André Daguin, a chef who helped put Gascony on the culinary map and made grilled duck breast the most popular dish in France, died Tuesday at his home in the remote town of Auch, where he achieved his renown running the kitchen of his family’s hotel. He was 84.
His daughter Ariane Daguin, the founder and owner of the American meat and charcuterie company d’Artagnan, said the cause was pancreatic cancer.
Mr. Daguin, the descendant of generations of chefs, hotel keepers and charcutiers, took over the kitchen of the Hôtel de France in 1959 and almost immediately made a daring decision. Up to that time, breast of duck was a little-regarded ingredient, used primarily in confits – meat simmered and preserved in its own fat.
He decided to grill the breast, or magret, like a steak.
“I called it grilled red meat on the menu, and people bought it and thought it was beef,” he told Molly O’Neill of The New York Times in 1992.
News of the dish reached the wider world when Robert Daley, then a Times foreign correspondent, described the new mystery meat on the front page of the newspaper’s travel section in an article with the headline A Meaty Whodunit: Grilling of Magret.
Initially, “Lou Magret aux Braises,” as it appeared on the menu, was served with a béarnaise sauce made with duck fat. But in 1965, Mr. Daguin, an experimenter enthralled with nouvelle cuisine, created a green peppercorn sauce for his duck. The dish became an instant classic, and duck breast became wildly popular. Today, grilled duck breast appears in the top spot in surveys of France’s favourite dishes, just ahead of moules frites and couscous.
Mr. Daguin’s innovations did not stop with duck breast. He skewered chunks of foie gras, another of Gascony’s main products, with sea scallops. He paired foie gras with langoustine, an unheard of combination. He used liquid nitrogen to make instant ice creams of prune and Armagnac, the local brandy, and of Tarbais beans, another local product normally encountered in cassoulets. His restaurant earned a Michelin star in 1960 and a second star 10 years later, making Auch, population 25,000, a required stop for travelling food lovers.
André Daguin was born in Auch on Sept. 20, 1935. His father, Albert, who had taken over the Hôtel de France in 1926, was, like his father before him, a renowned chef. His mother, Lucienne (Filippi) Daguin, ran the hotel with her four sisters after Albert’s death during the Second World War.
Although frail at birth, weighing only four pounds, André developed into a star rugby player at the local lycée. Setting his sights on a legal career, he travelled to Scotland for his studies.
After a year, family tradition pulled him back to France, where he enrolled in a two-year course of study at the École Hotelière in Paris, whose lack of regard for his native region, in the southwest, aroused his ire.
“I was taught nothing about foie gras, nothing about confits, nothing about magrets, nothing about carcasses,” he told Daley of The Times. “I was taught that goose fat is good for nothing and must be thrown away, but this is false; it can be used in sauces in place of butter. A good deal of what I was taught I later found to be false.”
At hotel school he met Jocelyne Grass, a fellow student. He married her after graduating in 1957, and she later worked at the front of the house at his restaurant. Ariane Daguin said in an e-mail that he had died “peacefully, holding my mother’s hand.”
In addition to his wife and his daughter Ariane, Mr. Daguin leaves a son, Arnaud, who operates Hégia, an inn near Biarritz; another daughter, Anne Daguin, who owns the pastry shop Le Petit Duc in St. Rémy, Provence; and four granddaughters.
After cooking in game and fish restaurants in Paris, Mr. Daguin performed his required military service. Late in his term of service, he was pulled from duty on an emergency furlough to cook for president Charles de Gaulle, who had stopped in Auch for lunch while making a political tour of the southwest.
Mr. Daguin made it his mission to popularize traditional Gascon dishes, such as the thick soup known as garbure, and to act as an ambassador for the region’s culinary heritage.
“Among Gascon chefs, Mr. Daguin has long been the undisputed leader,” Patricia Wells wrote in The Times in 1982, “and now he is becoming a sort of idol among southwestern housewives, who are proud to see him popularize the simple dishes they have cooked for generations in farm kitchens all over the sparsely populated southwest.”
To promote the region, Mr. Daguin in 1962 created La Ronde de Mousquetaires, a consortium of Gascon restaurants. The association L’Esprit du Sud (Spirit of the South), which he helped found in 2016, agitates on behalf of all things traditionally Gascon, including bullfighting, hunting and the fattening of geese for foie gras.
Mr. Daguin retired as chef in 1997. From 1991 to 2008 he served as president of the Hotel Professionals Union, a trade association representing hotel, restaurant and nightclub owners. Opinionated, blunt and occasionally pugnacious, he appeared regularly on the topical radio program Les Grandes Gueules (The Big Mouths) from its inception in 2004.
He was the author of three cookbooks: Le Nouveau Cuisinier Gascon (1981); Foie Gras, Magret and Other Good Food From Gascony (1988), written with Anne de Ravel; and 1 Duck, 2 Daguin (2010), written with his son, Arnaud. His food memoirs, Je Pense, Donc Je Cuis (I Think, Therefore I Cook), were published in 2013.
“Cooking is simple,” he told The Times in 1977. “It’s to put the maximum of taste into the minimum of volume.”