Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Nora on the Nation's First Certified Organic Restaurant

"I was born in Vienna. In Austria , there is a lot of emphasis on fried foods, heavy sauces, and desserts. My parents were unusual in that my mother cooked very light and my father was into yogurt and fruit. He was also very much for outdoor exercise, which is typical in Austria . He always said that health is the most important thing that you have and you need to preserve it. From a young age, I was taught that food is important and you need to combine it with outdoor activity.

"I came to D.C. with my French journalist husband as a young bride in 1965. Here is where I first became conscious of what the food situation was like in America . I always say that D.C. was a culinary wasteland in the 60's and 70's. My first exposure to how awful food here was going to a supermarket. There were shelves and shelves of Wonder bread. When Pepperidge Farm bread finally came around, it was like a gourmet statement! The produce department was the smallest department. The biggest department was frozen foods. There were the same fruits and vegetables all year-round. Nothing seasonal or local. It was a shock to realize that this country, which was supposedly the richest country in the world, had no food culture.

"In response, I did a lot of research in the Yellow Pages and found ethnic markets and local farmers to get healthy and fresh food for me and my family. I read a lot, too, especially Elizabeth David and James Beard. Those books really inspired me. I also became interested in American agricultural practices. I remember finding a farm in Virginia where you could buy sides of beef. The woman there proudly told me that they fed the cows corn, so that they would fatten up. Then she went on and told me the cows were kept inside and regularly given hormones. That was the first time I realized that chemicals were used in agriculture. Then I learned about pesticides in fruits and vegetables. Things like this were not happening in Austria when I was growing up.

"At the time, I was cooking a lot and we were having people for dinner once or twice a week. A lot of people really liked my food and friends asked if I would teach them what I had learned through my little culinary journey. At the beginning, it was informal, but I also realized that I needed to make some money. I eventually opened a cooking school in my home in the evening. On the weekends, I did catering. It was very simple. I cooked something at home and brought it to someone's house, and they pretended they cooked it.

"I did that for about three years. Then one of my students asked if I would be interested in opening a restaurant in a small bed-and-breakfast in Dupont Circle called the Tabard Inn. First, I was a little scared, as I had never really committed myself to being a professional, but I realized I had to do it because my husband and I split up and I needed to support myself and my kids. The restaurant started off with only lunch and became very successful. We served natural meat, and I picked up vegetables from farmers in the area. The word got around that I was purchasing fresh and local items, so farmers starting coming to me. At the end, I was one of the first to do the farmer-chef restaurant connection. This was back in 1976. At that time, if you said organic, no one would come to your restaurant. It sounded like a biology class and people thought it would taste disgusting. It is only in the last ten years that people stopped associating health food with bad food.

"Two colleagues from the Tabbard and I opened Restaurant Nora in 1979. We found this location through pure chance. We wanted to stay south of Dupont Circle, near the Tabbard Inn, because there was already a group of people who supported us, but we couldn't find anything affordable. This space used to be a Yugoslav restaurant run by the father of some of the kids who were in school with my children. Sadly, he was ill and ended up selling us the restaurant. We all worked 24/7 and lived off of the tips. My kids would come here after school and do their homework, so I could watch them while I was cooking.

"For the first 15 or 20 years, people thought I was completely nuts and the whole organic business was not true. Restaurant reviewers criticized me for telling people how to eat. Still, people came to eat here because the food was good. When environmentalists became prominent was when I started to get more serious support for what I was doing with health and food. Things also changed when Fresh Fields came to D.C., which is now Whole Foods. The supermarket did a lot to educate people on where food comes from. We live in a very chemical world, and there are so many chemicals in our society. I think that people need to take responsibility for their own health. Now people tell me that they can't afford organic food. I tell them that they can't afford to be unhealthy. Would you prefer to spend your money on food or the doctor?"

Restaurant Nora became the nation's first certified organic restaurant in 1999. Nora Pouillon is the author of Cooking with Nora.


Nathan said...

Who knew that D.C.had the first certified organic restaurant? I was convinved it came out of California! Another reason to love this town.

Marta said...

One could make the argument that D.C.largely remains a culinary wasteland...