CHEF ANDRE DAGUIN is the proprietor of a handsome, luxurious small establishment he inherited from his father and grandfather, The Hotelde France -- a 40-room average and a two-star restaurant -- in the magnificant foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains close to the border of Spain in southwestern France.
The hotel is the center of social life for the tiny town of Auch. If you ask Andre how to pronounce the name, he (who has the physique of a pro football star) will punch you fairly hard in the belly, and when you jump and exclaim, "Ouch!" he will roar with laughter and say: "Zat iss how you speak our town."
When Daguin took over for his father, virtually no one beyond the 20,000 or so people who lived in the neighborhood had ever heard of Auch, or the Daguin family or any local gastronomic specialties. Auch had produced d'Artagnan, the celebrated companion of "The Three Musketeers," but no other notable Frenchman.
Daguin single-handedly set out to change all that. He knew he had the best ducks, geese and foie gras in France. He is at the center of the distilling of Armagnac, which some people think is a better brandy than Cognac. The local forests teem with boar, deer, partridge, etc. The white-foamed streams are crammed with crayfish, eels, trout and the like. Auch was, you might say, a great food place waiting for a great chef.
Daguin began combining the local ingredients in wild, highly controversial ways. He poached whole crayfish with pieces of lamb. For dessert, he added green peppercorns to fresh peaches, then stewed them in Armagnac. He made black truffle ice cream, which may have looked like chocolate chip but hardly tasted like it. Yet, in spite of all this dazzle and daring, the final results of his cooking were so good that Michelin awarded him first one star, then, in 1970, two stars.
So far, so good. Daguin had achieved fame as a chef, had created superb menus and was running a stunningly good restaurant. How could he now persuade the world to beat a path to his door? He would have to become one of those "jetset" chefs and join the new movement of "galloping gourmetism." Several times each year he would have to leave his home fires and accept invitations from all around the world to prepare dinners for wealthy gourmets and their tasting societies--in the hope that they would one day visit or persuade their friends to visit the Hotel de France in faraway Auch.
Daguin launched what was nothing less than a whirlwind worldwide publicity program. He began in France, serving dinners in Cannes and Nice; then Locarno in Switzerland; Dusseldorf and Frankfurt in Germany; on to Tokyo and Australia; around the world to the United States for dinners in San Francisco, Houston and New York.
For each dinner he sent his principal ingredients in advance and took his key kitchen staff with him. After one of the New York dinners, when he served chunks of foie gras grilled with salmon, he received a standing ovation and was called upon for a speech. He said: "If I speak in French, the Americans vill not onderstnd me. But if I speak in English, no one vill onderstnd me!"
As the thunderous roar of applause and laughter died down, Andre moved among the tables playing his final trick, with which he most enjoys completing one of his banquet appearances. An assistant hands him a silver bowl filled with harmless-looking cookies, and Daguin offers one to each of the banquet guests. In their way, they finally dramatize and represent the chef. They are as much of a shock, as unexpected, as Daguin himself. Yet, once you have overcome your initial surprise and resistance, you will find them quite habit-forming. Daguin calls them mes bisquits au poivre: my pepper cookies.
Daguin gave me the recipe at a dinner he had put on in New York; I have prepared these cookies several times and have adapted them slightly. I now make them a bit larger and fill them, not with Indian pepper, but with the whole tiny buds of Chinese Szechwan peppercorns, which become extremely crackly during the oven baking and impart to the whole cookie a wonderfully aromatic quality. Because most of the hot pepper oil evaporates during the baking, the cookies are not, in any way, unpleasantly peppery. Rather, they are crackly and spicy.
I am quite sure that Daguin approves of my slight changes in his cookies because he believes that recipes should never be fixed but should continually be in a state of progressive change and flux. In any case, these pepper cookies still very much represent the delicious daring of Andre Daguin--a modern Musketeer of Gascony. CHEF ANDRE DAGUIN'S PEPPER COOKIES WITH A CHINESE TOUCH (About 3 dozen cookies) 1 1/2 cups all-purpose unbleached flour 1/4 cup sugar 4 tablespoons unsalted butter 1/4 cup olive oil 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper 1 small whole egg, lightly beaten 1/4 cup szechwan peppercorns, whole
Put flour, sugar, butter (cut up into smallish chunks) and olive oil into the workbowl of the food processor, fitted with the metal blade. Process until these are smoothly and thoroughly blended--usually in about 10 seconds. Then put in the 2 teaspoons of ground pepper and the lightly beaten egg. Turn on the motor again and run it until the dough forms--usually in another 10 to 15 seconds.
Gather the dough out of the workbowl, work in the szechuan peppercorns and lightly form it into a ball, wrapping it in waxed paper or a plastic bag. Refrigerate overnight.
If your cookie sheet does not have a nonstick coating, cover with waxed paper. Roll out dough between floured sheets of wax paper to a rectangle measuring 9-by-12 inches. Beginning on the wide side, lift up 1 1/2 inches of the dough and fold it back over itself, using the wax paper to grasp the dough and move it. Cut the folded strip off from the main dough rectangle, then cut the doubled-over dough strip crosswide into 1-inch sections. Repeat this folding over and cutting maneuver with the remaining dough of the rectangle until you have converted all of it into 1-inch cookie sections.
Now place all the sections, neatly, on the cookie sheet. Slide it into the center of the oven and leave it there to bake at 350 degrees until the cookies are just golden, but not brown--usually in about 10 to 15 minutes. Then cool them on racks. They will keep a long time in an airtight jar.