Nora Pouillon, chef/owner of Restaurant Nora, Washington, D.C., and renowned pioneer of the organic food movement in the U.S. is planning to retire from her restaurant to devote more time to the industry she helped launch. Approaching its 38th year in business, Restaurant Nora became the first certified organic restaurant in the country in 1999 and has been a beacon for restaurants pursuing organic certification.
Born in Vienna, Austria, Nora came to the United States in the late 1960s and was shocked to discover the processed, chemical-laden foods Americans were eating, which she realized contributed to their health problems. That’s when she embarked on her crusade to promote a healthier lifestyle. Nora has received awards from many culinary and organic organizations. In 2009, she was the first recipient of the Genesis Award from Women Chefs and Restaurateurs, which recognizes a woman who has achieved a true ‘first’ in the culinary profession. In October of 2011, Chefs Collaborative inducted her into their Pioneers Table.
Why did you get involved in the organic food movement?
I think in a way, I helped create the organic food movement as we know it today. I got involved with organic food in the 1970s purely for health reasons, once I found out about the heavy use of additives in our food (like antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, herbicides and now GMOs). The typical American diet was unhealthy then and unfortunately continues to be, as evidenced by our mounting health costs. That is why I insist on using certified organic food.
Why should restaurants consider organic certification?
I think organic certification guarantees our customers that they can trust that the food that they are eating is truly organic.
You are a self-taught chef. Who are the chefs that inspired you along the way?
I mostly had connections to food writers. It was Elizabeth David and James Beard who inspired me.
What advice do you have for chefs who are just starting out in their careers?
Chefs should be knowledgeable about where their food comes from and the production and agricultural process. I think it is very useful to work on a farm and then work in restaurants in every station to get experience. What I look for in a chef is interest, strong work ethic, reliability, honesty, willingness to learn and adapt to difficult situations, being flexible, having a sense of humor and being even-tempered.
How has the organic movement changed food production in America?
The organic movement has become more important every year and luckily many farmers have converted from conventional to organic farming. Even large agricultural companies realize the monetary benefits of switching to organic.
What is your food philosophy?
I eat everything in moderation, a diversified diet, and of course, it has to be certified organic. Local and seasonal, if possible. Basically, you can eat what you want as long as it comes from certified organic sources.
What’s next on your journey in life?
I will remain involved in the food business and do some consulting. I am also a partner in a successful sustainable fish business. I am on the board of five environmental organizations and I hope to be more active with them. And, of course, I have my family–four children and five grandchildren who live all over the world, and I hope I can spend more time with them.
(Ed. note: In 2017, Chef Pouillon retired and Restaurant Nora closed after 38 years in business.)