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D'Artagnan: 30 years of staying ahead of the flock

Owner Ariane Daguin will join chef Pierre Calmels and three other chefs at Le Cheri for an anniversary dinner celebration benefiting Philabundance.

In the mid-1980s, the idea of free-range, organic and antibiotic-free meats was a bit alien to chefs in America.

Ariane Daguin, daughter of a French chef/hotelier, was in college in New York, working part time for a pâté producer. When the opportunity arose to distribute the first U.S.-produced foie gras, she and a partner launched a company called D'Artagnan, using a secondhand orange juice truck for deliveries.

Flash forward 30 years. D'Artagnan - now solely run by Daguin - is the largest U.S. distributor of foie gras, game meat, organic poultry, pâtés, and sausages. Where D'Artagnan's earliest customers were solely professional chefs who had no other source, the company's products are now sold in supermarkets.

Daguin is touring major cities for a series of dinners that benefit local food charities.

On April 20, Daguin will join chef Pierre Calmels at Le Cheri (in the Art Alliance off Rittenhouse Square) for an anniversary dinner celebration benefiting Philabundance. Besides Calmels, chefs Konstantinos Pitsillides of Kanella, Lee Styer of Fond, and Greg Vernick of Vernick Food & Drink will cook courses for the $200-a-head dinner, which starts at 6:30 p.m. (Info is

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Daguin was at the fore about a decade ago when states and cities began to ban foie gras, on the grounds that its production by force-feeding ducks is cruel. Philadelphia was a battleground, too, with pickets showing up outside restaurants to protest. Philadelphia never banned the sale of foie gras, but California and Chicago did. The bans have since been rescinded. (The California ban was overturned by a federal judge.)

D'Artagnan once was the only game in town for foie gras and other specialties. Now, a new generation of farmers are being more responsible in how they raise meat. In some cases, they distribute directly to chefs.

"Our challenge is not the competition," Daguin said by phone from D'Artagnan's base in North Jersey. "It's how to be ahead of the crowd - but not too far ahead that we are too innovative, that we don't have enough following."

Take chicken. In 1993, D'Artagnan first organized Mennonite farmers to raise "organic" chicken (a distinction that the U.S. Department of Agriculture only certified in 2002). There's been an "age creep" in chickens. Many farms in the United States now sell so-called "all-natural" chickens at 5 or 6 weeks of age. D'Artagnan's partner farms must raise them to 8 weeks, in larger enclosures. "All those additional steps are about costs," Daguin said.  She said customers - whether chefs or consumers - are more comfortable paying more for a humanely raised chicken.

Here is the menu for April 20's dinner

Reception: Pheasant Consomme; Poached Quail Egg with Caviar; Grilled Lamb Lollipop; Foie Gras au Torchon; Mangalica Ham

Wine: Cremant de Limoux

1st Course: Foie Gras, Pear Chardonnay, Chorizo Dates

Wine: Cremant de Limoux

Chef Pierre Calmels, Chef/Owner, Le Cheri

2nd Course: King Oyster Mushroom Carpaccio, Braised Morels, Pickled Chanterelles

Wine: Cotes de Gascogne Domaine de Mirail Blanc

Greg Vernick, Chef/Owner, Vernick

3rd Course: Squab Breast and Leg Confit, White Asparagus and Ramps

Wine: Cotes du Rhone Eric Texier

Lee Styer, Chef/Owner, Fond

4th Course: Lamb Neck Filet, Grilled Lamb Ribs, Yogurt

Wine: Cahors La Bete Noire

Konstantinos Pitsillides, Chef/Owner, Kanella Restaurant

5th Course: Chocolate with Duck Bacon

Wine: Ruby Port