Women's Health : Nora Pouillon: A Pioneer’s Odyssey to Organic

by Anna Soref

When you ask a chef for her sources of inspiration, you’ll often hear of another chef’s inventive meals. Or maybe it’s the story of a visit to France where the flavors of foie gras and truffle-infused sauces were brought to life with a sip of Château Margaux. Ask Nora Pouillon about her inspiration for a life dedicated to cooking and you’ll get a different story. “I was born in Austria during World War II,” she relates. “I remember bombs falling everywhere and voices telling you to go to the cellar.” People around her lost their possessions, their homes; many died. There was never enough food.

But being born into a war-torn country was a blessing, Pouillon says. Surrounded by so much devastation and suffering, this young girl was instilled with such a profound appreciation for food and life that it would permeate and shape her entire existence. Pouillon would eventually move to the United States and open one of the world’s first restaurants based on local and natural cuisine, which would go on to become the first certified organic restaurant in the US. There, she would serve presidents and first ladies, pen a cookbook, and become one of the most influential figures in the growing organic and sustainable food movement. But first she had to grow up.

Although Pouillon’s family was well off—her father owned a safety-glass window factory—they fled Vienna in the last years of the war. Driving through zones occupied by Russia, England, France and America, the family finally made it to a farm owned by friends in the Tyrolean Alps. “There, the farmers grew all of their food. It taught me how difficult that truly is,” Pouillon recalls. “They got up with the sun and worked until sunset. They had to prepare food for the winter months. There was no electricity and no running water.”

The farm was completely self-sufficient. The farmers made everything from the soap to the shingles on the roof. The wheat was grown, then thrashed, then made into flour for baking. Pouillon watched as the cows were milked and cream was churned into butter; sheep were sheered to make wool for cloth. Pouillon and her family remained safely at the farm for three years. “Those years on the farm had such a tremendous impact on me. It shows just how informative those early years can be.” Her health-oriented parents broke with the traditional Alpine cuisine, which was heavy on meat, cream and cheeses, and this would also influence Pouillon’s future.

“My parents were really into exercise and eschewed much of the heavy cuisine like roux and deep frying. My mom made lots of salads and soups. We always engaged in plenty of activities such as skiing, hiking and berry picking; we learned an appreciation of nature,” she says. “My dad taught us that your health was the most important thing you had.” After the war, Pouillon and her family returned to Vienna where she began attending French boarding school, at which a different kind of learning occurred than that on the farm. “Here, we were served a three-course meal for lunch. In that 30 minutes, we learned about eating properly with a knife and a fork and having social conversations with our schoolmates,” she remarks. “After that we had an hour-long recess, when we could play in the park surrounding the school.” Pouillon would continue to spend summers at the farm with her grandmother, unlike her sisters, who didn’t want to engage in such work or be so isolated.

In the 1960s, a newly wedded Pouillon moved to the United States with her husband, a French journalist. Here she observed the differences between the Western European food system and that of America post–World War II. “At the stores here it was amazing to see all the prepackaged and frozen food. Nothing depended on the season. Pepperidge Farm was like gourmet bread. The produce department was the smallest section in the store. “I was shocked to learn that people didn’t have a relationship with food, and I wasn’t accustomed to seeing so much obesity and people having quadruple bypasses and cancer as if it were nothing. The air wasn’t good, the water was polluted and tasted like chlorine, and the food was flavorless and processed. I decided I didn’t want to be part of that,” she says.

As a mother of young children at the time, Pouillon was shopping and cooking for her family daily. “I started to look for ethnic markets where I could find French bread, good olive oil and cheeses. It was the hippie time and co-ops were forming, which had better products; I cooked at home using these ingredients. I started driving to nearby farms in search of quality products. We had no money at the time and it was an epicurean wasteland in DC then, with only one or two good restaurants. I got really into cooking and we entertained a lot because it was the best way to have social time, given the circumstances.

“I remember once calling up a farmer after seeing an advertisement for farm-raised beef,” Pouillon recounts. “The woman told me proudly how the beef was fattened with corn and hormones for lots of marbling and given antibiotics to stay healthy. This was actually my first exposure to chemicals in livestock. I had learned they were being used in crops, but animals I didn’t know about until then.” Soon thereafter, Pouillon found another farmer who happily informed her of all the things he didn’t do to his cattle. “It was then that I truly started becoming aware of the differences between organic and conventional farming,” she says. As she delved deeper into cooking and discovering sources of untainted ingredients, Pouillon’s friends took notice and wanted to learn as well. She began giving informal cooking lessons in her kitchen. She also started a casual catering service where she’d make a dish and drop it off at the customer’s house.

In 1976 Pouillon separated from her husband and had to begin earning her own living. Opportunity knocked when a friend bought a bed-and-breakfast near the White House called the Tabard Inn. She asked Nora to install a kitchen and start a restaurant within the inn. For several years Pouillon ran what was a very rudimentary kitchen, but she developed a following. It wasn’t long before she and the hotel manager, Steven, put their heads together and decided to open a restaurant on their own. “We managed to raise $150,000 through friends, who invested $3,000 to $10,000 each. All the investors had to agree that I would run the restaurant my way and that it would be as organic as possible; I ate organic at home and couldn’t see serving conventional food to my customers.” Restaurant Nora, in DC’s historic Dupont Circle, opened in 1979. “People told me I was a crazy lady; I was called completely nuts. The Washington Post wrote, ‘Nora tells us what we should eat. How does she know?’ People were making fun of me. Advice came in like ‘Don’t call it organic; it sounds like biology class.’ I persevered. I couldn’t quit.” She and her partner Steven, his brother, Thomas, and her staff dug in and worked 24/7. Her children would come to the restaurant after school and do their homework while she cooked.

The odds were against the success of Nora’s. In the late 1970s and early 1980s terms like health food and organic meant hippie food, granola and tofu—certainly not gourmet. But her focus on quality and freshness began winning her favorable reviews and a loyal customer base. Produce was sourced as locally as possible and then washed with triple-filtered water. Herbs and vegetables were planted in boxes outside the restaurant. Her menu changed daily depending on what was available, an exciting prospect at restaurants even today. The elegance of the white tablecloth restaurant also broke down preconceived notions of “heath food.” Museum-quality Amish crib quilts adorned the walls, and tables were set with fine linens and wineglasses. The critics applauded this new healthy haute cuisine, and the customers came.

By the mid- to late nineties, becoming certified organic was the next logical step, according to Pouillon: “I was getting almost all the food from organic purveyors.” When she began to investigate how to become a certified organic restaurant, she learned that no certification process existed. Pouillon decided to set about creating those standards. She worked for about two years with an organic certification agency, Oregon Tilth, to establish the rules and standards of what it means to be an organic restaurant. The resulting standard required that 95 percent of the food used, as a certified restaurant, must be obtained from USDA certified organic sources. “This meant obtaining proof of organic certification from all our suppliers,” she says. She complied with the lengthy requirements, and in 1999 Restaurant Nora became the first certified organic restaurant in the country.

So why have only a handful of organic restaurants followed suit? “People don’t always understand how complicated and time consuming it is,” Pouillon explains. “Almost everything has to be organic down to the spices and coffee. It’s a lot of work to find certified organic farmers and track down certification papers from 35-plus purveyors every year. This process has to be done each year because the certificates have to be renewed each year.” Although she isn’t required to, Pouillon goes beyond having more than 95 percent of the food organic. The restaurant has a sophisticated water purification system, and energy for the entire establishment comes from alternative suppliers; they also compost all of their kitchen scraps. “It’s not just about our health but about the health of the environment too,” she says.

Existing at the forefront of the sustainable and organic food movement while in such close proximity to the nation’s capital, where so often laws are handed down that go against what she is working toward, how does Pouillon remain inspired? By looking to people for change, not to the government. “The government does not change things. Change has to come through the people,” she asserts. “A good example would be cigarettes. Everyone thought the government would never change, but it did and it was through the people.”

Pouillon tempers this opinion with a dose of moderation. “You have to give options to people though; people can’t all change their lifestyles overnight. And there’s nothing wrong with chips, if they are organic, not made with GMOs, and you don’t eat a whole bag. We also need Walmart and Costco to offer more organics. Organic can’t only be for rich privileged people.”

Today Pouillon remains very active in the restaurant. She arrives every day at 12:30 p.m. to sit down with the chef and sous-chef. “We talk about what the farmers will deliver, what we have in stock, and then compose a menu. About 10 percent to 20 percent of the menu changes every day, depending on the availability of products.” Pouillon says there’s plenty of payoff in running a restaurant for almost 35 years. “I love seeing guests who ate at my restaurant when they were young and now bring their kids to eat. That my food has inspired them to continue coming and to expose their children to it means a lot. I love that I’ve been able to inspire other chefs as well—chefs like Michel Nischan and Maria Hines, who have called me up and asked for advice on running an organic restaurant, or José Andrés, whom I introduced to local organic farmers.”

If you ask Pouillon if she wishes she had taken an easier route to becoming a chef, she says no. “I am happy that I never went to cooking school but to the school of life. I learned how to think for myself, and I was daring enough to go my own way to serve the food I wanted and inspire lots of people. In the end I was not so crazy.” While it’s getting easier to take for granted the farmers’ market down the street or the local farm-to-table restaurant, if it weren’t for the tenacity and risk taking of organic pioneers like Nora Pouillon, they might not exist. To accomplish and achieve all that takes an abundance of courage and vision.

For more information about Restaurant Nora, visit www.noras.com.
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