Long before "organic" and "local" were on most people's food radar, Isthmus Green Day speaker Nora Pouillon was serving organic food at her namesake Washington, D.C. restaurant. Opened in 1979, Restaurant Nora became the first certified organic restaurant in the country in 1999 (notable in a city seemingly hellbent on increasing yields and subsidizing commodity crops rather than supporting small farmers).
The certification means that 95% of the food served comes from certified organic sources. Pouillon herself was instrumental in creating the certification standard with the Oregon Tilth Association, and Restaurant Nora is one of only two restaurants in the nation to be certified, the other being Tilth in Seattle.
"Food is the most important part for the chef, and it's important to know where food comes from, that it is fresh and has come from good sources," says Pouillon. "Everyone, not just chefs, should care about that."
Raised in Austria, Pouillon came in 1965 to the United States, where she was shocked to discover how agricultural practices differed from Europe's. Here, most produce was available year-round, and the focus of the American diet appeared to be on quantity over quality. Further research into how food was raised in the U.S. only increased Pouillon's drive to offer consumers a better choice.
"There are so many dangerous chemicals and pesticides used on food here," she says. "It's barely even food. I knew from where I come from that there was a better way to feed yourself."
Pouillon taught cooking classes and worked as a caterer before opening a restaurant to serve the wholesome food she'd eaten as a child. She quickly discovered that organic vegetables, fruits and meats were hard to find in her adopted city. "The choice was very limited. You can't just serve squash five different ways and keep people coming back," she says.
Many thought her insistence on serving organic food was suicidal for a new business, due to the higher cost and limited availability, and the amount of effort needed to adjust the menu daily. According to Pouillon, at the time Restaurant Nora opened, no one could believe that the government would allow all of these pesticides into the food system if they weren't known to be safe.
Things have changed. Now Pouillon can find just about any food she wants in an organic form, quickly and fairly easily. Consumers, too, are realizing the importance of seasonal eating and the dangers of processed food. As evidence, she points to the increasing presence of organic food in mainstream grocery stores. Before, she says, good food could only be found in the health food stores surrounded by containers of supplements.
Pouillon's commitment to sustainable living and education extends beyond her restaurant. She was a founding member of Chefs Collaborative, an organization dedicated to educating chefs and other culinary professionals, and she established an organic internship at her restaurant for women through the group Women Chefs and Restaurateurs.
She also helped support organic farmers in the Tuscarora Organic Growers, a farm-marketing cooperative in Pennsylvania, by connecting them with chefs in the Washington, D.C. area. Pouillon's cookbook Cooking With Nora contains seasonal menus that encourage people to cook and eat healthily at home.
Pouillon practices what she preaches in her own life, too, committing herself to yoga, dancing and outdoor activities, as well as sharing organic meals with family and friends. Fitness Magazine recognized her as one of the healthiest chefs in America.
Restaurant Nora is located in a historic building once occupied by a grocery store, with an attached horse stable. The menu changes daily and focuses on multi-ethnic cuisine that Pouillon says proves healthy eating is more than wheatgrass, tofu and beans. Entrees include a chanterelle and leek tart with herbed goat cheese, cherry tomatoes, microgreens and a chive emulsion, and a crispy Amish duck with smoked sunchoke puree, wild mushrooms, broccoli and kumquat chutney. In-season ingredients are highlighted at the top of the menu.
Serving strictly organic food is time-consuming and costly, but Pouillon is determined to promote an organic and sustainable lifestyle. Even her staff wear uniforms made of 100% organic cotton. Her buyers keep abreast of seasonal factors, manage buying schedules and track down qualified producers.
"It's much easier to call a general distributor," she says, "especially because running a restaurant is so hectic. But that food is less nutritious, and I would rather spend my money on good food than doctor's bills."Pouillon counts her restaurant as her major life accomplishment, and she is tireless in her commitment to organic living.
"Food gives you life. It impacts your health, your spirit, the environment and your relationship to others," Pouillon says. "I can't think of anything more important than reconnecting people to food and the table."