Levity for all, levitation for Ariane Daguin in the kitchen at Daniel, where spirited Gascon and American chefs gathered to kick off an all-star progressive dinner.
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Vive D'Artagnan

Meryle Evans - May 2010

Meryle Evans reports on a week-long fest celebrating 25 years of foie gras and friendship.

Three cheers for foie gras! For truffles and wild mushrooms! For duck confit and free-flying quail! And fanfare for Ariane Da­guin, the force majeure founder of D'Artagnan, purveyor of these esteemed artisanal ingredients to chefs and gastronomes since 1985.

"D'Artagnan changed the way I cook in America," says Jean-Georges Vongerichten, one of the many luminaries who participated in an exuberant week-long 25th birthday bash for D'Artagnan in New York City in February that culminated in a colossal fête for 1,500 guests. "It was an important anniversary to celebrate," says Daguin, who invited a contingent of 200 party-prone Gascons--Michelin-starred chefs, winemakers, musicians, artists, and red and white clad rugby players--from Southwest France, where she was raised, the daughter of revered restaurateur and rugby enthusiast André Daguin. As chef/owner of the Hôtel de France in Auch from 1960 to 2000 and subsequently president of the powerful hotel industry trade union UMIH, père Daguin was an inspiring nouvelle cuisine pioneer whose daughter learned how to bone ducks for his iconic magret de canard by age 10.

Led by his indefatigable entrepreneur offspring, her daughter Alix, parents, staff members in musketeer garb, and a trio of marching bands, the Gascons swooped through Gotham. They tossed berets into the air in the meatpacking district, ascended to the roof of the Hotel Gansevoort on a moonlit evening for a spectacular view of the city at a reception for the region's Cahors Malbec wines, attended a ribbon cutting ceremony in Dag Hammarskjold Plaza for the opening of an exhibit of work by three Gascon artists, and tied an American team in a rugby match in Central Park.

But what was most remarkable was the one-for-all, all-for-one musketeer comraderie that prevailed in the kitchen, where a dozen renowned visiting French chefs paired with local counterparts for a series of dazzling dinners. Chef Pierre Landet of Cercle Rouge in TriBeCa orchestrated a foie gras and truffle laden menu at the James Beard House. "There were so many chefs in that little kitchen it was crazy," says Noel Sampietro, an architectural designer of hotels and restaurants who helped her husband, Eric, of La Table des Cordeliers in Condom, plate pan-seared foie gras and caramelized apples in a sweet-and-sour sauce along with such other dishes as hazelnut crusted medallions of venison with truffle butter and Gascon grits, a joint effort of Landet and Richard Poullain of Le Château de Projan in Gers.

Over the weekend the Gascon chefs fanned out to both fine dining and casual establishments for prix-fixe dinners that ranged from a moderate $50 ($75 with wine) at David Burke's Fishtail (salad of pastrami duck breast with poached egg and duck tongue toast; duck fat poached cod and shrimp brandade with spicy pepper relish; and guest pastry chef Philippe Uracca's caramel cream puffs with prune macaroons) to a $350 molecular accented menu by Thierry Marx of Château Cordeillan-Bages in Pauillac and Eric Ripert in the private dining room at Le Bernardin that included wild turbot, salsify, Parmesan milk, and black truffles, and filet mignon smoked with dried vineyard shoots. At Mercer Kitchen, Bernard Ramouneda of Le Florida in Castéra-Verduzan offered a quintessential regional cassoulet, while Jean-Pierre Xiradakis of La Tupina in Bordeaux served an all-pork "Tué Cochon" (literally, "kill the pig") at Bar Boulud.

On Sunday evening Emeril Lagasse and Anthony Bourdain joined 80 stalwart epicures who had flown in from as far away as Alaska and the Virgin Islands for a $600 per-person progressive dinner at four super-starred restaurants. They convened at Daniel for a lavish reception, followed by two courses: foie gras poached in red wine with fig chutney, masterminded by Daniel Boulud and Jean-Marie Gautier of Hôtel du Palais in Biarritz, and scallops in their shells with a puree of watercress, tapioca pear, and truffle vinaigrette, prepared by Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park in New York City with Jacques Pourcel of Le Jardin des Sens in Montpelier.

Armagnac-stocked buses transported the diners onward to Jean Georges, where Vongerichten and Michel Bras of his self-named restaurant in La Gaguiole collaborated on "Le Pigeonneau d'Ariane," squab with an Asian vinaigrette finished with oil from prune pits that Bras brought from France. At Per Se, Thomas Keller and Hélène Darroze of her eponymous restaurant in Paris decided on capon two ways: the breast with lobster medallion and truffles, the thigh meat morphed into a sausage with Brussels sprouts, butternut squash, and chestnut confit.

The evening concluded at Le Bernardin with a tasting of vintage Armagnacs and three desserts, including the restaurant's pastry chef Michael Laiskonis' ethereal pistachio mousse filled with roasted caramelized white chocolate and served with ruby red "caviar" made of cherry juice and agar-agar. "I could do his again tomorrow," sighed one contented guest with a deep Southern drawl, who had traveled from Virginia for the feast.

Tout New York, many in feather-festooned headgear or decked out in red and white regalia (the D'Artagnan company colors, inspired by the Auch rugby team uniforms), turned out for the grand finale soirée at the cavernous Guastavino's under the Queensboro Bridge. They sipped Lillet apéritifs and wines from Southwest France and cruised a dozen buffet stations showcasing D'Artagnan specialties. There was foie gras galore--terrines, seared with raisins on skewers, stuffed in Armagnac soaked prunes--Mangalica ham, buffalo daube, venison osso buco with wild mushroom sauce. Three hundred pounds of chicken legs were cooked for coq au vin, 250 pounds of veal for blanquette. "Ariane always organizes amazing events," said an admiring Florian Bellanger of MadMac, who watched the 2,000 macaroons he provided for the party quickly vanish.

The Gascon bands, abetted by chef Matthew Tivy's Evil Prince Ludwig (The Indestructible) group, blared, musketeers dueled, chocolatier Jacques Torres and chef Ming Tsai bobbed for prunes in Armagnac, and as the night wore on, Tom Colicchio took to the stage with his electric guitar, accompanied by Myriad Restaurant Group's Drew Nieporent vocalizing "Ça Plane Pour Moi."

It was a nostalgic moment for Nieporent, who recalled,"Twenty-five years ago when I opened Montrachet, Ariane Daguin was the first person to bring us great products, the most succulent foie gras." Watching the chefs, along with Ariane and Alix Daguin, belt out songs, culinary consultant Paula Perlis, who had also attended several of the dinners, concluded, "It was really a celebration of what fine food and friendship is all about--in every way."