April 1, 1998 | Vintage Insatiable
The Pride of Gascony
Andre Daguin with daughters Ariane, right, and Anne. Photo: Charles Pinarel

André Daguin is not merely the chef-hotelier son of a chef-hotelier. He is the grandson, the great-grandson, the great-great grandson. Indeed, to give the family history its proper weight, it’s better to say he can count 11 generations of hoteliers, restaurateurs, tavern-keepers, butchers and charcutiers among his ancestors. Growing up in Auch in the rugged southwest of France – the land of Armagnac, the Three Musketeers and ducks who dutifully gorge themselves silly to sacrifice their livers for the glory of France – André fully intended to break away from the family tradition. He went to Scotland to study English and the law after picking up a baccalaureate in Science Expérimentales, yet inevitably he found himself in hotel school in Paris, where he met and married the stylish, cultivated Jocelyne, whose father came from Alsace and mother from Russia. Within a few years, he was the Pope of Gascon cuisine and The King of Duck at the Family’s Hôtel de France.

Like André, all three of his children – Ariane, Arnaud and Anne – tried to escape their heritage. But as Arnaud observes with mixed pleasure and regret, “There are things you cannot fight against. We are all made one part of heritage and one part of choice. I don’t know why but at a certain point in our life we just fall down in the kitchen again. We land in the food.”

André has accepted that none of his children will take over the Hôtel de France. He is strong, dominating and opinionated, and as much as the three love and admire him, one has the sense they needed to get away to become what they are. Not an unusual story, of course. And André is philosophical about it: “The important thing is that each of my children manages by himself. Each is his own person. We have enough of those people who are only the son or daughter of someone and carry on the parents’ work and with each generation get weaker.”

Andre Daguin

In the name of the fathers

When fate pulled him back to the family inn, the Hôtel de France in Auch, in the late fifties, Andre Daguin didn’t go meekly. He shocked the local bourgeoisie by insisting that duck did not need to be cooked to a crisp. He persuaded his clients to eat the breast, sliced thin and fanned on the plate, tremulously rosé. What was an outrage became a revolution; it was soon impossible to find a classic roasted canard à l’orange. André dared to make white bean ice cream and promoted duck prosciutto. Surely Gascons had eaten ice cream topped with stewed prunes, but had anyone before dreamed of blending them together into prune-Armagnac ice cream?

Impatient, restless, bursting with energy, he marched in the avant-garde of France’s rebellious Young Turks. When Paul Bocuse, the Troisgros brothers, Michel Guérard and the merry pranksters of nouvelle cuisine took to the road promoting their wines and tinned terrines, André was there. In the late seventies, the New York food press watched in astonishment as this tall, handsome ramrod-erect wild man shot fogs of liquid nitrogen to demonstrate how to make instant ice cream. Soon any truly serious gastronomical pilgrimage to France included a stop in Auch to fatten one’s liver with André’s foie gras stuffed with prunes, foie gras and honey or foie gras with mulberries, with rock lobster, with a puree of garlic confit.

Such esoterica was often followed by a traditional soup, numbingly thick with pork, sausage or duck confit, or by grandmother’s goose neck stuffed with, you guessed it, foie gras. Even at his most nouvelle – a foamy soup of rock lobster and melon or smoked confit of duck with a foie gras vinaigrette – André always honored the source and quality of his products (the chicken of Gers, the lamb of the Pyrenees).

When the new autoroute whizzed by Auch, directly to Toulouse, business fell off. Recession and the assault of the fast-food lunch were painful too. The Daguins had spiffed up the hotel (the glorious suite at the top has turret windows, a sauna, a dazzling view and a mirror under the sink, “so your dog can admire himself,” says André), but Michelin was unmoved. In 1996 the restaurant lost one of its two stars. The gloom was palpable though never publicly admitted. Now the Hôtel de France has been sold. But, in an inspired move, the Hôteliers et Restaurateurs de France elected André Daguin their president. So having put Gascony on the gourmand’s map, he’ll sail off to whip up business for France.

Ariane Daguin

Two guys and a foie gras

At 17, Ariane came to New York to study journalism. Eventually she took a job at Trois Petits Cochons, a fledgling pâté company, and she was running the shop when two guys walked in with an amazing hunk of foie gras. Ariance wasn’t sure she could believe the pair were raising ducks with livers that good in upstate New York. A drive to the farm in Monticello convinced her. “All those ducks, six months away from being ready, and no place to sell them,” she recalls. “I got so excited.” She drafted a contract for Trois Petits Cochons, but her bosses didn’t want the risk. Within 15 days she and partner George Faison had found a warehouse in Jersey City, New Jersey, put in $7,500 each and launched D’Artagnan. They had $35 in the bank when they opened and for a long time took no salaries, only food – “lots of duck,” says Ariane – and money for rent.

It became clear very quickly that restaurants had to be persuaded, one by one, to buy D’Artagnan foie gras. True daughter of André Daguin, Ariane is convincing. She carried a sample on the subway until it turned green – “This is the size,” she would say, “not the color.” The greatest moment came when Robert Meyzen of La Crémaillère handed her a check for $1,000 and said, “It’s an advance on what I’m going to order.” D’Artagnan found ways to use every part of the duck – confit for the legs and gizzards, cassoulet, duck prosciutto and pastrami (inspired by the salmon pastrami of David Burke at New York City’s Park Avenue Café). Soon the two partners were selling game birds too, having persuaded farmers to raise them organically and deliver them fresh. “One of us was on the phone, one in the van,” Ariane recalls. Now that she’s 40, she laughs at her teenage flight from family tradition. A fixture at Bastille Day picnics, she’s present whenever New York’s French food corps gathers to play or pitch in for good causes. Gascon to the bone, she says, “I didn’t want people to say, ‘Her father did it for her.’”

Arnaud Daguin

Better to cook than to fight

Arnaud was not drawn to the kitchen. Ballet was about as far away as he could get. Then he went to circus school. He fell in love with America on a trip to New York and wanted to return. If he worked in the kitchen till fall, his father promised, he could make the next marketing trip to the United Stated. Voilà. Arnaud had landed in the kitchen. “It was fun,” he says. “I did what I pleased.” But when he was made chef of Hôtel de France at 28, he had ideas about change. Papa disagreed. So he left.

With his new wife, Véronique, he found a small house in Biarritz and opened Les Platanes, which has already won a Michelin star. “I have all the Daguin connections for foie gras and birds and the good vegetables.” That’s the heritage part of Arnaud’s equation. And the choice? “Coming to the coast. It’s paradise for seafood – not quantity, but quality.” So in a family where, as Ariane likes to say, fish is a four-letter word, Arnaud, 39, courts the local fishermen. “They fish in the good way. And I buy my lobsters from a guy who came here from Brittany and gets the big langoustines.”

Success came slowly. “I realized my knowledge of fish was minimal,” Arnaud admits. “I had so much to learn, and they taught me. The Basque people are proud, reserved. It took time to win them over.” He joined their sports teams, hung out at their bars and invited some to dinner.

“When we were growing up, my father’s mother took care of us and she fed us like little Gascons,” he recalls. “Big soups, big cabbage, foie gras.” Summers were spent in Cannes with his mother’s mother, who had owned a vegetarian restaurant in Paris. “She was Jewish, from Russia, but she’d become a vegetarian and a Buddhist,” he explains. “What she cooked for her three little Gascons – fish and vegetables – seemed strange to us.” Does what he cooks reflect those summers in Cannes? He considers: “Perhaps on tonight’s menu the very light artichoke mousse ring with tarragon and in the middle a hot fricassee of warm shallots and a little duck.” Ah yes, Arnaud, a little duck.

Anne Daguin

Cookies by Nostradamus

As the youngest, Anne felt the least need to rebel, although she did study art history rather than hotel-keeping. She and her husband, Hermann van Beeck, a pastry chef from a German baking family, were en route to Cannes to visit her grandmother when they stopped in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence for a drink with cousins. They stayed three days. “I felt something, a destiny,” says Hermann. A few months later, they returned and bought the bakery Le Petit Duc, where they too have startled the bourgeoisie, by using the 14th- and 15th-century recipes for their cookies. At first their neighbors were dubious; they came to buy only after tasting Le Petit Duc’s baking at parties given by the more adventurous foreigners who keep vacation homes in Saint-Rémy.

“There are no traditional recipes for cookies in Provence,” Anne observes, explaining that until the end of World War II, baking in Provence was done mostly with olive oil. “All the pastries were crisp. It’s butter that gives the smoothness.” Anne and Hermann sought the best ways to use Provencal ingredients: candied fruits, dried raisins, figs, apricots, almond paste, almond milk, almonds grilled and toasted, almonds in pieces and in powder. Since Saint-Rémy is the birthplace of Nostradamus, whose writings on sugar are among the earliest known, the couple turned to alchemists for inspiration. “We had to go to other alchemists to understand what Nostradamus was talking about,” says Anne. “Do you know many librarians are also gourmands? They found recipes for us and were our first tasters.” A saffron cookie comes from the first alchemy book ever published. Then there’s a Roman cookie made of olive oil, almonds, walnuts, cumin, pepper, red wine, eggs, honey and wheat flour.

Anne, 31, is comfortable with her lot. “It is difficult to be the child of a couple who work 24 hours a day, but that is a classical fact in the hotel business,” she says. “If you look at the three of us, you’ll see we each took something different from André. Arnaud is creative – indeed André says he is the better cook. Ariane has André’s marketing and commercial skills. I took the historical patrimony, the passion for research. The aesthetic taste comes from my mother. Gascony is our race, but gastronomy is our life.” 


Pan-seared Cod with Duck Confit

4 Servings

At Les Platanes in Biarritz, Arnaud Daguin blends seafood from his adopted home with the specialties of his native Gascony. Here, rich duck fat and confit lend the fish a meaty flavor

    Four 7-ounce skinless cod fillet, 1 ¼ inches thick
    Salt and freshly ground pepper
    All-purpose flour
    2 T duck fat
    1 duck leg confit, boned, skin and meat finely chopped
    1/3 cup minced shallots
    1/3 cup dry white wine
    1 T unsalted butter
    2 T finely chopped flat-leaf parsley

1.    Preheat the oven to 375. Season the cod on both sides with salt and pepper and dust with flour. In a large nonstick skillet, melt the duck fat over high heat. Add the cod, skinned side up, and cook until golden on the bottom, about 4 minutes. Carefully transfer the fish to a baking sheet, browned side up, and bake until opaque throughout, about 5 minutes.
2.    Meanwhile, pour off half of the fat. Add the confit to the skillet and cook over moderate heat, stirring, until the skin is crisp and the meat is hot, 3 to 5 minutes; transfer the confit to a plate. Add the shallots to the skillet and cook over low heat, stirring, until softened, about 2 minutes; add them to the confit. Add the wine to the skillet and cook over moderately high heat until reduced by half. Swirl in the butter and stir in the parsley.
3.    Transfer the fish to warmed dinner plates. Spoon the sauce over the fish, top with the confit and shallots and serve.

Wine: Try a regional match – a white Graves from Bordeauxx, such as the 1994 Château Carbonnieux. Arnaud likes to serve the 1995 Clos Uroulat Jurancon Sec.
Note: The duck leg confit and duck fat are available by mail-order from D’Artagnan, 800 327 8246

Marie Gachet’s Pillow

4 Servings

Anne gets her inspiration from old cookbooks and manuscripts. This puffy tea pastry comes from the recipe book of Marie Gachet, whose father was Vincent van Gogh’s friend and physician.

¾ cup all-purpose flour
¾ cup mascarpone (about 6 ounces)
2 to 3 T raw brown sugar (see note)

1.    In a medium bowl, stir the flour into the mascarpone. Turn the dough onto a work surface and knead just until smooth. Pat the dough into a 6-inch square and transfer to a plate; cover and refrigerate until cold, 30 minutes to an hour.
2.    Preheat the oven to 450. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough around the rolling pin and unroll onto a large baking sheet. Sprinkle evenly with the brown sugar. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, or until the pastry is puffed and golden brown and the sugar is caramelized in places. Cut the pastry in half crosswise, then into wedges and serve hot from the oven.

Food and Wine printed this article in March 1998

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