Nora Pouillon (Washington, D.C.)
Chef and activist Nora Pouillon is one of Chefs Collaborative’s founding members. Our founders were early to recognize the impact of food choices on our health, the vitality of cultures and the integrity of the environment.
Americans had a baffling relationship with food, Chef Nora Pouillon remembers thinking when she moved to Washington, DC from her native Austria in the mid-1960s. Back then there were only two types of fine dining in nation’s capital – rich French fare and over-priced steak houses – and none of the produce in the grocery stores came from local farms. “No one was thinking about the health of people or the planet,” Nora recalls.
A self-taught cook who relied on Elizabeth David and James Beard cookbooks, Nora delighted in the flavors she discovered in Washington’s wealth of local ethnic markets and built a network of local food sources. Friends hired her to cater their parties and teach them how to make her fresh tasting dishes. In 1976, Nora opened her first restaurant in the Tabard Inn, where she introduced the city to the concept of locally sourced food. Her legendary Restaurant Nora opened in the Dupont Circle neighborhood in 1979.
“Many of my farmers weren’t organic back then. They weren’t aware there are problems with pesticides and fungicides. But they tried to minimize their use of chemicals for me,” she says. It was a lonely struggle trying to educate both diners and growers about the need to improve food quality. “The press was not supportive at all.”
When Nora heard about Chefs Collaborative – a new organization of chefs supporting sustainable farming and cooking – she eagerly became part of the movement and joined the founding members at the first meeting in Hawaii. “Chefs Collaborative was very helpful. I had never had support from other chefs. To see these chefs all together talking about local, organic, sustainable food was a first. Most chefs I knew were afraid they would offend their customers if they looked like they were trying to tell them what they should eat.
“We sat on the beach and wrote the Chefs Collaborative mission statement. Dun Gifford mentored us, helped us. I think there was a big grant from European olive oil producers promoting the Mediterranean diet through his Old Ways Preservation Trust, a great organization educating chefs by taking them to places that did not rely on industrial food.”
Restaurant Nora attracted power players and presidents along with neighborhood locals, all of whom she educated about the importance of eating organic food. She took busloads of chefs to visit the farmers who supplied her restaurants. “They didn’t know about local farmers. They were not aware of seasonality. And they were so wasteful! If you know how difficult it is to grow good food, you would not waste it.
“The food system is going in the right direction now,” she says. “We’re still not doing enough to improve nutrition standards. And it would be nice to see smaller portions. But Washington, DC restaurants have come a long way.” Still, the effort to maintain the high standards Nora set for herself when she became in 1999 the first certified organic restaurant was exhausting. She retired in 2017, closing Restaurant Nora after nearly 40 years.
“My contribution is showing that wholesome, clean, simple food on the table will maintain our health, the health of the planet and the health of the local famers. I did the best I could to keep us healthy.” A driving force behind the FreshFarm Markets in Dupont Circle, Nora continues to serve on its board as it has expanded to over 10 markets across the Washington DC region.