The story of Nora Pouillon, D.C.’s preeminent organic restaurateur — and the mother of the region’s longest running organic farmers market at Dupont Circle — brings to mind the saying: “What goes around, comes around.”
Back in the mid-1960s, with her then husband, a French journalist, Pouillon came to the States armed with cookbooks by Elizabeth David and James Beard.
On May 1 of this year, she accepted the 2017 James Beard Lifetime Achievement medallion at a ceremony at the Civic Opera house in Chicago, at which she was called “a pioneer and champion of organic, environmentally conscious cuisine.”
When Pouillon opened Restaurant Nora in 1979 on the corner of 23rd Street and Florida Avenue NW, the term “organic” was not generally applied to food. She herself first learned about it in Austria during World War II. Born in Vienna in 1943, Pouillon escaped the bombings when her father leased a farm in the Alps. “We had no electricity, no running water,” she recalled. “We lived with a farm family and these farmers worked day and night. I learned the whole process, that food is not just put on the table or bought in the store.”
Pouillon carried those experiences to Washington, D.C., starting a catering company and cooking school in the early ’70s. In dealing with wholesale food suppliers, she discovered that, in America, some cows and chickens were treated with antibiotics to help them digest food they wouldn’t naturally eat. “That was my ‘aha’ moment,” Pouillon told the James Beard Foundation. “I started searching for farmers who do things in a more sustainable way.”
In 1976, she opened a restaurant in the historic Tabard Inn on N Street NW, where she insisted upon using as many natural and organically grown ingredients as possible. Her suppliers — from the Maryland’s Eastern Shore to Amish Pennsylvania — became her network of local and organic farmers when she opened Restaurant Nora.
Pouillon organized (and continues to organize) bus tours of farms for area chefs, encouraging them to source ingredients locally. “So many of them didn’t even know there was local food. They were so used to calling a distributor on the phone,” she told the Beard Foundation. That’s when the farm-to-table movement began to take root in our nation’s capital. It was just the beginning.”
But Pouillon is also well known in D.C. for starting the local open-air farmers markets. The first was in Dupont Circle, just blocks from her restaurant. She is still on the board. One of the biggest outdoor markets in the District, it is the only one open year round.
The Dupont market has evolved well beyond housewives and cooks seeking fresh produce for Sunday dinner. Over half its offerings today are prepared foods, many cooked by immigrants from family recipes originating outside the U.S. More customers buy prepared dishes than items to cook.
“It’s a shame, but it’s what people want,” Pouillon told The Georgetowner. “They love to watch cooking shows but they don’t cook themselves.”
“All the food at the market is vetted,” said Parker Bowling, a manager at the Dupont market. “We make sure it is locally produced and healthy.”
Pouillon is moving on as well. Her restaurant and the building are for sale. She hopes that “the spirit and the message of Nora will be carried on by the next owner.”
In the meantime she has a lot of cleaning up to do, including “40 years’ worth of restaurant equipment and memorabilia. And over 1,000 cookbooks to sort through.” But she’s on five boards and intends to share her expertise by consulting. And she wants to spent more time with family and friends, here and in Austria, where she has a country home outside of Salzburg.
She leaves a national legacy. Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” wrote recently: “I think, for a lot of people, Nora changed the understanding of what organic could be.”