- By Wyatt Williams For the AJC
At the beginning of this summer, Ariane Daguin stood in front of a room of culinary students at the Art Institute of Atlanta and announced, “This is a foie gras.”
The duck organ she held in front of her was a massive thing, almost 2 pounds of white-yellow fat, the delicacy that the French named for simply what it is: a fat liver. That may sound crude but it is, perhaps, one of the most celebrated indulgences of culinary history, an organ of great renown, controversy, and expense.
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At retail, the liver she was holding in her hand would sell for well over a hundred dollars. The culinary students had gathered to see what Daguin would do with it. One instructor had even brought a bottle of Sauternes as a gift, like a student might bring an apple for a celebrated professor.
That’s because Daguin is something like the queen of foie gras in America. After emigrating from France to the United States, Daguin founded D’Artagnan, one of the most celebrated distributors of gourmet and organic meats — wild game, grass-fed beef, heritage pork — in the United States. At the heart of D’Artagnan’s operations, though, are ducks raised as they were near Daguin’s childhood home in France. That is, for the production of a decadent, rich, fatty liver.
Those operations are largely centered in the Northeast, mostly in New York’s Hudson Valley, but Daguin had come to Atlanta bearing big news. D’Artagnan is expanding to Georgia with a new distribution center in Macon.
Some of Atlanta’s finest chefs have long been customers of D’Artagnan, including Anne Quatrano of Bacchanalia and Gerry Klaskala of Aria, but their business had been limited by matters of logistics. To get orders to the kitchens on time would require complicated, costly convolutions of rushed air freight and long wait times, which can cut into the shelf life of fine, expensive products.
By opening a distribution center in Macon, D’Artagnan will now be able to take orders from a chef by phone and drive over in a matter of hours. About a decade ago, when the housing crisis was forcing Atlanta’s fine dining restaurants, suct as Joël Brasserie, to close their doors, such a move might have been unthinkable for a gourmet distributor such as D’Artagnan.
Today the city is flush with pricey destinations and customers desperate to go to them. Staplehouse, perhaps the most celebrated Atlanta restaurant of late, is so popular that reservations for an entire month can book up in a matter of hours. Classic, pricey European fare, like the dishes Shaun Doty serves at The Federal, are in style. Exclusive, high-end clubs such as Himitsu Lounge, the private dining room hidden behind Umi, are pushing the limits of price.
There’s no doubt why Daguin would see now as a moment to become a larger part of Atlanta’s restaurant scene. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be a learning curve. Even if Daguin can sell a chef a whole lobe of fresh, Grade A Hudson Valley foie gras, will the line cooks have any clue about what to do with the thing?
After holding up the liver for the class, Daguin asked whether there was anyone in the room who had never tasted foie gras. Even among these proud, white-coat-wearing students paying their way to a higher gustatory education, more than a few admitted they never had. Among those, a few more admitted they weren’t sure if they wanted to.
As many are aware, foie gras is among the most controversial foods a chef can put on a plate. This is mostly because of gavage, the process in which, during the last couple of weeks of the duck’s life, the duck is fed pounds of corn by a funnel. Activists describe the process as torture, a violent act serving a selfish pleasure.
Daguin is not shy about the controversy. She reminded the students that foie gras had once been banned in Chicago, as well as California. Just as quickly, she reminded them that such bans were overturned in the courts. To her mind, the controversy of gavage is resolved by a simple biological fact. Namely, ducks have a lining in their throats to help them carry food a distance before digesting it without pain. In her estimation, the funnel that has caused such controversy is much ado about nothing.
On the other hand, she wanted these students, perhaps one day her future customers, to be impressed by a different lesson. Namely, letting nothing go to waste. So, as her lecture at the Art Institute progressed, she worked her way not only through cooking the liver, but every part of the duck that was raised for it.
She demonstrated scoring the thick fat of the duck breast, so that it might render more fat in the pan. Her hand had graceful control of the knife, not too deep to score the meat, but strong enough to leave a pretty crosshatch pattern across the breast. The room filled with the smoke and aroma of cooking duck, the richness of the fat and gamy flavor of the meat almost perceptible in the air. It took some time, but that patience yielded a dark golden brown skin and a swirling pan of rendered fat.
From that pan, she drained the fat, straining the dark bits so that it could be used for duck leg confit, that classic dish of slow-simmered dark meat made tender in even greater patience than the process of cooking the duck breast. She spread duck rillettes on crackers, made from scraps and shreds of meat that fall from the whole carcass when simmered in stock. She passed around platters duck sausage flavored with the deep intensity of Armagnac.
But, of course, she came around to the liver. She showed the way that every prep cook must learn to clean the last few bits of sinew and vein from the organ before fitting it into a traditional terrine. This classic preparation, which slowly cooks the fatty organ into neat, rectangular shape to be evenly cut in portions, is perhaps the most familiar way to serve foie gras. When these cool, fatty tastes went around the room, one could perceive a kind of quiet pleasure running through.
But then Daguin simply sliced the fresh liver into thick slabs, seasoned them with a little bit of salt and pepper, and seared them in a hot skillet. As these bites were passed around, the pleasure was no longer quiet. Students were openly moaning, almost aghast at the taste of this wild, decadent bite. It seemed like something from very far away. In a way, it was. Only now, it could be shipped here in a matter of hours.