Nora Pouillon: a legend in organic cuisine

I met award-winning restaurateur, chef and food activist Nora Pouillon at Restaurant Nora, the first certified organic restaurant in the United States. The brick building in Washington has become an icon of the organic movement. Courtesy photo

I long had a fantasy as a child to open a restaurant. Pioneer restaurateur Nora Pouillon realized that dream long ago. In May, she will be honored in Chicago by the James Beard Foundation as the recipient of the 2017 Lifetime Achievement Award for Restaurant Nora, the first organic restaurant in the United States.

When she started her legendary Washington, D.C., restaurant in 1979, the Davis Food Co-op and the Davis Farmers Market were just a few years old. To understand what her restaurant became is to understand a bit of the history of the early days of farm-to-fork pioneers, retail co-ops, farmers markets, organic farming and local sourcing.

The foundation, named after James Beard (1903–1985) — the prodigious, iconic American food writer, cookbook author, television personality and teacher — also honors chefs, restaurants and books. The Lifetime Achievement Award is given to an individual whose body of work has had a positive and long-lasting impact on the way we eat, cook, or think about food in America.

Nora’s award is not only for her restaurant, but also for her work to introduce the capital city’s first producer-only farmers market, as consultant for Whole Foods, author of a cookbook and a memoir, as well as serving on several boards of environment-focused foundations. Author Michael Pollan writes about Nora as “a tireless advocate of local food systems and a pioneer of the food movement, as well as a brilliant chef.”

The two-story brick restaurant at the intersection of Florida and R streets in the Dupont Circle of the nation’s capital has taken on an almost iconic status, becoming part of culinary history and legend. It witnessed countless private and public celebrations — from people on pilgrimages of sorts, themselves pioneers in sustainable food and agriculture, people in Congress and in the White House. In January 2010, then-President Barack Obama surprised first lady Michele Obama with her birthday dinner there.

The last occasion of my dining at Restaurant Nora was as part of the annual meeting of the Les Dames d’Escoffier International, of which I’m president of the Sacramento Chapter. This is an organization devoted to advancing women in the culinary, beverage and hospitality industries — Nora is a longtime member. She had offered her restaurant, as one of 10 owned by D.C. “Dames,” as they are called, for an optional dinner during one night of the conference.

That night, while we dined with her on the second floor of the restaurant where she and her family had lived in the early days, Nora, who was gracious, self-effacing, polite and a good listener — all that one looks for in a great hostess and great leader — announced that she was selling the restaurant, something she had gone public with just weeks before.

The evening felt like a tribute to her, and to those of us there from around the country who also had helped to build local food systems. Her compatriot, Ann Harvey Yonkers, told the story of how Nora encouraged her in the 1970s to help launch and manage D.C.’s first producer-only farmers markets. She said Nora had convinced her by using her lifelong winning combination of friendship, moral persuasion and charisma.

That was more than 40 years ago, and the two women have been friends and colleagues ever since. Moreover, the D.C. system of farmers markets is flourishing; today there are 75.

I, too, spoke to the group that night, as did several others who had chosen to be with Nora at her restaurant. In a way, we all agreed that we are a tribe within the Les Dames organization, devoted to the principals for which Nora and her work stands: that food is a way to change society and the environment, that small farms and school lunch programs need to be protected, and that freshness, simplicity, healthy and delicious can all be used to describe the same meal.

Nora’s memoir with Laura Fraser, “My Organic Life — How a Pioneering Chef Helped Shape the Way We Eat Today,” is, in part, a history of how she and the farm-to-fork movement evolved. She describes her journey from her homeland of Austria, through two marriages, her introduction to American food, and her shock at the lack of fresh, seasonal food to how she then began catering for friends, parties, professionally, and, of course, eventually the restaurant.

Along the way, Nora found and befriended farmers to provide her with produce, meat and grains. She also found bakers and butchers and food processors who were willing to meet her standards. Moreover, she started a farmers market so that everyone could shop the way she was provisioning her restaurant. Finally, she made the decision to become the first organic restaurant in the United States.

To gain the certification (which she obtained from third-party certifier Oregon Tilth in 1999), she proved that 95 percent of the ingredients she uses in the restaurant, from coffee to sugar to salt, chocolate and dairy — is from a certified organic farmer or suppler. As she mentioned at the dinner, even cleaning fluids in the scullery are from certified organic suppliers.

Today, Restaurant Nora is powered 100 percent by wind power from Direct Energy, a local company that sources wind from farms in Nebraska, Iowa, Texas and Indiana. Paper, cleaning and waste products are all organic or biodegradable, and the restaurant extensively recycles its vegetable trimmings, coffee grounds and eggshells through its partners for compost into gardens. Nora Pouillon’s legacy and influence will be felt for years to come.

Over the years, I’ve satisfied my restaurant fantasy through starting a food co-op and a farmers market, school lunch consulting, event organizing, menu planning for large dinners and entertaining. I raise my glass to Nora on this award, as I did that night dining with her, my daughter and others from around the country who have worked through the decades to reconnect the broken parts of our food system.

To her I say, “Thank you Nora, for leading the way, for creating the first organic restaurant in the United States, thank you for your courage in the face of adversity to chart a new course for the American diet and way of life.”

Nora Pouillon ‘s Butter Recipe

Makes about 1 cup

In her book, “My Organic Life,” Nora provides several recipes, starting with butter. Making your own basic ingredients can add so many flavors to a meal and her recipe is so profoundly simple, I thought I’d share it with you. Perhaps you’ll want to serve your butter with a few hot, homemade buttermilk biscuits and honey for breakfast or on a baked potato for dinner for your loved ones on Valentine’s Day.

Ingredients:

1 pint (2 cups) heavy organic cream, at room temperature

Putting it together:

Pour the cream into a mixer or food processor and cover with the lid or plastic wrap to prevent splattering. Beat for about 3 to 5 minutes, until the cream is over-whipped and curds that separate from the liquid form. Using a colander, strain the curds. Reserve the liquid, which is buttermilk, for other recipes. Rinse the curds under cold running water until the water runs clear.

Remove the curds and knead together to form a single block in the shape of a small loaf.

For a flavored butter, put the curds back in the mixer and add one or several of the following: Salt to taste, as salted butter keeps longer; chopped herbs and garlic; chopped anchovies and herbs.

For a European-style butter: Culture the cream before churning by adding a few tablespoons of yogurt, buttermilk or sour cream. Let is sit overnight in a warm place to ferment.

Edible Garden and Pantry Notes: February is a good month for making marmalade with navel oranges, grapefruit and lemons. For Ann’s recipe and more information, visit www.annmevans.com.

Ann M. Evans has planned the menu for “Feast 2017: A Celebration of Mead and Honey” a Feb. 11 fundraiser for the UC Davis Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science’s Honey and Pollination Center. For more information: https://registration.ucdavis.edu/Item/Details/.

This article was previously printed in The Davis Enterprise on February 1, 2017.

Like what you read? Give Ann M. Evans a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.