In Other Words
My Organic Life by Nora Pouillon
My Organic Life by Nora Pouillon, Alfred A. Knopf/Random House, 272 pages
Today, as meat processors, restaurant chains, and fast-food giants rush to embrace “humanely raised,” “grass-fed,” “non-GMO,” “antibiotic-free” and other marketable labels, it’s hard to imagine a time when the words “healthy” and “natural” might scare off restaurant diners. But that’s what Washington Post columnist Sally Quinn suggested to restaurateur Nora Pouillon in 1978 as Pouillon was preparing to open her groundbreaking Restaurant Nora. Quinn thought the terms were “unappetizing” and made fine cuisine sound like “hippie food.” Pouillon disagreed. “I felt that if people had the opportunity to eat good food that was also good for them, they would return.” Instead she chose the even less appetizing label “additive-free.” Diners, including Quinn and her husband,
Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee, flocked to her restaurant anyway. Restaurant Nora became the East Coast equivalent of Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse and, in 1999, the first “certified organic” American restaurant. Pouillon’s roots-and-all memoir My Organic Life parallels the rise of what was once quaintly referred to as health food into something much more than a fad. Pouillon was an activist in the movement that led to the 1990 federal regulation calling for nationwide standards for organic certifications. Driven by her business model to find and purchase organic fruits, grains, and vegetables, she networked with small organic farmers and livestock producers, establishing a local organic farmers market and food cooperative long before they became a widespread phenomenon.
Pouillon gives more than a taste of how her motivation for these endeavors developed. The book is a culinary coming-of-age story, dishing on an appetite born of both scarcity and bounty. She was born in Vienna at the advent of World War II. Her family spent much of the war at a farm in the Austrian Alps, where, as a toddler, Pouillon learned to enjoy fresh cow’s milk and strawberries, dark, home-baked breads, and pâtés made of roasted goose liver. The shortages of war required wasting nothing, snout to tail. Pouillon’s memory is remarkable. She recalls her grandmother carefully removing entrails from a chicken, unfolding the “beautiful” gizzard to reveal the little stones inside. Inspiration for her later cooking style came out of simplicity. She claims that fresh radishes with sea salt and butter were her favorite appetizer while a student at a French school in Vienna. It’s no wonder that Pouillon believes, as she tells us, that garlic fights infection and cilantro removes mercury in the system. Her father, a businessman, was athletic and something of a health nut, with a strict eating regimen that included drinking herbal tea to reduce stress.
Once she came to America, Pouillon was shocked at the processed and packaged foods she found in the supermarkets. “There was such a vast quantity of food and hardly anything I recognized or wanted to buy or eat.” She ventured out to the few small, Europeanstyle markets in D.C. and, inspired by the cookbooks of Elizabeth David, began to host Provençal-themed dinner parties. She took cooking classes, threw more dinner parties, and then found a job cooking for a Dupont Circle bed-and-breakfast. Soon, she was looking for a restaurant to call her own. She states that her motivation to create her restaurant, “where everything — from the produce and meat to the oil, salt, and coffee — is certified organic” was “simply health: organic food is better for our bodies and our environment.”
Restaurant Nora became an unbridled success. Quinn and Bradlee led an A-list of Washington insiders, including journalists, politicians, and even presidents, to the place. James Beard wrote glowingly of it. Pouillon’s personal life, too, was unbridled. Before the idea of opening a restaurant took over her life, the married mother of two young children was warned by a feminist friend that she was wasting her life hosting dinners and getting drunk every night. Pouillon decided that the solution to this aimlessness was a career. Here, her account becomes the stuff that preoccupy so many chef memoirs. The hours are long and the work space is hot. Financing is difficult and financiers can be fickle. Affordable real estate is impossible to find. The long hours put a strain on family and other relationships; children are deprived of their parents’ presence. Married partners on both sides cheat, and sometimes divorce can be a good thing. Being a chef, they all want to tell us, isn’t easy. Pouillon’s story is no exception.
At some point, the career became a cause, and Pouillon threw herself into the organic, locally sourced, small-farm movement. She’s so committed to the healthy aspect of her offerings that she overlooks the other reason organic, small-farm-raised foods are better: their quality, diversity, and terroirbearing flavors, characteristics that allow chefs to create unique, inviting dishes. With all the good produce and meats that came through her kitchen, one can’t help but wish that Pouillon had talked more about creating and experiencing tastes, along with the textures, colors, and flavors of her creations. Instead, we mostly get a litany of ingredients and dishes inspired by a variety of ethnic influences. The only clue as to how tasty they are is her musing that customers seem to like them. Pouillon’s restaurants — she also started a vegetarian café in later years — provided a model for a burgeoning market. You might say that Restaurant Nora offered a taste of the future. — Bill Kohlhaase