legrand would never part with the independence he has won since turning in his tall white chef's hat.
'Before, I was paid for my time, for what I could make. Now I am paid for what I know. It's much better. There's a limit to what you can do, but no limit to what you can know.'