Join Rootstock Radio host Theresa Marquez as she speaks with organic pioneer Nora Pouillon, who opened the first certified organic restaurant in the nation, Restaurant Nora in Washington, DC.
Nora’s upbringing in post-war Austria shaped her appreciation for food, especially for where it comes from and how it is produced. Growing up on her farther’s farm, Nora realized early on just how much work goes into feeding oneself, and she developed life-long respect for farmers that’s seen throughout her work.
Nora shares insights from her 40 years as a chef and food activist, and from her published works, Cooking with Nora and her new book, My Organic Life, available April 21st. It’s clear that Nora has always been ahead of her time, starting the first certified organic restaurant in the country and publishing a cookbook based on seasonal options, featuring the nutritional information for each recipe.
Theresa and Nora discuss whether organic food and farming has reached a turning point in America. Even though our nation has come a long way, Nora suggests work is still needed given the increasing health and food system issues such as obesity and access to food here in the United States. What we need, Nora says, is to support the younger generation of organic pioneers and farmers.
Click play above to listen to our interview with Chef Nora Pouillon.
For more information about Nora, please visit http://www.norapouillon.com/.
Transcript: Nora Pouillon, chef and organic pioneer
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, listeners. This week’s exciting guest is Nora Pouillon, a chef for forty years and a food activist as well, the whole time. Nora is famous for certifying the first organic restaurant in the United States, Restaurant Nora in Washington, D.C. I’m excited about Nora’s new book, My Organic Life: How a Pioneering Chef Shaped How We Eat Today. Meet Nora.
* * *
TM: You are one of the most beloved, I think, food pioneers in the organic industry. So thank you so much for talking with me today and making the time—I really appreciate it.
NORA POUILLON: Well, it’s wonderful that you asked me. I think that’s great. I always like to reach many people, you know, to tell them of what I did and to inspire them to do the same thing.
TM: And you do have a remarkable history. I was reading with great inspiration your learning journey that you’ve been on, probably since you’ve been a little girl in Austria, all the way to opening Restaurant Nora.
NP: But my claim to fame is that I am the first certified organic restaurant in the country. And I got certified in 1999. And I think the other thing is that there are not many certified organic restaurants.
TM: And there still aren’t, yeah. I know there’s not.
NP: I think there are only perhaps a handful. And I think that makes me famous too, because it proves how difficult it is to do it.
TM: Yeah, you must have really jumped through some hoops. I was fascinated because, of course, I’ve known you for a long time, and I assumed that you must have had three or four degrees in cooking. And then when I read that you hadn’t even had a formal CIA and American Culinary Institute training and that you actually, your first chef gig was opening the restaurant at the Tabard. What was that like? Were you terrified?
NP: I was, I was, I was. It was, now when I look back, I don’t know how I had the courage to do it, but I guess I was in a situation… It was the 1960s, the 1970s, the late 1970s, and I had given cooking classes and I had a catering business. And I wanted—you know, it was the woman’s lib thing, and I really wanted to do my own thing. And at that time my marriage with my husband was not doing too well, and we decided to separate for a while. And I felt that I really had to go out and make my own living; I could not really ask him to support me.
And so when one of my students from my cooking class asked me if I would like to have a concession to install and open, to install a kitchen and open the restaurant at the Tabard Inn, I first said, horrified, “No, I could never do it!” And then the more I thought about it, I said, well, this is really my chance. And I just tried to figure out how much to order, find out purveyors from whom to order. And then already I was into additive-free food—“natural food,” as they called it then, which now unfortunately has no more meaning.
Maybe because I didn’t got to a culinary school and I just did it by myself, maybe that gave me the courage to do it, because you know, when you don’t know how difficult something is, you sort of go for it. And once you know things, then you might be scared and get anxious. So I think that was, at the end, a helping thing.
TM: I was so intrigued that you were raised in Austria. And I just wondered, what happened when you grew up there that you think influenced you?
NP: Well, I think that was the most important thing. I think that we really should realize, as people, how much influence on our personality and on our life decisions our first years of life have.
I think that I actually…you know, I was asked to write my memoirs, and by doing that I had to go through my life—you know, you sort of go through. And that’s when I really realized that growing up in Austria, I was born in the war, and so I knew shortage of food; I knew how to come by on very little food. I was lucky enough that my dad was well off and could lease a farm in the mountains of Tirol, and so, next to a working farm. And that really influenced me a lot, because these farmers worked so hard and they basically lived a hundred percent off the land. They did everything—everything. They grew all their food, they raised all their food, they fixed their houses, they were carpenters, you know, handymen, everything. They slaughtered their pigs, they slaughtered their animals. I mean, they made their sausages; you know, they made their soap. And of course they made their milk and butter and cream and chickens. I mean, it had a big influence to me to realize how much work it is just to feed yourself. It really gave me an enormous respect for farmers and for food. And to treat it very preciously.
And also it made me realize that it’s the food that keeps you alive. And you have to really search [for] food that is full of nutritional value, because if you put it in your body and it doesn’t feed your body, and I guess your soul too, and your taste buds too, but if it doesn’t feed your cells in your body, you start to get sick. And being, in that time, being sick after the war was not a good thing. There was not much help, there were no antibiotics, there was no penicillin—it only just came about with the occupation of the Americans. And so I really learned to concentrate on high nutritional, wholesome food, and to stay healthy.
TM: I know that [Restaurant] Nora was formed in 1979; you got your [organic] certification in 1999. Of course, we didn’t even have organic certification until 1990. But it really struck me: we have a hard time sourcing things organically in 2014, and I just wondered what happened in 1979 when you opened Restaurant Nora? How could you source these local, wonderful foods that you were hoping to serve in your restaurant? It must have been a challenge.
NP: It was, and I think then people were really not, as you said, certification didn’t exist. But I was asked to write articles then about chicken and about beef, and I sort of started to research it, and thinking, you know, how can I find—I should visit a beef farm to really find out. And so I called up a beef farm close by in Maryland, and the woman on the telephone told me that they have wonderful beef and that I can buy a quarter or half or a whole animal, and she would freeze-storage it. And I thought, oh my god, why would I freeze-storage? And then she said, you know, our animals are Angus and they are prime and they are very tender because we feed them corn and we give them antibiotics and hormones so that they eat a lot and they stay healthy. And so you have this wonderful, buttery-soft meat.
TM: Just what you wanted to hear!
NP: And I nearly flipped. I thought, corn? I mean, why corn? I have never, all my life when I spent time on the farm in the mountains, I’ve never seen any animal eat corn. I mean, they were eating grasses. And antibiotics? And she told me it’s in their feed, or they have in their ears sort of a syringe to [put] drops into their ear automatically. And I thought it was like a nightmare.
And so that’s when I looked in the Yellow Pages, saw there was somebody saying in Pennsylvania, “I do natural beef.” And I called up that man—it was Dr. König, actually—and I called up and he basically told me all the things he didn’t do. Not only did he feed them fresh grasses and no antibiotics, no hormone, he said he was very careful how he slaughtered them—not to stress them, not to push the adrenaline into the muscles, because he felt you can not only taste it but he felt that also when you eat meat like that, it has been stressed like this, it would also change you as a person. It would have an influence on you to being more nervous, more stressed, more… And that he didn’t fumigate the carcasses. I said, “What else do they do? Fumigate the carcasses!”
And then I have a funny story to tell you, because then I decided I would stay with Dr. König and get his meat too. And he came from Pennsylvania, and of course I’m sure he was not allowed to sell in Washington, D.C. And so he said, I told him I want his meat, and so he said, “I’ll call you.” And so he called me and said, “Meet me at three o’clock at Chevy Chase Circle on Wednesday.” It sounded like some kind of pick-up of something illegal. And when I went to that spot, there were already all these cars parked around the circle. And when this truck came up and stopped, all these doors opened from the different cars, and these women jumped out with coolers in their hands and ran to the truck. And he gave everybody what they had asked for.
TM: How about the vegetables? Were they hard to get too? Or did you find yourself having to start your own, talking to farmers and begging them to grow things for you?
NP: Yeah, that was, too. But I was lucky: some farmers came to me because they wrote about me that I did that, that I went to farmers and bought my food, and so more farmers started to come to me and ask me if I would be interested to buy. You know, it was still the hippie time of communes and back-to-nature, and so there were quite a few of those around Washington that were terrible farmers, to tell you the truth. But they learned. And at the beginning I got these wilted vegetables because they picked at the wrong time and they brought it in an unrefrigerated truck. But with time it got better and better.
And then there started to be distributors. I don’t remember—there was Joseph, who drove from California, a truck with organic vegetables, I think once a week. And of course the variety was very limited—it was cabbage and iceberg lettuce and maybe romaine, and winter squashes and carrots and onions and zucchinis… I mean, it was nothing like arugula and nice…
TM: Mixed greens.
NP: Yeah. But even in 1999, when I tried to become organic, and I had to find sources for…as you know, 95 percent has to be certified organic. [Editor’s note: To be USDA Certified Organic, 95% of a product must be made up of organic ingredients.]I had a hard time—it took a long time to find. And I lost some farmers. Some farmers said they want to stay with me, and they went through the process of becoming certified.
I guess it’s also the advantage that I was not a trained chef, that I was more like a housewife grown up in the war and after the war, and that I just became very creative and could do with what I had, and did the best. And it’s like I didn’t need raspberries in the winter, you know. I can have the raspberries when they’re in season, right? And I can have a tomato when it’s in season—I don’t need it in the winter.
TM: Okay, I want to back up just for a minute, though, because you were mentioning about a cookbook. You wrote a cookbook. In fact, I read that it was a James Beard runner-up. Is it Cooking with Nora?
NP: Yeah. It’s now quite old—it’s over twenty years old, I think. But that has a story too—everything has a story. You know what my problem is? My problem is that I’m too much ahead of my time, because I had to…I did this [cookbook].
First of all, it’s a Japanese publisher that came to me. It’s a Japanese publisher that ate at the restaurant, and he couldn’t believe that there was an upscale organic restaurant that used local farmers and that used organic food. So he asked me if I would do a cookbook. And I said yes, I’d do a cookbook if I can do exactly what I want to do. And he said, “Whatever you want to do.” So they sent me a Japanese woman who spoke perfect English and who was with me and translated.
And so I said I would like to do a seasonal menu cookbook with short recipes and the nutritional information after every recipe, then wine suggestions, and a photograph for each dish, because I think it’s very important that people know what they’re working for, right? I did that, and we published the book in Japan. And then I thought, well, I did this book, and of course I wrote it in English—I don’t speak Japanese—so I said I will try to find an American publisher so that I can do it also, have it published in America. Do you know that I couldn’t find a publisher, I couldn’t find any agents? They all told me—listen to this: they told me that the public is not interested in a cookbook written by a chef; they’re not interested in a menu cookbook; they’re not interested in the nutritional information; and they’re not interested in having a photograph for every dish. Can you believe it?
There are some really good articles, two good articles that Mark Bittman wrote about food, where he wrote a very long article about the march in New York, the climate change march. And everything that has to do with climate and our policy and our government and the food we choose and the lifestyle we choose. I mean, it’s very, very interesting.
TM: I think a lot of our listeners probably and the public in general don’t realize what a deep connection the production of our food has with climate change. It’s scary when you start unraveling it. But maybe that’s a topic for another—
NP: Well, not only about climate change, but also on all the life in nature. I mean, think about [how] many birds we killed, or how many insects have disappeared, or how… You know, it’s just unbelievable what we did, and the erosion of our topsoil that is the soil that we grow our food on. I mean, it’s enormous. And then all this machinery and all this…I don’t even want to say it.
But I think we really have to go back into that consumers’ demand and that we go again back into smaller production. All this talk about we won’t be able to feed the world is not true. I think we throw away more food than we should, and we produce more food than we are able to eat.
TM: Forty-five percent of our food, I read recently, is wasted.
NP: It’s terrible.
TM: Yeah, so we already can feed the world, but we don’t choose to. We don’t have a world food plan.
NP: Yeah, and I think often it’s a question of infrastructure and transportation or—
TM: Now, Nora, if you would take that on, getting us a world food plan, we might get somewhere.
NP: I think that I wanted always to do—but I was always ahead of my time. For the last twenty years I have been saying I would like to do an organic McDonald’s, because that is really needed to bring low-cost, organic, healthy food to everybody. And I could never find anybody who wanted to finance it.
TM: That is surprising. Once again ahead of your time.
But I was just wondering, do you have a favorite food book or favorite food author that you like?
NP: Yeah, well, I like many, I like many of them. Of course I can’t remember the names. But personally I prefer cookbook writers. Well, first of all, I think Mark Bittman is great. He does exactly what I do too: he takes one item and he shows you how to do twenty different things with it. And that’s exactly, when I had my cooking classes, that’s exactly what I did.
This woman came up to me and said, “I have to tell you, I have been in your cooking class in the 1970s—in 1972.” And she said, “I still have all the recipes. I remember you brought three chickens in, you showed us how to cut them up, and you showed us how to make twenty different meals out of these three chickens, to feed our families.” And she said, “I still have the recipes and I still cook like this, and you had such an influence.” And I said to her, “Oh, that’s wonderful. Give me your card, because I need to get these recipes—I don’t have them!”
TM: And you know that the Organic Trade Association has predicted that organic is going to be growing 13.5 percent in the next five years, and we’re already, I think it’s multi-billion-dollar. What are we, up to $60 billion by now? Something like that. And I’m wondering, you know that expression “the hundredth monkey,” which is about how something gets to a hundred and then all of a sudden it explodes to a million. Are we there yet, do you think, in organic? Is organic exploding around us?
NP: Well, I think in the last five years, I think it has definitely—oh, even perhaps ten years—it has definitely exploded a lot. I mean, now I can get everything organic and people know what organic means, while before, I’d say, “I have an organic restaurant,” they’d say, “Oh, I’m vegetarian too!”
And so I think that more and more people make the connection between how they feel, and the environment, and I think big corporations luckily see there is money in it. I mean, I always say, who cares what their motivation is, as long as they really do it, and stick to it, and do it properly. And so I think that with Walmart and Costco, they have now organic products, so people tell me—I don’t know, I don’t shop there. But you know, every store, every chain has now an organic section. So I think it comes more in the awareness of people, which is wonderful, because it is more expensive, and the more and more people would buy it, I think, the price will go down—never to what the subsidized food will be, but it will go to the point, I think, where more and more people can afford it and can make the right decision.
I mean, I can’t eat any other way, and I think in my restaurant, I have fifty employees, I try to convince them. But there are still people that say “It’s just too expensive, I can’t afford it, and it’s only for the privileged.” And I always tell them, “Look—I prefer to spend my money on the food than on the doctor.” If you think about all the obesity and diabetes that’s going on, and all the cardiovascular problems and the cancers and the god-knows-what, I mean, it’s just terrible. And I think that we have to change.
I mean, not only does it cost an enormous amount, but basically we’re killing ourselves. I mean, if you come from another country, from a European country—and even there they get fat too—and you come to the United States, you cannot believe how much fat the people are here. It’s just unbelievable.
TM: It is actually unbelievable, and the statistics are terrifying.
NP: And I think people don’t understand that it’s not only an aesthetic thing. They think, “Oh, you know, these models, they are too skinny,” and all that. They don’t understand that it has an enormous impact on their health. I mean, think about how your body, all your organs have to work harder to carry all this weight.
TM: And also a statistic that really, I felt terrible about when I heard, was that this was the first generation being born now who would actually not live as long as their parents.
So I think, I mean, I started out by asking, has organic arrived? Is it going to start booming now? And you know that the organic industry is very short suppliers—like the UNFI and the other big distributors are complaining all the time, and you’re going to see “Out of Stock” [signs] in the stores because the Costcos, the Krogers, and the Walmarts are being so successful.
NP: I just think we need more farmers. I mean, I think we should be encouraging—and it’s nice to see the younger generation. I think there are more young people also in agricultural schools. And I think we have to encourage that, and we have to make it easier for them to acquire land and to lease land. And it’s just, we have to encourage that. We really have, because no food, no life—you know, no farms, no food, no life!
TM: So as you look at what you’ll be doing in the future, Nora, do you have something that, you know… You probably don’t have time to do anything but just keep doing the things you’re doing. But do you have something?
NP: Yeah, I think I have to start to slow down. You know, I’m now in my early seventies and so it’s time to think about the future. I have four children, four grandchildren, and I am sort of thinking that, as I said, I would still like to be involved in having sort of an organic fast-food chain that’s very affordable. If somebody comes up with supporting me with this idea, I think that would be wonderful. I still have it enough in me for to do that.
But otherwise, what I think I will do is sort of slowly, in the next five or so years, give over the baton of the restaurant to another chef that is like-minded and that can continue with my message and continue the restaurant. I think it’s important to have, like, a model of what you should do, and I think, and what you can have. And the stigma of organic food, healthy food tasting not good and being a special diet and you have to restrict yourself is absolutely not true. I think that’s what people have to understand: eating organic food, you can eat what you want, except the food has to be wholesome and organic, and you can have your glass of wine, and you can have your big steak, grass-fed of course. And you just don’t have everything all the time, every day.
TM: Yes, moderation, as they say.
NP: Yes, moderation. And you know, it’s so easy. You know, if you have a big breakfast, don’t have a big lunch. I mean, it’s so logical.
TM: Well, I know those of you who are out there listening can’t see Nora, but I will say that she’s a testimony to organic and eating organic, because she looks terrific. And I just really want to thank you so much, Nora, for taking the time and talking with me today, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what the next chapter of your life is going to be.
NP: Thanks so much. It was really very nice. As I said before, my message, I hope many people hear it and it inspires them.
* * *
TM: I hope you enjoyed getting to know Nora as much as I have. You know, whenever she cooks, you can always count on delicious food with that European touch. Join us next week.