It took Nora Pouillon two years to convert her New American restaurant in Washington D.C. to a totally organic menu. Over that time, she worked with area farmers who used organic and biodynamic practices to bring in produce, meats, herbs, dairy, wine, and even coffee that were pesticide-free and farm-fresh. Finally, in 1999, Restaurant Nora was named the first certified organic restaurant in the U.S. She has since grown her mini restaurant empire to five locations, and in April 2015, she released My Organic Life, a book that’s part memoir, part manifesto for the organic movement.
Rodale’s Organic Life: How did you first become interested in organic food?
Nora Pouillon: I got interested in organic food in the late 1960s when I came to this country from Vienna, Austria. My husband and I entertained, so I had to cook a lot, and I searched out wholesale meat. We loved grilled meat, and my husband especially loved grilled steak. I called up a farm in Maryland and a woman told me, “Oh, we have the greatest meat. It has lots of marbling, and we give the cows corn.” So I said, “Corn? Why do you give them corn?” Where I grew up, you didn’t give them corn. You gave them grass. “Yeah. It’s wonderful. Then we give them antibiotics and growth hormones. It makes them grow faster and fatter.” I was so freaked out. That was when I made the connection between health and what people put in their body. People are sicker, have more cardiovascular problems, and are heavier than I remember growing up in Austria. That’s when I decided to search out the cleanest food I could find. The more I got into it, the more I realized that it’s not just bad for the health of our people but for the health of our planet.”
ROL: What does organic mean to you?
NP: It means wholesome nutritious food without manmade chemical additives. Food that replenishes the soil and replenishes you. The only thing that has changed is that now people ask for it. Unfortunately, some people think that it’s just a gimmick so that they can charge more money, which isn’t true. I think educating the consumer is very important. I believe in finding examples out there of people who eat organically and taking a look at where they are. They’re more fit and they enjoy life more. We need to explain to people the true cost of food. Explain the life of a farmer. How much do his seeds cost? How much does his land cost? How many hours of work does he put in and how much profit does he get out of it? People don’t see how much effort and energy is needed to grow that food.
ROL: What foods are you currently in love with?
NP: It changes a lot, but right now I am very excited because one of my Amish farmers that raised my chicken started doing my veal. He has them grow solely on their mother’s milk and lets them run free in the barn or enclosed areas. I also love the plain roast chicken. The Amish farmer does this chicken that tastes so good. It’s wonderful just to feel it and taste the flavor of the chicken again.
ROL: What was the single greatest challenge you faced getting your restaurant certified organic?
NP: Overall the challenges were to create the standards first, convince many of my farmers to become certified, and then to keep up to book so I don’t lose my certification. Finding the certifying agent who would take it on was a big challenge. I found Oregon Tilth and Yvonne Frost, who was president at the time, but it took nearly two years to get the standards together. We were going back and forth for a while. Yvonne put together the certifications standards for a farm, for a store, and for a production company or business so we could create the standards for the restaurant.
ROL: What inspired you to write your memoir?
NP: Basically my story is about how everything is connected. I am also trying to show people that everything matters in your life, from where you’re born and when you’re growing up to how you develop your passion. Growing up on a working farm during and having parents that were so health-conscious, especially my father, really influenced me. My father was very much into outdoor activities like skiing, hiking, and swimming. I remember him peeling an apple and me asking, “Why do you peel an apple?” He looked at me and said, “Because they spray it.” Can you believe it? That was in the 1950s.
ROL: What are the next obstacles the organic movement has to face?
NP: The organic movement needs to find a way to rally up lots of consumers through educating where their money is going. Consumers need to know that the money they spend on organic food is well-spent, that it’s used to produce wholesome foods.