In the mid-1980s, Ariane Daguin, then working at a charcuterie purveyor, went to upstate New York to sign a contract with a farm that would allow the market to begin carrying American-raised foie gras. The trip fell apart, and her bosses opted out of making the deal. And at that moment, the Gascony native decided it was time to step out from behind the people who’d trained her for five years and launch her own business.
Daguin says everyone in Gascony was in the restaurant business, and her family was no exception — her father was a seventh-generation hotel-restaurant owner. It was a foregone conclusion early on, however, that her brother would eventually take over that business, so Daguin decided to leave. “I wanted to show what I could do on my own, what I was worth,” she says.
She headed to New York City and enrolled in journalism school at Columbia, but she soon ran out of money and dropped out, which is when she began working behind a charcuterie counter on 13th Street. There, she mused about launching a wholesale business to supply purveyors like Balducci’s. Her boss agreed to let her try, and she spent the next five years building that arm of the company.
After the foie gras deal fell through, Daguin spied an opportunity, and, with partner George Faison, scraped together some financing to start a new company. At the end of 1984, the duo debuted D’Artagnan, which began peddling to chefs around the city the very duck livers Daguin’s old company had turned down. The timing was fortuitous: The mid-1980s saw the beginning of New York’s culinary renaissance, and a number of experimental chefs had moved into kitchens, hungry for better ingredients. “We were extremely lucky,” Daguin says. “It was at the same time that those young chefs started to come out of CIA [Culinary Institute of America], and the French Culinary Institute had just started. We didn’t know if the market was ready or not, but we did it. And it’s turned out it was exactly the right time.”
D’Artagnan soon expanded, offering specialty poultry and game birds because, Daguin recalls, chefs couldn’t get any of that in the city, save for a couple of shops that were selling frozen birds. They hired their first delivery driver six months after launch, and many more employees followed. Today, Daguin oversees a company that posts annual revenues of $83 million and delivers to cities all over the country. D’Artagnan is also recognized as a leader in the high-end wholesale industry, particularly when it comes to foie gras, game meat, organic poultry, pâtés, and sausages.
Tell me about how you got from the early days of D’Artagnan to now.
We started at zero — we were two people. The first day, we had $35 left in the bank account, and it was there just so we would have something left. The first year, we put everything back into the business. When we needed to eat, we took samples. When we needed money for the rent, we took the money, but we had no salary.
Our first employee was a driver, and we hired him about six months in; after that, it went really fast. Three years into it, we started to go outside of Manhattan. We had one truck at the beginning. We would call the farmers Monday afternoon to get everything Wednesday afternoon and deliver Thursday. Today, people call until 1 a.m., and if they don’t have their delivery at 9 a.m., they scream.
I met Julia Child at a food show by chance, and she took us under her wing — she really helped us. Then there were these younger chefs — David Waltuck at Chanterelle, Patrick Clark at the Odeon, Alain Sailhac [at Le Cirque], and Jean Louis Palladin in D.C. He was from my country, and he really taught the other guys how important the ingredient is — if you don’t start with the right ingredient, the dish is not going to happen.
Volume increased quickly. We hired more employees, more drivers, more farmers. For 20 years, all the money back in the company to grow faster. This year, we finished the year on July 1, and we ended up at $83 million. We have 35 trucks and 170 employees. We opened in Chicago, and the warehouse is already too small. We’re renting one in Houston, too.
How has the business changed since the beginning?
We’re growing in retail and direct to consumer, but the driving force is still the chef. More than 65 percent of what we sell goes to restaurants. That’s very good — it obliges us to be the first [to find new things] and the best. I don’t want to be the first for sake of being first.
Now, our biggest department is research and development and sourcing — everything we do is based on farmers, who have to follow our specs. We tell them which breed to raise, how to raise it, what to give them to eat, what not to, and how to transport the birds. We look at ventilation and the dock at the slaughter house — we want Temple Grandin [an animal husbandry researcher who revolutionized slaughterhouses via humane design] systems all over. All that is for the taste. At the end, our priority is to give to the chef what they want, which is taste. At the beginning, chefs were happy, but they were always pushing us.
At the beginning, we had to beg people to do it like this, and they would look at us like we were crazy. Now they knock on our door. There was this moment — we went with Russ Kremer to the Ozark Mountains when all those commodity pork breeders were going out of business. They were selling pork on commodity market, which had collapsed, and the Pork Council had come out with the “Pork, the other white meat” slogan. Well, people thought, if I want white meat, I’ll eat chicken. But the farmers went for lean pork, and they were really fed up with the smells, the pollution, the intensive housing, and they were not really happy with it. Because Russ had that experience, he was able to help us launch, to help farmers understand we’d buy day in and day out from them. Now we have that reputation, so people come to us.
Can you give me an example of your work on improving farming practices over time?
When we started, there was only bad chicken. We begged some farmers to raise chickens outside, to use good grain and no medication. After that, we worked on organic. After that, it was putting birds in the water to chill after slaughter, which gets birds nice and dry. After that, we started on heritage chicken. So instead of raising a bird for 38 days for commodity chicken, the minimum age before slaughter is 75 days. The cost of the chicken is all about what it eats, so 75 days is twice the price. In France, a good chicken is raised for 100 days minimum — that’s still above what we’re talking about here. Even though I have the heritage chicken from France, to push from 75 to 100, the price differential is not economically viable for me yet — there’s not enough volume. But I see it coming. Antoine Westermann, who has a restaurant in Paris that does deluxe fast food using only 100 days chicken, is coming here, and he asked for 100 days chicken. It’s a nice sign that the next step is 100 days, that people might be ready for that. So there is a fine line between excellence for the sake of excellence and too much.
You’ve been very vocal in advocating for your industry. Where would you like to see it go?
I’d like to see some kind of regulation on truth in advertisement. There should be a law that the label says what it is. There’s not now, and it kills me. This is not so much for the restaurant and chefs, but it’s very important for the consumer. People can bullshit stuff a lot. The food system with USDA regulations lets Purdue put “natural” on the label. What does natural mean? Because Purdue uses chlorine and hormones, which are anything but natural. And free range — I met this guy who calls his turkeys organic and free range, but they’re crammed into coops with no way out. We should make the labels easier to understand, and we should have people on the field verifying that the claims are true. That’s what’s most important.
What is your take on local?
It’s very good for everyone. I want to be as local as possible because it’s cheaper transportation-wise, and it takes less time to get the product to the consumer. So that’s good. But local as a cult is bad. If you eat only local — and you follow the locavores saying they would never eat things that are grown more than three hours away from where they live — you would never eat a banana or a truffle or drink coffee. I think there’s a threshold: The first priority is excellence: Animals should be well raised with no stress and no medication, and then they should be local if possible.
What about seasonality?
There are things that are better in winter or summer (mostly winter — animals, like humans, eat more in the winter). But seasonality is easy on produce and not so much on meats — people still want meats year-round. There’s something to be said for long distance when it makes sense. It does not make sense to buy strawberries in the winter from Chile. And there’s excitement around that — it’s exciting in the spring to find morels and ramps, but if you have it all year long, it’s not as exciting all year round. But we can get venison all year-round; we import from New Zealand. We import Australian lamb. In the U.S., only two slaughterhouses will process antelope, so what you get ranges from very young to too old. In New Zealand, the size and consistency is the same — they’re all 18 months old, and they ate grasses and nutrients all year long. We get wild game from Britain, but only in the winter months. Mushrooms have a limited season, but people are pushing to extend it by growing mushrooms in every part of the world.
How would you compare where American food culture is now with French practices?
America is catching up. You have kids raised the right way, who are not as tempted by sugar in the kitchen. But depressingly, we did a blind taste test of chicken sausage [with the nonculinary members of the staff] — ours versus a commodity chicken-sausage maker — and all of my staff preferred the commodity sausage, the sweeter one.
What’s your view of the growth of nose-to-tail cooking, a relatively new development in America but one that has long been a practice in France?
It’s great. My job is to buy the whole animal — I can’t tell the farmer I’ll buy all the middle meats but not the lower meats — so it’s in my interest to use it. We make charcuterie and chicken sausage with the dark meat, and I welcome everyone else to make more, too — it’s great. It’s the duty of the chef to use the whole animal — it’s too easy to be good with caviar, foie gras, and truffles. But I like places that will put belly and loin in a dish and then use everything else in the headcheese.
What’s the biggest obstacle to that kind of viewpoint becoming more mainstream?
A lack of education — it’s all about education.
Do you think this mentality can become mainstream?
Not in my lifetime. There’s evolution here in downtown Manhattan, but you go to Kansas City, and they don’t know that some of these birds are something you eat. It’s lost, totally. We are eating in one of the best food cities in the world right now.
Talk to me about your work with foie gras.
We’re currently petitioning the Supreme Court to change the law in California. Twenty-five percent of the states are against the ban, and that’s just the low-hanging fruit. These are states that raise chickens, and our argument is that it’s not constitutional for a state to forbid a product that is legal to grow in another state. In order to forbid foie gras, California had to define it. So they say gavage, or force-feeding, is forbidden. So any product coming from gavage can neither be produced or sold in California. Well, what is gavage? It’s giving more food, with a funnel or without, to any bird than what they have eaten in a natural state. So that means every turkey in America is force-fed. Not one domestic animal eats what it would eat in the wild. So all those chicken states and poultry states are worried by that. What is force-feeding, exactly? How much should I give the ducks? It’s impossible to answer. In general, people are still too remote from the source of food. It’s not pleasant to kill an animal, but we have to do it for protein, sustainability, and pleasure. And we have to do it while respecting the animal, and making it as least stressful as possible.