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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

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