Interview with Chef Nora Pouillon of Restaurant Nora - Washington, DC

October 2011

StarChefs: Why did you become a chef?
Pouillon: I love to cook, to nurture, to feed and make people happy. After growing up in Austria, marrying a Frenchman and moving to this country as a housewife, I fell in love with cooking. Due to budgetary issues, I learned to be more creative and resourceful, which developed into my own cooking style. Part of this style included a curiosity as to where the food was coming from, so I learned how produce was grown and how meats were raised on farms.

Cooking is a very complex, yet satisfying profession. I need to think creatively, rely upon the knowledge I have gained over the years and work with my hands. The results of which nurture and please my customers. This is very gratifying to me.

SC: How did you develop your style?
Pouillon: The most important part of my style is driven by the use of organics. Serving wholesome, good food means serving organic, seasonal food, as it is part of the life cycle, which is driven by the seasons. What you eat should give you energy and be of sound nutritional value.

I like to call my cuisine organic American cuisine. American because America means a melting pot of flavors. America is where all the different ethnic groups come together. My cuisine is not traditional or structured. I like to keep it simple. Through my upbringing and traveling extensively throughout Europe, I have acquired an appreciation for flavors. I'm good at balancing the flavors in my menus. I'm the type of chef that takes a vegetable, like a good organic tomato, I serve it sliced on a plate and drizzled with organic olive oil. For example, I would never make this tomato look like a rose because I would not like to take away from the pure satisfaction of a high quality heirloom tomato.

SC: Carrying over from that, Nora, you are widely regarded as a pioneer in creating and promoting delicious organic, healthy, locally grown, seasonal food. How did you become involved?
Pouillon: Growing up in Austria, family and school instilled the importance of eating nutritious, healthy meals and doing exercise in order to maintain a healthy lifestyle. I went to a school that served 3-4 course lunches daily, with an hour recess afterwards. It was a very civilized way to grow up. I am always amazed at how in America, lunch is not taken very seriously. Lunch is either fast food or a sandwich. I think that is one of the reasons why I'm involved in the School Lunch Program. If kids are only exposed to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every day, how can they develop their palates, and how will this affect who they are later in life?

When I moved to America in the late 1960's, I became aware of the additives in foods found in the grocery stores. I asked a farmer about buying beef directly from him, to avoid the additives found in beef in stores. He explained to me how farmers applied chemical additives, such as antibiotics and growth hormones, to cattle. My priority was the nutritional value and purity of food, but the average American's priorities were availability and how something, whether it be a cut of beef or a vegetable, looks. Flavor and nutrition were at the bottom of their list of priorities.

I strongly believe that you are what you eat. If you are eating foods full of chemical additives, these additives will accumulate in your body. I believe that one of the reasons there are so many incurable diseases out there is because of the foods people are eating. Food is very important to how we feel. It also affects the air, water, and the future of our planet. To me, it is a unifying element, where everything connects to the next. The more I learned about additives, the more I realized that I didn't want to participate in this kind of lifestyle. In my restaurant, I won't serve any customer any food that I wouldn't eat myself.

SC: Since you opened Restaurant Nora 18 years ago, it has been listed as one of the best restaurants in the United States. What is your secret in keeping it so popular?
Pouillon: Work all the time! Never let it get stagnant. Food is continuous, so I'm always learning. I continuously look for new farmers and new resources. I recently found a new source for organic sugar, which was unavailable before now. I travel and read a lot, seeing what people want and where the trends are going. Then I try to supply them with what they want.

America is not about traditions, it's about moving, growing, and finding the best solutions. One of the reasons I left Europe was because it was too traditional. This is why I think my restaurant is so popular, because after all these years, it's still new.

SC: What are the challenges you face with having an organic style restaurant?
Pouillon: As I mentioned before, one of the biggest challenges is a supply of quality resources. Many organic farmers are new, just starting out. However, we have lost our organic teachers. Our great grandfathers knew how to grow organically, but they have died and the knowledge wasn't passed on. It skipped a generation. Now, it's difficult to find farmers willing to re-learn the past.

What I do is I commit myself to these farmers, no matter what happens. Even if the produce is eaten by bugs, I will buy it in order to show my support of what he's doing. I try to educate the farmers in what they should try to be growing, which is specialized produce, heirloom varieties. These are not easily found, and there will be less competition for him. The next challenge, once I've found a farmer and educated him, is to keep him. If organic produce isn't making money, he might go back to using conventional methods.

In addition, as an organic chef, I have to deal with many more vendors than the average chef. An average restaurant deals with 5-8 wholesalers, whereas I deal with 30 different farmers. I cannot simply call a farmer and tell him I'll need something the next day, like other restaurants do with wholesalers. The farmer calls me on Friday and tells me what he can bring me on Monday, and he only delivers once a week! So I have to plan menus and decide how busy I will be in order to accommodate what the farmers can bring me.

Another challenge is finding a cooking team that is as dedicated to organic cooking as I am. Often it is difficult for sous chefs to understand how to deal with the unpredictability of the resources that quality organic cooking requires. They are used to conveniently picking up the phone and ordering twenty - ten once New York Strip steaks to be delivered the next day, which are delivered individually, cryovaced on their front step. For organic meats, I need to make my orders six weeks to six months in advance. Then, I can't just buy several steaks, I need to buy the whole animal. This way, I get 20 New York strip steaks - along with 800 lbs of ground meat! Then my sous chef needs to create ways to use all parts of the animal. It's a real challenge for them to incorporate every part of the animal into my menus - but it is something that needs to be done.

The menu is also seasonal, which is where the creativity comes in. When the farmer tells you he only has squash, then I have to be versatile enough so that the customer doesn't realize he's eating squash again and again. The cooking team also has to be sensitive to the fact that sometimes they will have to go without certain ingredients that they would like to use in a dish because the season or other circumstances does not allow it to be organically grown. They simply just cannot use a non-organic ingredient because that one non-organic ingredient will throw off the entire purity and quality of the dish. Instead the chef must be dedicated and innovative enough to use other available organic ingredients to make a satisfying dish.

SC: On that note, what advice would you give aspiring chefs who wish to follow in your footsteps?
Pouillon: I think I would tell them to find producer farmers markets and get acquainted with local farmers and learn about their growing methods and about seasonal produce. So many chefs don't know the seasons anymore since produce that is out of season is still available year round in the supermarkets.

Chefs can also go to national chain of Whole Food Markets, ask who their suppliers are, and contact them to see if they could deliver to them once a week or so. Also, every county has a listing of local organic farmers available. Public Voice for Food and Health Policy in Washington, DC has a directory called The Green Cuisine, which lists farmers markets and farmers around the US that I would use. You can ask colleagues - they usually share their sources. Also, when I'm traveling and see a road-side fresh produce stand, I'll usually stop and ask if the produce is organic. If not, they may know of a neighbor who grows things organically. You need to be constantly searching out resources.

I would also point out to a new chef that organic doesn't only mean food, but everything else. You can recycle, purify your water, buy recycled, unbleached paper, use environmentally friendly cleaning supplies, etc. There are many things you can do. Convey this to your customer. By coming to your restaurant the customer feels that he is contributing to a more sustainable lifestyle and therefore a livable future.

SC: I recently read an article about you which said that Restaurant Nora is "more a fashionable place for romantic dining than a temple of health food. What is your trick for merging romance and health?
Pouillon: One of the reasons I believe that Restaurant Nora has gotten a reputation for providing a romantic dining experience is because of the food itself. Food is not prepared in an intimidating, complicated and elaborate style. Instead it is simple and pure. The meal is approachable and you feel at ease with it - you don't have to worry about using ten different forks in one sitting. This in itself creates an overall relaxing atmosphere which makes couples feel self-assured and confident. Meals are flavorful and satisfying but at the same time light. Customers are able to enjoy an exceptional meal and leave feeling energized.

Often times people think that an organic restaurant means an old, hippie restaurant where you wear your Birkenstocks and eat bean sprouts and rice. But it is not so. That is the whole idea - to prove you can eat healthy food in a pleasant, elegant, cozy setting like your home. I have been successful in creating an organic restaurant that serves delicious food in a romantic and calming setting. I can't tell you how many people tell me that they either had their first date, became engaged, held their wedding reception, and then go on to celebrate their first anniversary here.

SC: Who has influenced you most in your cooking?
Pouillon: Elizabeth David and James Beard. Apart from my background, these two people influenced me most. When I came to this country I relied completely on their books to teach me how to cook and use new techniques. I knew the flavors and the tastebuds and the balance, but I didn't know the techniques and how to make it happen. Elizabeth David is the best. I have all of her books. I really liked her French Provincial book. The book really taught me to respect the ingredient. Her recipe on how to make a perfect omelet is a good example. She said to go into the barn and pick six eggs, break them and mix them with a little salt in a bowl. Then melt a big pad of country butter in a pan, pour the eggs in, etc. I realized that it's really the ingredient that makes a dish, and that if you use good ingredients, the recipe can be quite simple. The dish speaks for itself. Elizabeth David could convey with her writing what the omelet was supposed to taste and feel like.

In America there are too many ingredients and too many instructions for a recipe. No one tells you what it should feel and taste like. I think that this is really important, and Elizabeth David did this really well. And so did James Beard in his writings.

SC: What is your favorite ingredient(s)?
Pouillon: I love salt. I like strong flavors; Italian parsley, ginger, chilies, tomatoes, and good, dark sour dough bread. I like vegetables, salads, fruit and steak. I prefer spicy flavors over sweet ones. I also like food that takes a long time to cook, like stews, where all the flavors merge together. I like Mediterranean and Asian ingredients and flavors.

SC: Do you have any tips or techniques you can share?
Pouillon: Learn how to grill and to properly roast. You don't need so much oil and still have wonderful tasting food. Dry spices and dry marinades are good for grilling because they are easy to spread. Substitute a lot of saturated fats by using oils. It's OK to use other ingredients than the ones called for in recipes. Take chocolate mousse, for example. If it isn't chocolaty enough, use a different kind of chocolate like a bitter or darker chocolate, or change the amount of eggs and cream. Think about the intensive flavor and rich smooth texture you want to experience.

Regarding kitchen equipment, apart from a good knife, I would suggest getting a Japanese mandolin. It is a wonderful thing to have because you can do so many things with it, like make pasta out of carrots and zucchinis. It can cut paper thin slices that give food a different flavor and texture. Another essential item is a large bowl for salads, pastas, stews, soups, and for company.

SC: What is the most memorable meal or food experience you've had?
Pouillon: That one is a tough one, because I had so many memorable experiences as a child in Europe. One of the most interesting meals I remember was in L.A. at Chinois on Main. I couldn't believe how good it was. I had never before been exposed to Asian fusion cuisine. This was over ten years ago. Everything about the experience was amazing. The decor was absolutely weird. The service was non-traditional - they just brought you the food whenever it was ready, and whatever was brought was shared family style. The flavors were very strong, new exciting spices that I really loved.

SC: In your life, what are you most proud of?
Pouillon: My children. I love them and I think they are great. The older they get, the better they become. It was very difficult for them when I started the restaurant. I used to always be there at home for them, and then I left to do my restaurant and become a professional chef. They felt I abandoned them, which of course I really didn't. I am proud of who they are. And of course, I am proud of the restaurants, of their message and their success.