The first thing I notice about Doug Dussault is his smile. He flashes it often, each time revealing toothpaste-commercial teeth lined up like gleaming tiles. Though we’ve never met in person, he greets me like we’re old friends as I walk into Bones, Frank Bonanno’s casual noodle spot in Governors’ Park, on an unseasonably warm day this past spring. Not wanting to waste a second, he settles onto a barstool and taps the one next to it. No wonder he’s so cheerful. We’re here to talk about—and eat—his favorite thing: snails.
Everyone knows what a snail is, of course, but in the realm of edible gastropods, specifics matter: Dussault’s sweethearts are Wild Burgundy snails, or “Helix pomatia” if you’re into taxonomy. Undomesticated and sustainable, they are available at almost 1,000 of America’s best restaurants, including Thomas Keller’s Bouchon restaurants and Chicago’s Blackbird, thanks to Dussault. His Larkspur-based company, Potironne, is the exclusive U.S. distributor of the “Kobe beef of snails,” as he likes to call them.
The phrase sounds as if it might have been dreamed up by a junior marketing executive until I scoop up a bite of Bones’ escargot appetizer: a fresh combination of fava beans, hearts of palm, mushrooms, and black garlic chimichurri. The snails are earthy and meaty, with a flavor that provides hints of their diet of fresh grass and herbs. Their texture is mushroomlike—not rubbery, but firm and satisfying. “Good, right?” Dussault grins. My mouth is too full to answer, but we both know they’re better than good. They’re crave inducing.
Dussault, 44, is uniquely skilled at telling the snails’ story. A distinctive combination of disarming good humor—cultivated during his childhood in Wisconsin—serious culinary training, and belief in the superiority of his product make him a natural salesman. And he’s had plenty of practice. Dussault discovered the Wild Burgundy snails 15 years ago in the kitchen of legendary Paris restaurant Taillevent, where he was posted for his “stage,” or internship, after finishing his studies at the legendary Le Cordon Bleu. “Everything was fresh, but the snails were coming in cans,” he says. “I couldn’t figure it out. There were 30 guys like me who could do the most tedious tasks. We could have prepped fresh snails. Finally I asked why we used these particular snails, and chef Philippe Legendre told me, ‘Because they’re the best.’ ”
Dussault returned to the United States in 1999 and noticed a dearth of snails on the menus of high-profile restaurants—or if a chef did serve them, the snails were doused in garlic and butter, the classic escargots à la bourguignonne. “It provides cover for inferior snails,” Dussault says. So in 2000, he reached out to the French suppliers to ask if they’d be interested in exporting the snails to the United States. When they said yes, he borrowed $15,000 from his grandmother and hired someone to create a trifold brochure, which he mailed to top-rated chefs in New York City. His first call came from Daniel Boulud, the French chef and restaurateur who was building his culinary empire in New York. Boulud confirmed what Dussault suspected: Chefs wanted better snails.
Early on, his clients dubbed him “the Snailman,” a sobriquet that brings to mind images of a comic-book superhero for foodies. (No cape! Just a shell!) But it’s a sign of Dussault’s commitment to educating the culinary world, chefs and eaters, about the Wild Burgundy snail. Just this year he trademarked “National Escargot Day,” which he has been celebrating every May 24 since 2006 in a different city by partnering with chefs to create snail-centric menus. “We have to get snails in front of people again,” he says. “We have to show them how delicious they are.” What’s more, he argues, snails are an almost-perfect food. A three-ounce filet of broiled salmon delivers more than four times the calories of three ounces of snails, which have about half the protein and one-sixtieth of the fat.
Dussault’s snails come from two French suppliers who harvest the protected species each spring from swathes of land in France, northern Italy, Romania, and the Czech Republic, among other European spots. Spring is key: In summer, the animals start taking on extra calcium for shell growth, which compromises the meat’s tenderness. “These are wild creatures; there’s nothing imposed on them,” Dussault says. “One of the problems with farm snails is that they’re manipulated by man—how they’re reproducing, what they’re eating. The Wild Burgundy snail hibernates, which won’t happen on a farm. That totally changes the beast.”
The image Dussault paints of the harvest is bucolic and enchanting: The nocturnal snails are collected in the predawn hours when the animals glide along, sipping the dew that settles on the grass, before they go to sleep for the day. The harvested snails are plucked from their shells and poached in court-bouillon, a recipe for basic broth that includes organic celery, carrots, bay leaves, spices, and sea salt. Then they’re canned—which is the only way they can enter the United States. “They’d be the perfect invasive species,” Dussault says with a grin, “but the USDA doesn’t see it that way.”
The Snailman’s Evangelizing appears to be working. Potironne sells about 50,000 snails a week to an impressive client list that includes Tom Colicchio of New York’s Craft (and the head judge of Bravo’s Top Chef) and James Beard winner Stephanie Izard of Chicago’s Girl & the Goat. Closer to home, Dussault’s snails can be found at two dozen Front Range restaurants: Chef Tom Coohill of Coohills serves them in an appetizer of ricotta gnocchi, black garlic, fresh herbs, radish, and hon shimeji mushrooms. At Shanahan’s, the escargot is braised in red wine and served with a traditional garlic lemon butter and country bread.
Chefs—Dussault refers to them as “my guys”—respect both the snails and the Snailman, who is Potironne’s only salesman. “The Snailman is not selling something he doesn’t believe in,” Coohill says. “It’s a good sign when you have a purveyor who knows more about the product than you do.”
As if to prove the point, Dussault offers me one last bit of snail trivia: The Wild Burgundys hibernate from November to April and then emerge to feed ravenously. Satisfied, they move on to the other essential activity of life. “Their mating is a thing of legend,” Dussault says, explaining that pairs of hermaphroditic snails have 10- to 12-hour mating rituals. Snails have even been observed kissing on the lips, he swears.
Before I can ask if snails really have lips, Dussault raises an eyebrow. “They’re the ultimate slow food,” he smiles. The Snailman strikes—again.