Introducing The Daily Meal Council: Ariane Daguin

Ten Questions for America's leading purveyor of organic poultry, game, foie gras, charcuterie, and wild mushrooms
Ariane Daguin
Ariane Daguin

Daguin knew how to debone ducks, render duck and goose fat, cook game birds, and prepare pâtés and terrines by the time she was ten.

The Daily Meal Council is an assembly of respected chefs, restaurateurs, writers, purveyors, food historians, and others who play key roles in the food world. They have agreed to share their opinions and their expertise with us from time to time, answering occasional queries, responding to surveys, advising us on matters of importance to us all.

Ariane Daguin is the owner and CEO of New Jersey-based D’Artagnan, a purveyor of specialty foods known for its humanely-raised meats, wild game, organic poultry, foie gras, charcuterie, and other premium products. Daguin was born in Auch, in the Gascon region of southwestern France. Her father, chef André Daguin, spent years running one of the region's most respected restaurants, Auch's Hôtel de France. Naturally, Ariane knew how to debone ducks, render duck and goose fat, cook game birds, and prepare pâtés and terrines by the time she was ten. Immigrating to the U.S. as a young woman, she studied political science at Barnard College in New York City, with plans to go on to Columbia University as a journalism major.

When financial constraints caused her to drop out of school, she took a part-time job working for Trois Petits Cochons, a top New York charcuterie producer. In 1985, she and a co-worker, George Faison, launched D’Artagnan — named for the dashing Gascon soldier–spy fictionalized in The Three Musketeers — in 1986 as the first purveyor of wild game and fresh foie gras in the U.S. (Faison subsequently left the company). D'Artagnan went on to become a pioneer in the American organic free-range chicken market and to sell true wild mushrooms and other specialty food products of the highest quality — a range of charcuterie included. Daguin is on the board of the French-American Chamber of Commerce in New York City, as well as the City Harvest Food Board. Named to the James Beard Foundation's “Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America” in 1994, she has also been awarded the Legion d'Honneur by the French government for her work promoting French cuisine in American life. Her French-language memoir, D’Artagnan à New York, was published by Grasset in 2010.

What's your earliest food memory?
I have a photo of my brother and I, with my father, in chefs' outfits. I must have been six and my brother five in that photo. The photo was taken in the inside courtyard of the hotel where, with my grandmother, in the fall, I would help make the jars of duck confit and cèpes for the season. I still have the smell of the cèpes with garlic in my head when I think of this, and cèpes sautéed in duck fat with garlic and parsley is still my favorite dish in the fall.

Did you always intend to go into the food business, and if not, when and why did you decide to do so?
No, I wanted to escape the family tradition (I am the seventh generation in the food business). My younger brother, Arnaud, was destined to be the "heir" of the hotel–restaurant. It was never said, but always understood. So I wanted to show my family, and my father in particular, that I could do something with my life. I always loved to write. Journalism, exploring and investigating, was a big attraction.

What's the hardest thing about being a specialty food importer and purveyor in twenty-first-century America?
We don't import much. The biggest challenge is to source our meats without compromise. For this, we need to constantly be able to forecast our long-term growth, in order to add farmers to the groups that we created as a function of the animals they raise for us and their proximity to the abattoir. When D'Artagnan started, 29 years ago — big celebration next February, by the way! — we had to beg farmers to raise our chickens, ducks, and quail — the way we wanted, free-range, stress-free, medication-free. Now it is much easier. Farmers and ranchers come to us with the same values we have.

What are the food products that you're proudest of having introduced to American consumers?
Duck confit, magret (breast), and foie gras and the Rohan duck, and now, this coming month, we'll be able to offer to the consumers the same Green Circle chicken that we are delivering to the top restaurants. It is a free ranged in Pennsylvania, a no-antibiotic chicken that eats "ugly" vegetables from the Amish market next door.

What figure or figures, in the food world or otherwise, have you learned the most from?
D'Artagnan — Charles de Batz de Castelmore — for his panache and acts of bravery just because it was the right thing to do. Julia Child, who helped us a lot at our beginnings, for her passion for (French) food, relentlessly championing it. Anthony Bourdain, for telling it like it is, without sugar coating. My father, André Daguin, and chefs Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller for their constant pursuit of excellence without compromise.

What are the most important lessons you learned from them?
Keep the course, always. Life is short, with plenty of reasons not to sleep at night, so doing the right thing always helps a better night's sleep.

You grew up as the daughter of a famous chef in southwestern France. How do you think Americans' perceptions of French food have changed over the years, for better or for worse?
It is unbelievable how the awareness of the American consumer has raised in these last years. Our growth is a testament to it. People want to eat wholesome foods, and are becoming more and more educated; they know how to read a label, and understand the value of raising animals the right way.

Do food purveyors have any social responsibility beyond simply selling people honest products at a fair price?
It comes naturally, as too expensive a product will not sustain enough volume to survive in the market. One of D'Artagnan's most important missions is to push the envelope, but not further than the clients are ready for. For example, our heritage chicken is 75 days old. Bringing it to 100 or 120 days, like in Bresse, France, would raise the cost so much that it would alienate most of the clientele — today. But there will be a day, soon, when not only it will be possible, but there will be a real demand for it. It took lots of effort to get to 75 days to begin with. A good chicken (like our organic chicken), in the US, is around 45 days old, and a commodity chicken matures at 38, even 35 days. The cost of a chicken is based on its feed. So every day that passes by makes it more expensive to raise.

Is there any moral or ethical reason why we shouldn't produce and eat foie gras?
No. We are going to the Supreme Court to fight the California ban. Ducks raised for foie gras are as healthy and stress-free as artisanally raised chicken.

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What future project, trip, or product import excites you? 
Our Duckathlon, where people will learn, the fun way, thanks to a dozen of our farmers who made the trip to explain what they do. There will be plenty of good food, good wines, and Armagnac, and fun challenges for everybody.