12.29.10

The Queen of Foie Gras

The founder of gourmet food purveyor D’Artagnan Ariane Daguin talks with David Lincoln Ross about what she serves over the holidays and how she got her start with American foie gras.

The founder of gourmet food purveyor D’Artagnan Ariane Daguin talks with David Lincoln Ross about what she serves over the holidays and how she got her start with American foie gras. Plus, recipes for what to cook this New Year’s eve.

If ever there was a time to invoke the Three Musketeers’ rallying cry, it’s during the holidays when culinary challenges tempt professional and amateur chefs alike to outdo themselves with audacious gastronomic adventures. Who better, then, to share some tips and expertise than a native from Gascony, none other than Ariane Daguin, founder of D’Artagnan, the gourmet food purveyor par excellence.

Ariane was born and raised in a two-star Michelin kitchen in Gascony, a rustic corner in Southwest France. Her father, André Daguin, chef-owner of the Hôtel de France in Auch, is credited with bringing seared duck breast, called magret, and preserved duck legs, confit de canard, along with many creative foie gras dishes as well as other Gascon specialties to worldwide attention. But, at first, Ariane trained for a different career, graduating from Columbia with a journalism degree. Gascon roots proved stronger in the end, however, and in 1985, Ariane launched D’Artagnan, initially selling fresh, American-produced foie gras. Home-grown, Hudson Valley foie gras was all but un-heard of here and scandalous to French chefs, many of whom did not believe it could be done in America.

She proved everyone wrong, however, and today, Ariane’s award-winning company, now celebrating its 25th anniversary, sells the finest foie gras, meat, pâtés, sausages, smoked delicacies, organic game, and poultry to top restaurateurs and consumers all across the nation.

All of New York’s four-star restaurants, for example, have D’Artagnan products on their menus. According to Danny Meyer, founder and owner of Union Square Café, Gramercy Tavern, and other top New York restaurants, “Everyone in the food world knows how influential D’Artagnan has been in almost single-handedly bringing great game and foie gras to chefs in America.”

In early December, I caught up with Ariane, only days before her parents, Jocelyn and André, and Alix, her daughter, were all jetting in to gather for the annual Gascon-style holiday family festivities. Naturally, we wanted to know what she was planning to serve to friends and family and here below are some of her tips, links to recipes and what some of her celebrity clients are planning for their Gascon-style menus.

You come from seven generations in the hotel and restaurant business in Gascony, what possessed you to come to America, enter Columbia and major in journalism?

There was no room in Gascony for me! I was the girl, so my brother, Arnaud, was the designated heir of the business. And I did not want to owe anything to my father’s connections. In addition, I’ve always loved to write and my favorite song of all time was Joe Dassin [ a French-American songwriter]: “America I want it and America I’ll get!”

So what prompted you to return to your roots and become involved in the food and hospitality business here in New York City?

After a pitiful couple of years of trying to catch up to the other students, I decided to keep my summertime gig as a permanent job. It was in a small gourmet charcuterie store, and my boss promoted me to a full time, nicely paid, opportunity to develop the wholesale side.

When did you first discover that fresh foie gras produced in New York’s Hudson River Valley could be every bit as good and delicious as what is available in Gascony in Southwest France?

One day, two guys entered the store with a fresh foie gras in their hands. They were starting the first and only foie gras farm in the United States. I saw it as my mandatory mission in life to develop the cooking and marketing of that duck, by following the path, with the same panache, of my heroic Gascon ancestor D’Artagnan, the brave Musketeer.

D’Artagnan established its reputation by selling American-produced fresh foie gras to top chefs. When do you think your company began to break through and become so popular with everyday chefs at home? Not everybody dines on fresh foie gras at dinner, so how did you expand and add to your product line?

We were very, very lucky. D’Artagnan was born at exactly the right time, when young chefs started to come out from prestigious cooking schools with ambitious new ideas for their menus. And we could not survive on duck and foie gras alone, even if the future potential was great. So right away, 25 years ago, we went and convinced farmers to raise poultry, game birds, and game meats the right way—meaning no hormones, no antibiotics, free range. Our motto was: A  happy chicken is a tasty chicken.

And speaking of foie gras, charcuterie, sausages, wild game, meat, and partridges, pheasants, and turkeys, what do you plan on serving this Christmas holiday to your family and friends?

I have to stay pretty traditional with my parents coming, so on Christmas Eve it will be foie gras, oysters, and duck sausage, a capon with black truffle under the skin and, of course, French kisses for dessert.

The next day with friends, I will cook a loin of venison rare and serve it sliced on top of escaoutoun (Gascon grits) finished with truffle butter. We will soak the sauce with corn bread made with duck bacon bits. Most of these dishes are included in my cookbook, D'Artagnan Glorious Game Cookbook, which you can order at our website.

While fresh and seared foie gras is a holiday tradition in many top restaurants, what other products are New York’s top chefs using this season from D’Artagnan?

While it is a fact that most of our client-chefs feature foie gras and truffle, in one way or another, on their holiday menus, for some reason, this year, geese and capon are very popular. I think preparing a big bird for a whole table brings a very festive and convivial atmosphere, even in a “serious" restaurant. There is also a big demand for whole porcelets and suckling pigs, for the same reason.

Here’s what some chefs are cooking up for the holidays:

11 Madison Park Restaurant, New York, NY –
Dry aged Muscovy duck roasted with lavender, honey, coriander and cumin seeds and peppercorns

Gotham Bar and Grill, New York, NY –
Whole Roasted Venison Rack

Biltmore D’or, Coral Gables, Florida –
Duck Confit Croustilliant
Green Asparagus, Morel Mushroom, and Truffle Sauce
or
Roasted Buffalo Tenderloin
Beurre Rouge, Wild Mushrooms and Rustic Potato Galette

Jean Robert Table, Cincinnati, Ohio –
Medallion of Venison with Poivrade Sauce, Cranberry Compote, Chestnut Duo, Sweet Potatoes, Wild Mushrooms and Fondue of Cabbage
Goat Cheese Flan

Quince, San Francisco, California –
Spit roasted loin of venison with a triangoli of potato, porcini and foie gras winter truffle sauce

And tell us a few secrets about what some of your most famous celebrity customers are going to serve to their friends and family?

I could tell you, but then I would have to kill you! All I can say is that Dita Von Teese, Robert De Niro, Anthony Bourdain, Julio Iglesias, and Stanley Tucci, among others, will all have great food for the holidays!

And what do you think you’ll be serving your family on New Year’s?

I will be toasting the New Year with Pousse Rapière, (pron. pouss rap-yehr)!, which means a “Rapier’s Thrust”; it’s a Gascon aperitif that’s easy to make—Fill a Champagne flute three-quarters full with a sparkling wine, add a bit of Armagnac liqueur, or DIY (Armagnac, simple syrup, and a couple of drops of orange essence), and voila, you have a great Gascon cocktail. Very simple hors d’oeuvre, a duck for main course! Happy Holidays and New Year to one and all!

Here are some links, to Ariane Daguin’s Holiday and New Year’s Recipes:

Hors d’oeuvre:

Saucisson Sec with Black Truffle Butter

Mousse of Foie Gras with Candied Hazelnuts

Main Courses:

Seared Breast of Moulard à la D’Artagnan

Roasted Gascon Quail with Grapes, Foie Gras, and Armagnac

Sides:

Potato Galette

Garlic Confit and Black Truffle Butter Mashed Potatoes

Plus: Check out Hungry Beast, for more news on the latest restaurants, hot chefs, and tasty recipes.

David Lincoln Ross, a member of the Compagnie des Mousquetaires d’Armagnac, an international society devoted to the appreciation of this famous Gascon brandy, is a New York-based food and wine writer.