D.C. diners and organic aficionados may already be familiar with the culinary delights of Nora Pouillon, but we all owe a great deal to this internationally-renowned chef. Her Restaurant Nora in Washington, D.C., opened in 1979 and eventually became the country's first organic certified restaurant. She also helped craft organic certification standards for restaurants, was a founding member of the Chefs Collaborative, and helped grow the producer-only farmers' market scene in D.C. In her spare time, the busy chef found time to pen a memoir, My Organic Life, earlier this year. It's a great read from a great chef. Check it out, then read our chat with Nora below.
What did the phrase "healthy eating" mean to you back when you were first starting out in the food world? To me, healthy eating meant a Mediterranean diet. Olive oil instead of butter, sautéed or grilled fish, meat or poultry, lots of salads, not creamy dressings just simple vinaigrettes. A balanced diet with lots of produce, fruit, grains, and legumes. Once I found out about agricultural practices in this country I really searched for healthy ingredients. By that I mean, certified organic ingredients, not “natural.” The best of course, are seasonal, local, certified organic ingredients.
What dish are you most proud of? I like all the food that my chefs and I create every day. I like my salads a lot and so do my customers. For instance, the beet salad had been on the menu for, I think, 10 years, and I can’t take it off the menu without having a mutiny. I am also very proud that I keep my food cost under 30%. I don’t waste and always try to use everything. For instance, with my whole chickens, I bone the legs and make curries or chicken schnitzel, with the breast, I make scallopini or stuff and roast them, with the livers I make a pâte or serve them with pasta and with the neck and the carcasses, I make, of course, a delicious chicken soup.
Any other great anecdotes or wisdom from the book you'd love to share with our readers? When I was looking to purchase meat in large quantities, I looked through the Yellow Pages and was horrified when I discovered what was really in our meat. Antibiotics, hormones, things so far from nature and what I was used to growing up in Austria. I found an ad for “all-natural” beef. When I showed up to pick up my order, it seemed like a drug deal. Cars lined up waiting for their meat. I was amazed by the lengths you had to go to, to get natural and organic food back then.
You helped lead the way for organic dining in restaurants. Do you have any current favorite spots that you believe are doing it right, besides your own Restaurant Nora? Years ago, I inspired Maria Hines to also become certified organic. Which she did. Now she has three certified organic restaurants in Seattle: Tilth, Golden Beetle, and Agrodolce.
Organic food and cooking has come a long way. What remains the biggest obstacle to enjoying organic food? It is true organic food has come a long way. Now it is available in really every super market. But there are still items that are very difficult to find. Like certified organic cheeses: cream cheese, mascarpone, baking items, sherry vinegar, spices, especially Asian condiments. The biggest obstacle for most is the price, because people don’t connect the quality and wholesomeness of their food with their health. If they would add all the money spent on doctors and medicine, it would be cheaper and better to spend the money on organic food.
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