Ariane Daguin is the Doyenne of Duck

Modern mythology has it that Ariane Daguin was fated to work with fowl. Some say the 50-year-old Gascony-born culinary frontierswoman behind America’s largest specialty-meat-and-game distributor, D’Artagnan, could tunnel-bone a hundred quail in an hour before she learned to read. Others swear that the day she was born, never-before-seen ancient birds flew down from the Pyrenees bearing gifts. Ducks, it would seem, were her destiny.

Daguin was born into a serious culinary empire: Her father, Michelin-starred chef Andre Daguin, remains a culinary pop star for championing magret, the large breast of the moulard— the duck breed prized for foie gras—served rare. Young Daguin wanted none of it and moved to New York to study journalism at Columbia, but fate soon found her. On summer break in 1982 she was working at the downtown charcuterie shop Trois Petits Cochons when destiny knocked in the form of an Israeli man named Izzy Yanay. He was holding a duck liver.

Back then the USDA restricted importation of fresh poultry, and no one was producing foie gras domestically, so cat food-esque tinned foie gras from France was the only kind available. But Yanay intended to change that, and had just started a duck farm upstate called Commonwealth Farms, modeled on a goose co-op he’d helped run in Israel. He now found himself in the position of having 2,000 duck livers a week to sell and no luck knocking at New York’s kitchen doors—even Lutèce’s Andre Soltner had turned him away, evidently satisfied with canned foie gras from his mother country. Yanay needed a distributor, bad. But by the time Daguin and then-business-partner George Faison drafted a plan to distribute on behalf of Three Little Pigs, the charcuterie had gotten cold feet and Yanay signed with someone else.

Daguin, undeterred, went straight to the farm. “I had to persuade them,” she recalled recently. She says she divined that this was a pivotal moment in American gastronomy and that, given her family legacy, she was the person—”the only person,” she told Yanay—to sell ducks to Americans. She explained to Yanay and his partners that livers were just the beginning: they could make terrines and rillettes, confit the legs, render the fat, coax demi-glace from the bones, and of course, introduce her father’s “nouvelle style” moulard breasts to New York chefs. Though he’d already signed with five other wholesalers to distribute his ducks, Yanay hired Daguin and Faison too, on a trial basis.

They set to work, in one instance arriving via station wagon at Chanterelle to peddle their product. Then in his 20s, David Waltuck was immediately interested—and still relies on Daguin for most of the restaurant’s meat and game. “The younger generation of chefs was so excited, and so easy to convince,” recalls Daguin. “The old-fashioned French chefs were a little resistant to fresh foie. They’d been working with canned foie gras for 30 years, why change?”

Daguin made sure that canned foie would quickly become a thing of the past. She took to the challenge like a duck to water, arriving at the farm every morning at 4 a.m. to beat Yanay’s other wholesalers and hand-select the best livers. In six months she had become Commonwealth’s sole distributor, holding the exclusive contract to sell their products.

In 1984 Daguin and Faison officially incorporated as D’Artagnan, a full-fledged wholesale distribution company. With $15,000 in loans, a small fridge space and a rented truck, they expanded beyond Commonwealth, seeking out small livestock farmers and cooperatives across the country, buying their best products wholesale, and marketing them to chefs.

“Ariane was one of the very first purveyors to bring the farmer directly to the chef,” says Daniel Boulud. “She may be most known for her foie gras, but she has always made beautiful, wide ranging farm products—like squab, rabbit, quail, chicken, pork, and beef—available to her chef customers.”

(In 1989 Yanay parted ways with his partners at the duck farm but went on to found Hudson Valley Foie Gras with Michael Ginor; a year later, they bought out Commonwealth Farms. Daguin now sells whole lobes of Hudson Valley Foie Gras, which she insists are the best for pan-searing.)

In 1994 chef Wayne Nish of March declared that his uncured duck confit made with Long Island duckling legs was equal, if not superior, to Daguin’s traditional salted confit made with moulard legs, and Daguin challenged him to a taste-off. The all-star panel included Anne Rosenzweig of Arcadia, Terrance Brennan of Picholine, Tom Valenti of Cascabel, Laurent Manrique of Peacock Alley, and Gray Kunz of Lespinasse. In the end, as Florence Fabricant put it, “tradition triumphed as the moulard presalted with kosher salt waddled into first place.”

As New York’s diners got a taste for diversity, demand for the exotic increased—even outside restaurants. In 1996 D’Artagnan signed accounts with Balducci’s and the Food Emporium. It had taken 10 pre-Twitterati years, but Gourmet-reading home cooks wanted interesting meats for dinner parties, fresh foie gras terrines at winter holidays, lean game birds when dieting, and thanks to Daguin, magrets at home—rare! (Today D’Artagnan’s products, from duck fat to ostrich eggs to all-duck hot dogs (see p. 40) are on offer at Fairway and Whole Foods, too).

As demand grew, Daguin began to work with more and more farmers. Her nose-to-tail style benefited them—they had nowhere else to sell off cuts—as much as it did her company. When she bought, say, a whole lamb, the loin would go to fine dining clients, the shanks and shoulders to bistros, and, with the parts no one wanted, she made merguez sausages to sell retail, foretelling today’s obsession with otherwise unloved cuts from jowls to trotters.

“I like everything,” she shrugs, “though I reached my threshold in Cameroon when we were served monkey and I got the hand. It was too much. It was… totally human.”

But rabbit was fair game, and though it began as a tough sell (in 1985 Andre Soltner complained that he couldn’t convince diners to order Daguin’s rabbit and had to serve it at family meal) by the late ’90s D’Artagnan sold over 2,000 a week. In a 1997 Times piece titlwed “Is America Ready for Bunny Ragout?” William Grimes declared rabbit the perfect meat: “low in cholesterol yet high in protein, mild tasting yet rich, matchable with red or white wine.” And though it never quite went mainstream, certain dishes gained cult status, like Daniel Boulud’s civet of hare with chocolate-blood sauce.

In addition to unfashionable species and unpopular cuts, D’Artagnan introduced Americans to rare breeds before they were buzzwords. In a 2002 interview in Food Arts, Faison predicted the “heirloom meats” trend, though the adjective was then reserved primarily for produce, particularly tomatoes. Livestock raised for flavor? Diners concerned with the nuances of breeds, the geography of pulled pork’s provenance? At the time it seemed far-fetched. But when Daguin convinced California farmers to raise Blue Foot Chicken for her clients, the rare, expensive breed, as prized as its French cousin the Poulet Bresse, was an immediate success with such chefs as Alain Ducasse, then at Essex House. Today the peerless poultry is beloved by Jonathan Benno at Per Se and is a standard on David Burke’s menus—and D’Artagnan remains the only place they can get it.

Daguin lives on the Upper East Side but her office, equipped with a shower because every now and then she’s too busy to leave for days at a time, is a half hour away: through the Holland Tunnel to the magnificent Pulaski Skyway, over the Hackensack and Passaic rivers just above the marshy stink of the Meadowlands, amidst the enchanting industrial architecture of Newark. It’s from here, her company’s headquarters, that Daguin’s staff dispatches 23 neatly packed trucks, stamped with D’Artagnan’s logo of a red-ribboned duck, to the likes of Jean Georges, Eleven Madison Park, Gramercy Tavern, Dinex Group (Daniel Boulud’s empire), and about 4,000 other accounts in the tri-state area (clients farther afield get deliveries through D’Artagnan’s franchise partners).

Over six feet tall, Daguin strides across the loading dock in bright pink clogs and kitten-print socks. Business is brisk. “If you came back in five days,” she says, pointing at the endless rows of saucissons and rillettes, “all this would have moved out. You wouldn’t see any of the same packages.”

Chefs often call after dinner service, at midnight, with an order they expect at 9 the next morning. “The night shift is tough,” allows Daguin, “but whatever the order, they make it happen.”

A barcode identifies every item so a quick scan can trace forward to the animal’s packer, packing station, date, and destination, and backward to its farm, breed, and even parents. “I’d like to have the weight on there too,” says Daguin, “but we’re not there yet.”

Such tracking is no small task: D’Artagnan now contracts over 35 co-ops nationwide, representing about 1,500 farmers—some of whom have sold to Daguin for 20 years. To ensure quality, Daguin doesn’t just taste the product—she visits every farm herself before doing business, whether it’s an Amish chicken farm in Pennsylvania or a buffalo ranch outside Montreal. “I visited one recently,” she confessed, “and they didn’t do things in a way I liked. It was fine, but the animals didn’t seem happy, the place was not clean enough, not good enough.”

Among the eclectic duck paraphernalia on Daguin’s sunny office windowsill sits a black-and-white photo of a tall woman on horseback, young and brave and beautiful. It looks like a portrait of a Gauloise ancestor, a woman warrior from the Pyrenees mountain range. But it’s Daguin herself, as a teenager, dressed as a musketeer, and it calls to mind those almost-mythic descriptions that Anthony Bourdain, who named his daughter after Daguin, says we have good reason to believe: “Ariane has been—and remains— the veritable Godmother of fine dining in New York—though her reach and influence extend far beyond that. She’s a loyal friend to chefs, an invaluable source of everything delicious—and a fierce warrior in the cause of gastronomy.”

And while some regard foie gras as synonymous with animal cruelty, Daguin has been a longtime advocate for humane livestock production, at the forefront of the organic movement in America, pioneering organic, free-range chicken years before the USDA established the National Organic Program. Today her signature product is controversial—though Chicago no longer considers foie gras contraband, California has proposed a ban on sales and production after 2012, and a New Jersey legislator has proposed a similar restriction— but Daguin isn’t going anywhere. She bought out Faison in 2005 and hopes her 20-year-old daughter Alix, who grew up going to the Greenmarket, eating raw oysters, and eventually staging at Daniel, will want to take over the family business one day.

One might say it’s her destiny.

Tejal Rao spent formative years in a hard-to-pronounce French village called Saint-Cyr-sur-Morin and moved to Atlanta as a teenager. She is still haunted by the face of the man at Customs who seized her homemade terrines in the summer of 1998.

Photo credit: Jennifer Becker and D’Artagnan