MONTREAL - A famous Quebec chef has bowed out of Ottawa's winter festival in defiant defence of one of his staple dishes: foie gras.

The Winterlude furore stems from an ongoing debate over the ancient delicacy, now increasingly threatened by calls for it to be banned because of its alleged cruelty to animals.

Montreal's Martin Picard was set to kick off Winterlude's opening night on Feb. 4 and was the star attraction with a sold-out event at the Museum of Civilization in Gatineau.

Organizers say they and the event sponsors faced instant pressure by animal-rights activists over the potential use of foie gras on Picard's menu.

Initially, organizers said Picard agreed to work without foie gras -- the liver of force-fed ducks and geese.

But the famed Quebec chef -- who owns the acclaimed Au Pied de Cochon restaurant in Montreal and co-hosts "The Wild Chef" on the Food Network -- quietly bowed out before Christmas rather than keep the tasty-but-controversial fatty goose liver off his menu.

One of Picard's business partners, Marc Beaudin, said Picard was not available Tuesday and had no further comment. Festival organizers confirmed the event would be going ahead without him.

"We all agreed that we'd be able to offer that experience without foie gras -- that was in about mid-December," said Lucie Caron, spokeswoman for the National Capital Commission, which organizes the event.

"After that, Chef Picard came back to us and said, really, his preference was just to bow out of the event and he told us that just before Christmas."

The foie-gras-infused menu was to be based on the one offered at Picard's Cabane a Sucre restaurant near Mirabel, Que.

Foie gras, a 5,000-year-old French delicacy, is controversial because of the process used to make it.

Some animal-rights activists have called the force-feeding process in the bird's last two weeks of life -- known as "gavaging" -- a barbaric process and are demanding a ban.

A number of celebrities have lent their names to the anti-foie-gras lobby, such as actresses Kate Winslet and Pamela Anderson. They favour a switch to vegetarian, imitation forms of the dish.

The production of foie gras is banned in numerous European countries -- such as Great Britain, Sweden and Italy -- as well as Israel, Turkey and Argentina.

A number of U.S. states have partial bans and a full ban is scheduled for California, beginning in 2012. But it isn't illegal to import and sell foie gras in most of these places.

While some animal experts also favour a ban others, including the American Veterinary Medical Association, say that under ideal conditions, force-feeding ducks does not cause injury or liver necrosis.

A Taste of Winterlude is part of Ottawa's winter festival and offers culinary experiences to food-lovers.

Organizers sent out a letter on Monday to the 450 event ticket-holders advising them that another famous Canadian culinary artist, Michael Smith of P.E.I., would be taking over.

They've offered refunds, but Caron said it's too early to say what impact the scheduling change will have.

The Internet was ablaze with chatter about Picard's departure. Some blamed organizers for imposing the ban and ruining a marquee event.

Others have said they'll simply get a refund for their tickets and head to Montreal to eat at one of Picard's restaurants instead.

Caron said members of the public complained about the use of foie gras and one group in particular -- the Ottawa Animal Defence League -- had mounted a campaign.

"Our main concern was that everyone at Winterlude can have a positive experience," Caron said by phone from Ottawa.

Smith, one of Canada's best-known and best publicized chefs, is going with "an Atlantic-themed menu that highlights East coast cuisine," organizers said.