Ariane Daguin is the daughter of Andre Daguin, the chef and hotelier who first made a name for Gascony cuisine. Though her siblings both followed seven generations of family footsteps into the industry in France, Daguin left to study journalism in New York. But as fate—and foie gras—would have it, food pulled her back in, and Daguin went on to found D’Artagnan, among the most prestigious (humane) protein producers in the industry, a company founded on the farm-to-table ethos before the words ever buzzed, a brand that conjures the duck confit, foie gras, and fresh fruit pleasures of Daguin’s native Gascony even from its corporate headquarters in Union.
We caught up with Daguin just before D’Artagnan is set to open its next warehouse in Denver. Below, she talks about what goes into starting a niche meat business as a female immigrant in a country full of factory farms, as well as what really (really) pisses her off.
TH: Why leave such a family food legacy in France behind for the States?
AD: If you’re born in the southwest of France, in Gascony, you really think the only thing around is food and wine and the pleasures of the table. Seriously! I wanted to see if something else existed in the world. It also help me cut ties. I’m the oldest of three children; my brother is one year younger, and even though we never talked about it at home, it was clear [that] he, as a man, was going to be the one taking over the family business. If I stayed, I would have been somebody’s wife, and nothing else. I wanted to prove to my father, my parents, my family, that I was worth something. All those things combined made me [come to] America. And then—I fell right back into food!
TH: You were working in a charcuterie shop to pay for school in the 1980s, and then eventually instead of school, but how did D’Artagnan come about?
AD: It was really by chance. One day two guys came in to sell foie gras [at our shop]. I thought it was very intriguing. Foie gras is something I knew very well because I was born into it. Also because there was no foie gras [in America]. I hadn’t tasted it in seven years! My bosses said “No,” and that’s when I decided to start this business. I thought “This is historic. This could be a first in America. We can’t let that pass.” I convinced one of the guys who I brought [to the shop] with me from Columbia that it was time to leave and open our own business, and we became partners and opened D’Artagnan in 1985. Next February we celebrate our 35th anniversary.
TH: What was the driving idea?
AD: Right at the beginning we understood we couldn’t survive just with duck and foie gras. We wanted to sell meat and poultry from animals that were well-raised, as I knew it in my youth, in Gascony. I’ve always said a happy chicken is a tasty chicken. And to be honest I was in withdrawal—I couldn’t have a good piece of chicken here. As much as it was a marketing opportunity, it was a real selfish need for meat, to feed myself the good stuff! So we went to farmers, convinced them to raise chickens or quail or rabbit or guinea hen or other breeds of duck or venison the right way, without medication, without antibiotics, with plenty of space.
TH: America still had a lingering flirtation with lighter “Nouvelle Cuisine” in the 1980s. How was a company selling foie gras and duck confit received?
AD: We started at the right time, when all those young chefs were coming out of all those professional cooking schools—the C.I.A., Johnson and Wales. It was very exciting. We grew really fast. We sold like that for 20 years. And then I bought [my partner] out. We didn’t see the future the same way. I was just seeing the beginning of the real company, where finally “D’Artagnan” was becoming a brand name not only with chefs but, little by little, with the consumer also.
TH: You’ve witnessed the evolution of farm-to-table from the start. Do you think consumers are smarter now, better informed about product?
AD: Of course. The consumer is more and more aware and conscious of what they’re putting in their mouth, and how those animals were raised. And we were on the forefront of this. But marketers are even smarter than that. Here’s one very simple example: we have a chicken we’re very proud of, we call it our “Green Circle Chicken.” We started it now seven years ago, and it’s exactly the chicken that existed in southwest France, in Gascony, running outside, a slow growing heritage breed that takes triple the time to grow than the regular commercial chicken, eats leftover vegetables from the Amish market, so we’re very proud to write on our label “Fed with vegetables.” We were the only ones, and we thought it was very important because it’s a very big difference to be grown only with cereals and grains. And then, evidently, some of the big processors (I won’t say who), they all say “all vegetarian feed” or “all vegetable fed.” This is not true—grain is grain! That pisses me off so much.
As the consumer is becoming more and more educated, marketers have a way to go around it and to say things that are false. And to betray the trust of the consumer.
TH: How much are you selling retail, to individual consumers, versus restaurants?
AD: Today, 60 to 65 percent of our volume goes to restaurants and the rest is going to retail stores, with almost 10 percent sold through our website, direct to consumer.
TH: How do you manage growth?
AD: We have five warehouses now. The biggest one is here in Union. One of the first farmers we started with was George Rude at Griggstown Farm, near Princeton. We started with him right at the beginning. Otherwise most of our poultry is raised by Amish farmers in Pennsylvania, Lancaster County. Some of the ducks are in upstate New York. We have Berkshire pork in Missouri, Wagyu in Texas—by the only woman rancher who raises wagyu beef without any hormones and medication from birth.
TH: Speaking of being a woman, what was it like rising up, and founding a company, when you did?
AD: I remember people asking me “So, you’re the only one in the business?” They were looking for women in the restaurant world, chef world, even in winemaking, distribution, sourcing, farming. The only [woman] I could think of every time was Anne Rosenzweig, chef of [now closed] Arcadia in Manhattan. We were the only two navigating that world at the time. She’s a tiny woman, but she has a voice, and she had a certain authority in the kitchen. As for me, I never felt any [discrimination]. I think the French card trumped the woman card. To be facing somebody with a French accent gave you somewhat of an authenticity in the culinary world. Because you’re French, you’re supposed to know better.
D’Artagnan products are used in many New Jersey restaurants, and are available for retail sale in gourmet groceries and markets like Whole Foods. You can also buy them online.Click here to leave a comment