Against a soundtrack of popping corks at an outdoor cocktail party on a warm early-summer evening in the French market town of Auch, D’Artagnan co-founder Ariane Daguin was explaining the identity of her native Gascony to some American friends.
“In most places, you eat to live. But in Gascony, you live to eat. We’re just mad about good food and wine,” she said proudly, her fluent English still liltingly evocative of Auch, her birthplace, after 42 years in the United States.
D’Artagnan, Daguin politely reminded them, was the swashbuckling musketeer and literary icon of Alexandre Dumas’s classic novel The Three Musketeers. The original d’Artagnan, Charles de Batz de Castelmore, was born in nearby Lupiac.
She might also have offered an apt if unofficial rendering of Gascony’s gastronomic DNA: Duck, Now, Always. The bird and its fattened liver, or foie gras, have been the signature products of this beautiful rolling-green corner of France by the Jewish diaspora. The production of foie gras, which requires ducks to be force-fed, has been restricted in New York City and California, but it remains a popular menu item in high-end restaurants throughout the world.
Five Generations of Quackery
Daugin arrived in New York City in 1978 to study journalism at Columbia and ultimately moved to Newark, New Jersey, where D’Artagnan grew from an artisanal butcher to a giant of luxury food. She is a daughter of a Gascon duck dynasty that goes back five generations.
Her father, André Daguin, ran the Michelin two-star restaurant at the family-owned Hôtel de France. By the time she was 10, she was already an expert at deboning ducks, rendering their fat, preparing terrines, and cooking game birds. She didn’t originally plan on a food career. But after noticing the growing gastronomic ardor of America while working at a tiny charcuterie shop in Greenwich Village in the early 80s, she and a colleague decided to launch a business that would supply chefs—and, eventually, consumers—with charcuterie, game, foie gras, organic chicken, wild mushrooms, and other goods.
“It was tough at the beginning, but we were in the right place at the right time,” says Daguin, who recently sold her company to Chicago-based Fortune International for $102 million. “I didn’t want to be the richest woman in the cemetery,” she says with a laugh.
This is because if by dint of birth her brother Arnaud was greased onto the easy rails of taking over his father’s kitchen and the family hotel. Daguin achieved her own version of the American dream and become the ambassador of Gascon gastronomy in North America.
By the time she was 10, she was already an expert at deboning ducks, rendering their fat, preparing terrines, and cooking game birds.
“D’Artagnan changed food in America by introducing high-quality products Americans weren’t then familiar with,” says Alsace-born, New York City–based chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. “Ariane’s business has been a huge gift to chefs working in the United States, and also to everyone who loves good food,” he adds.
All of the Daguin children eventually chose food-related careers. Arnaud was a Michelin-starred chef in Biarritz and the Basque Country and now has a radio show and an association advocating sustainable agriculture. Anne, an artist, previously ran a pâtisserie in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.
A Feast for the Ages
Daguin took to the microphone and welcomed guests to the festivities, which were organized around the renaming of a local street to honor her father. “O.K., enough of the blah-blah—let’s get serious! Let’s eat!” she said, inviting the crowd inside for a sumptuous eight-course dinner cooked and served by eight southwestern-French chefs en hommage to André Daguin, who was born in 1935 and died in 2019.
Among them were the Casassus brothers, who purchased the Hôtel de France from the Daguin family in 2010. Vincent is the chef, Fabien is the pâtissier, and Bruno is the maître d’hôtel and sommelier.
They were joined by several internationally recognized arbiters of French cuisine. Hélène Darroze has three Michelin stars at the Connaught in London, two at Marsan in Paris, and one at the Villa La Coste in Provence. Christian Constant, who once ran the kitchen at the two-starred Hôtel de Crillon in Paris, launched the modern French-bistro movement with the chefs, including Yves Camdeborde and Eric Frechon, he trained there.
The crowd drifted into the Hôtel de France’s elegant dining room, flanked with vintage stained-glass windows from the 30s. The walls and ceiling were painted a stylish steel gray.
At the head table, town deputy Jean-René Cazeneuve, who represents the Gers in the National Assembly, offered an encomium of André Daguin’s career. Even though Daguin had been a supremely talented chef and the powerful head of the trade group Hotel Professionals Union from 1991 to 2008, his greatest achievement was inventing what is now the most popular dish in France, grilled duck breast, in 1959. Daguin’s innovation was to cook the bird’s juicy red meat rare, like a good steak, and serve it with a béarnaise sauce made of duck fat. It was an immediate and enduring hit.
Before Daugin’s triumph, duck breast was usually eaten as part of a confit de canard, a dish made from the bird’s breasts, legs, and thighs preserved in its own rendered fat. “The meat was stringy and chewy,” explained Ariane Daguin. “My father’s take on duck breasts was not only delicious—it boosted the economy of Gascony by creating a huge demand for them.”
Highlights of the meal included Darroze’s oyster with caviar and white Armagnac; Constant’s baked new potato stuffed with pig’s foot, a favorite dish of André Daguin’s; grilled duck breast; and an intriguing cheese course consisting of a local ewe’s-milk blue cheese served with a luscious prune-and-Armagnac ice cream. The feast concluded with vintage Armagnac served around two in the morning.
The following day, the party resumed at Hôtel de France. Adjacent to its entrance, on a small corner of a walled street, a brown curtain was removed to reveal the thoroughfare’s new name: Rue André Daguin.
Cazeneuve beamed with pride; this honor had been his idea. “André Daguin deserves a lasting public place in the history of our region and France,” he confided. “This is what makes France different from other countries. Streets everywhere are named for generals, saints, athletes, and politicians—oh, yes, there are too many streets named after politicians—but in France we also name them after chefs. Our love of good food and wine is the compass of our daily lives.”
The American branch of France’s duck dynasty has also started a new chapter. Ariane and her daughter, Alix, are now running All One One All, a farm in Goshen, New York. Its mission, she explains, is to “promote a rich local food culture, build a more connected and resilient community, and contribute to a healthier planet.”
On the farm, Ariane Daguin’s title is foundation director and chief egg collector, and Alix’s is program director and master milkmaid. Its stand sells fresh produce, eggs, honey, berries, tea, cut flowers, and wool, and the farm also organizes events. But the homemade fudge popsicles are worth the trip alone.
Alexander Lobrano is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL. His latest book, the gastronomic coming-of-age story My Place at the Table: A Recipe for a Delicious Life in Paris, is out now