Organic pioneer Nora Pouillon has been honored with a 2017 James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award to recognize her commitment to bringing delicious, organic food to America.
Pouillon's eponymous Washington establishment was the first certified organic restaurant in the U.S. – an enormous feat, considering that in 1979 when she opened, organic food was still rare enough that she had to purchase whole animals to be able to put organic meat on her menu.
In addition to her restaurant, Pouillon also helped establish the FreshFarm Markets network of Washington-area farmers markets and sat on the board of Earth Day Network and The Amazon Conservation Team, among other endeavors in the world of sustainable, healthful food.
“James Beard means something really personal to me,” says Austrian-born Pouillon, who remembers learning to cook through Beard's cookbooks and magazine articles.
“James Beard was my big hero," she told the Washington Post. "He believed in local, seasonal food, and he cooked delicious food, but simple food, and that’s what I wanted to do."
Pouillon even remembers a day when James Beard himself came into her restaurant about two years before he died, plagued, at that point, by terrible gout, yet still offering words of encouragement for her mission.
“I can’t even remember if he had a cup of coffee or a glass of wine,” she says. “He just came and sat with me for half an hour, and then he left. But that was more than anybody else got!”
She recalls that when she told him how difficult it was to explain her philosophy to Americans – a whole-animal philosophy defined by quality ingredients – he replied, "They'll come around."
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"I guess they did come around!" she says. "You know, 40 years later.”
For this reason, Pouillon says, the James Beard Award is even more meaningful than a Michelin star ever could have been.
“A Michelin star is for the restaurant, it's for the food, and it's for the décor and for the service, but for me, the restaurant is much more a life lesson for people,” she says. “To learn that you can eat what you want and feel good about it if you just make sure that the product itself is clean and certified organic."
Regarding today's culinary landscape, Pouillon's influence is clear, and it is this influence that the James Beard Foundation wanted to recognize and reward.
“As the first chef to open an all-organic restaurant over 38 years ago, Nora has truly impacted the way people and the industry think about the food we eat,” said Susan Ungaro, president of the James Beard Foundation, in a press release.
The Award is the perfect end to 73-year-old Pouillon's career. After announcing her impending retirement, she is currently attempting to sell Restaurant Nora and the historic buildings in which it is located. So far, she has not found a chef willing to take on the task.
“To run a restaurant like I did is very complicated, very time-consuming, and very expensive,” she says, noting that organic ingredients can cost between 20 and 40 percent more than their conventional counterparts. It will take an enormous amount of courage and dedication to fill Pouillon's shoes.
Pouillon will accept the James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award in May in Chicago, a reward that shows just how much the culinary community has recognized her mission to teach people to eat more healthfully.
"That was my passion," she says. "To basically save this country from being unhealthy."
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