In 'Organic Life,' The Making Of America's First Certified Organic Restaurant

In 'Organic Life,' The Making Of America's First Certified Organic Restaurant

12:56pm May 12, 2015
Chef, cookbook author and owner of Washington, D.C.'s Restaurant Nora, Nora Pouillon, in the restaurant's garden.
Chef, cookbook author and owner of Washington, D.C.'s Restaurant Nora, Nora Pouillon, in the restaurant's garden.
Courtesy of Noras.com

When restaurateur Nora Pouillon moved to the United States from Austria in the 1960s, she was surprised by how hard it was to get really fresh food. Everything was packaged and processed. Pouillon set out to find the find the best ingredients possible to cook for her family and friends. She brought that same sensibility to her Restaurant Nora, which eventually became the first certified organic restaurant in the country.

Pouillon writes about her lifelong devotion to food in a new memoir, My Organic Life: How A Pioneering Chef Helped Shape The Way We Eat Today.

Restaurant Nora is tucked into an old brick building on a busy corner in the nation's capital. An herb garden takes up part of the sidewalk outside the restaurant.

Pouillon traces her interest in food back to her earliest years when she lived on a farm in the Alps during World War II.

"This time showed me how food is like a treasure and how difficult it is to grow and raise food enough to feed you and your family all year round," she says. "And it gave me a big respect for food."

Today Pouillon channels her passion for food into her restaurant, which has been a fixture in the Washington, D.C., food scene since 1979. When Pouillon was getting ready to open the restaurant, she was introduced to then reigning power couple of that era, Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and his wife, journalist Sally Quinn. They agreed to invest in the restaurant, but Pouillon says Quinn offered a word of warning:

"I told them ... that I really wanted to do natural food and she said, 'Just don't tell them that it's health food because people hate health food; they think it's bad.' So anyway, I just called it 'additive-free food," Pouillon says.

Natural food, Pouillon says, was the norm when she was living in Europe. But when she moved to this country as a young wife, she had to search for fresh ingredients wherever she could find them, mostly in small ethnic markets. And when she got started in the restaurant business, she tracked down local farmers who could supply the ingredients she needed.

"It was hard, I mean I had to drive out to Virginia to scout around to find farmers and you know then there was no Google," she recalls. "So you couldn't just Google organic farm or natural farm. So I had to go through the Yellow Pages, and through the Yellow Pages, I found farmers."

Pouillon's approach attracted legions of fans including politicians, journalists, even presidents.

Pouillon is still at the restaurant every day, which begins when she meets with her chefs to discuss what is needed for that day's service.

Restaurant Nora was certified as an organic restaurant in 1999, meaning 95 percent of all ingredients including seasonings and condiments have to be organic. Sometimes, says Pouillon, that can be challenging.

"It's a big problem that I run often out of things because the farmer didn't deliver what he said he would because the beetles ate [it] or the frost came or it was too wet ... and because of my upbringing I understand that. But it drives my chefs nuts," she says.

As the kitchen staff is prepping food for the day, Chef James Martin and Pouillon go over food orders.

"Pretty much the farm rules this kitchen, especially when you are getting organic stuff ... it takes patience, it takes time, it takes love, it takes a lot of care, it takes a lot of work," says Martin.

The food scene in this country has changed radically since Pouillon first moved here: Farmers markets have sprung up all over, supermarkets now carry fresh vegetables and organic meats and the farm-to-table movement is increasingly popular. In fact, Pouillon says sometimes differing approaches to natural foods seem to compete with each other.

"People always ask me: What is better, organic or local? And I say, well there's nothing wrong with being local and organic," she says.

Now in her early 70s, Pouillon says she feels her life has come full-circle since those early childhood days when she first learned to respect food, and the work it takes to raise it, cook it and serve it.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

When Nora Pouillon moved to this country from Austria in the 1960s, she was surprised to find how hard it was to get really fresh food. Everything was packaged and processed. So Pouillon set out to find the best ingredients possible to cook for her family and friends. She brought that same sensibility to her restaurant, Nora, the first certified organic restaurant in the country. Pouillon writes about her lifelong devotion to food in a new memoir "My Organic Life." NPR's Lynn Neary paid her a visit.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Restaurant Nora is tucked into an old brick building on a busy corner in the nation's capital. Farm trucks unload produce at the kitchen door, as Nora Pouillon points out the herb garden that takes up part of the sidewalk outside the restaurant.

NORA POUILLON: You see over there, all this is thyme. And the bush on the corner is lavender, actually. We make lavender ice cream.

NEARY: Pouillon traces her interest in food back to her earliest years when she lived on a farm in the Alps during World War II.

POUILLON: Because this time showed me how food is like a treasure and how difficult it is to grow and raise food enough to feed you and your family all year round. And it gave me a big respect for food.

NEARY: Pouillon channels her passion for food into her restaurant.

UNIDENTIFIED WAITER: Medium rare is OK?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Yes, that's fine.

UNIDENTIFIED WAITER: OK, And for dessert?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I guess chocolate cake.

UNIDENTIFIED WAITER: And for you, ma'am?

NEARY: Restaurant Nora has been a fixture in the Washington, D.C., food scene since 1979. When Pouillon was getting ready to open the restaurant, she was introduced to then reigning power couple of that era - Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and his wife, journalist Sally Quinn. They agreed to invest in the restaurant, but Pouillon says Sally Quinn offered a word of warning.

POUILLON: I told them what I want to do, that I really want to do natural food. And she said just don't tell them that it's health food because people hate health food. They think it's bad. So I just call it additive-free food.

NEARY: Natural food, Pouillon says, was the norm when she was living in Europe. But when she moved to this country as a young wife, she searched out fresh, additive-free ingredients wherever she could find them - mostly in small ethnic markets. And when she got started in the restaurant business, she tracked down local farmers who could supply the ingredients she needed.

POUILLON: It was hard. I mean, I had to drive out to Virginia to scout around to find farmers. And, you know, then there was no Google (laughter). So you couldn't just Google, you know, organic farm or natural farm. So I had to go to the Yellow Pages, and through the Yellow Pages, I found farmers.

NEARY: Pouillon's approach attracted legions of fans, including politicians, journalists, even presidents.

POUILLON: OK, we have 207 reservations for tonight.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Yep.

POUILLON: And how many party?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Only one.

NEARY: Pouillon is still at the restaurant every day, which begins when she meets with her chefs to discuss what's needed for that day's service.

POUILLON: OK, so soup - can we make more asparagus soup?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Yes, we still have some left over - what we can stretch. Or we can do pea soup.

NEARY: Restaurant Nora was certified as an organic restaurant in 1999. That means 95 percent of all the ingredients, including seasonings and condiments, have to be organic. Sometimes, says Pouillon, that can be challenging.

POUILLON: It's a big problem that I run often out of things because the farmer didn't deliver what he said he would deliver because the beetles ate it or the frost came or it was too wet to cultivate or to harvest it. And because of my upbringing, I understand that, but it drives my chefs nuts.

CHEF JAMES MARTIN: How you doing, Aldo? This is James from Restaurant Nora.

NEARY: As the kitchen staff preps for the day, Chef James Martin and Pouillon go over food orders.

POUILLON: James, you got quite a lot yesterday from Eschel (ph) Farms - bacon, pork chops, New York strip.

NEARY: Martin loves working with ingredients the restaurant uses. Some of the best in the country, he says.

MARTIN: Pretty much the farm rules this kitchen, you know, especially 'cause when you're getting organic stuff, it takes patience. It takes time. It takes love. It takes a lot of care. It takes a lot of work.

NEARY: The food scene in this country has changed radically since Pouillon first moved here. Farmers markets have sprung up all over. Supermarkets carry fresh vegetables and organic meats. The farm-to-table movement is increasingly popular. In fact, Pouillon says, sometimes differing approaches to natural foods seem to compete with each other.

POUILLON: People always ask me, what do you think is better, organic or local? And I said, well, there's nothing wrong with being local and organic.

NEARY: Now in her early 70s, Pouillon says she feels her life has come full circle since those early childhood days when she first learned to respect food and the work it takes to raise it, cook it and serve it perfectly. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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