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Interview: James Beard Award Winner, Nora Pouillon

By Lauren Jade Hill

As a pioneer and champion of organic cuisine in the United States, Nora Pouillon has become one of the biggest names in North America’s restaurant industry. And now with the announcement that the Austrian chef, restaurateur and author will receive the James Beard 2017 Lifetime Achievement Award, Pouillon has been garnering even greater attention. Before she receives the award on May 1st, we speak to the revered chef.

Nora Pouillon

It was in 1979 that Pouillon first opened the fine dining eatery, Restaurant Nora, championing local and organic produce in Washington, D.C.’s Dupont Circle. After going on to collaborate with the Oregon Tilth Certified Organic Program to establish certification for organic suppliers, the chef’s eatery became America’s first certified organic restaurant. And it has attracted widespread interest ever since, with patrons including Bill Clinton, and Barack and Michelle Obama.

What’s more, Pouillon has actively promoted a number of environmental organizations, having been on the board of Earth Day Network, The Amazon Conservation Team, and FreshFarm Markets, as well as having been a member of Les Dames d’Escoffier, and the Women Chefs and Restaurateurs organization. She has previously been named Chef of the Year by the International Association of Culinary Professionals, and The American Tasting Institute, and she has had her memoir, along with the two cookbooks, published. Here, Nora reflects on these achievements, which have led to her latest accolade.

Nora Pouillon

How do you feel about receiving the James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award?

I am elated, I am honored, I am excited, and I am happy.

What past achievement are you most proud of? And, what has your greatest motivation been?

I am proud to be able to open a restaurant in 1979 and still have it running in 2017, and also for becoming the first Certified Organic restaurant in the US in 1999. My motivation is the belief that nutritious, wholesome food is the most important thing to keep us healthy. I am motivated by the important correlation between health and food.

What influence do you think you’ve had on the food scene?

I think I had a big influence on the food scene in the U.S. First, I started in the ‘70s to seek out local farmers and introduce D.C chefs to local organic foods. I was the inspiration and initiator for the producers only farmer’s market in D.C, Freshfarm Market. Additionally, I believe, through my mission, I influence my guests to pursue a more healthy and sustainable lifestyle. Otherwise, I would not still be in business after 38 years.

Nora Pouillon

Over the years, you’ve been championing the local produce in Washington, D.C. What makes the produce there unique?

What makes the produce unique is that it is local and seasonal. It doesn’t come from China, Israel, Mexico, or even California. It is grown in the states surrounding Washington, D.C, which makes it fresher and therefore more nutritious.

What plans do you have, now that you’ve announced your retirement from Restaurant Nora?

I hope I will be asked to consult for other businesses on how to become more organic. I am a partner in a sustainable fish business, a board member of five environmental organizations, and I have four children and five grandchildren; I think I will be busy.

Do you have any favorite restaurants to go to when you’re traveling around the US? Are there any chefs you particularly admire?

When I am in San Francisco, I love to go to The Slanted Door. When I visit my son in Portland, I like Toro Bravo. As for chefs, I admire Patrick O’Connell of The Inn at Little Washington, Jose Andres for developing his empire in such a short time, Michel Nischan for starting Wholesome Wave, all the chefs in Danny Meyer restaurants – I think they are all very talented. In Washington, as newcomer, I really admire Aaron Silverman for having unique places.

Keep up-to-date with the work of Nora Pouillon at www.noras.com, and find out more about the James Beard Awards at www.jamesbeard.org.

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Cover image © Scott Suchman