Nora Pouillon, Founder of Nation’s First Organic Restaurant, on Retirement and Organics

nora pouillon

One of the organic industry’s most iconic pioneers is stepping down from the limelight. Nora Pouillon, founder of her namesake Restaurant Nora in Washington, D.C., which became the country’s first certified organic restaurant in 1999, has announced her retirement.

While her restaurant only became organic certified in 1999, it opened twenty years earlier, and from the very beginning, Pouillon was determined to have only the best, freshest, healthiest ingredients — many of which were sourced from the then-burgeoning organic industry. It’s no surprise, then, that Pouillon has seen her share of evolutions as far as organic is concerned.

The Democratization of Organic

“The biggest change is that it has become much more mainstream,” says Pouillon. “It’s much easier to get organic ingredients.”

This is lucky for Pouillon, who used to have to do everything in-house and manage upwards of 20 suppliers in order to keep her restaurant 100 percent organic.

“I had to buy whole animals, and the whole animal is 1,000 pounds of beef, carved, which gives you about 700 pounds of ground meat and stew meat, and very little steak,” she says.

After serving ground beef in as many interesting ways she could think of, she finally opened a second, less upscale restaurant to use up the hundreds of pounds of ground beef it took to get just a few steaks.

Of course, the mainstreaming of organic has helped in this regard as well.

“Now I have no problems, because they can sell the ground beef to schools and hospitals,” says Pouillon. This, she notes, was unthinkable when she first started, as schools and hospitals wouldn’t have dreamed of spending so much on their food.

This slow democratization of organic is something that Pouillon has witnessed over the course of her time in the organic industry, particularly when it comes to individual diners.

“Consumers are more informed and educated about the food they eat,” she says. “They want to know where it comes from and how it’s raised, and what is done to it, while before no one asked questions. And I think that gives pressure to the producers and the farmers and the companies to provide the consumer with healthier options.”

It’s All About Balance

Nora Pouillon says that she originally opened her restaurant because people were consuming the wrong things – empty calories, the wrong kinds of fat, too much processed food, and too much sugar. Instead, she wanted to offer “wholesome, certified organic food.”

Now that the organic industry produces everything from potato chips to candy, however, organic doesn’t always seem to mean healthy; Pouillon notes that this issue is easily avoided through balance.

“You can’t eat a kilo of organic chocolate, that’s not healthy, or sixteen pounds of steak,” she says. “The thing is balance, diversity, you have a small piece of protein, 4-6 ounces. I always give in my restaurant at least three vegetables: two fresh vegetables and one carb. So it could be brown basmati rice or parsnip purée or mashed potatoes, but then it has broccoli, it has kale, it has carrots, or many other vegetables with it.”

Finding this balance in fine dining is a unique proposition and part of what has made Pouillon such a success.

The Future of Nora Pouillon’s Namesake Restaurant

Who could take up the helm of Nora if not Nora? That’s the question that Pouillon is still trying to find the answer to.

“The favorite of course would be to find somebody who has my mindset,” she says. “Somebody with money and somebody who wants to do healthy food.”

These two characteristics must go hand-in-hand, she notes; organic food is still an industry that requires a lot of money for very little payoff, especially, she says, given the popularity of the small plates trend.

“People now are willing to pay more for food, they understand that organic food is more expensive, but still, the trend now is that the younger generation spends more money on drinks and small plates,” she says.

For Pouillon, running the restaurant is clearly a labor of love.

“None of my chefs in my 37 years as a restaurateur — probably 20 to 25 different chefs — none of them want to do it, because they realize how much work it is,” she says.

But perhaps the biggest reason that Pouillon is giving herself about a year to find a replacement is that she wants the person she chooses to continue to run the restaurant the way that she has, to continue to use the purveyors with whom she has cultivated relationships for years.

“It might take years to find the right person who is as passionate as I am about organic, healthy food, but I have so much confidence in today’s enthusiastic generation of chefs and restaurateurs,” she says.”

As for Pouillon, she plans to go into consulting to help other restaurants and restaurateurs embrace the organic way of life.

“At this point in my life, I want to be a leader and an inspiration to share my vision,” she says. She hopes to answer the many people who have asked her over the years to share her wisdom and advice, to make organic food more accessible to all diners.

She also plans to write a second book, as her 2015 memoir, “My Organic Life: How a Pioneering Chef Changed the Way We Eat Today” didn’t include more than 40 recipes she had hoped to feature.

“I have four children and five grandchildren,” she says, “so I think I will be plenty busy.”

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Image care of Nora Restaurant

Emily Monaco is a food and culture writer based in Paris. Her work has been featured in the Wall... More about Emily Monaco