Nora Pouillon: Growing Momentum for Sustainable Farmers

[Many chefs are passionate about sourcing ingredients from sustainable farms. Super Chef asked trailblazing Chef Nora Pouillon of Restaurant Nora why sustainable and organic farming are so important to her. Restaurant Nora is the Nation’s first certified organic restaurant– The Editor]

In today’s overly scheduled and hectic world, dining out may be one of the few times when we sit down and truly pause, opening our palettes and minds to new tastes.

Even as a chef, I still find it amazing how something as simple as a tender slice of pork or a fruity chardonnay can drown out the stresses of the day. Something about good, healthy food makes us more aware of small pleasures, melting away the tensions and walls we build up every day.

For those of us lucky enough to devote our lives to cooking and food preparation, it’s this wonderful quality of a good meal that provides us with a living. But even more than that, food is an extraordinary teaching tool, providing chefs with a remarkable opportunity to help diners learn about the impact of their food choices.

When I moved to the United States from Austria in the 1960s, I was shocked to find that in this country food was mostly seen as something to be eaten quickly and then forgotten.

Buying lifeless packaged food from the supermarket, American consumers often had no idea where their meat came from, who grew the fruit on their table, what unpronounceable and unrecognizable ingredients were in the cartons that filled their grocery bags, or which harmful pesticides were infiltrating their homes and dinners.

But food means so much more, tying our health, the wellbeing of the environment, and the livelihoods of growers and chefs alike up in one complete, tasty package.

That’s why I opened Restaurant Nora in 1979, hoping that the food served in my restaurant would inspire people to think about what they were eating and its impact on the growers as well as the environment.

I started searching for organic growers who could provide our restaurant with clean, healthy food that hadn’t been sprayed or injected with chemicals. Back then, it was a difficult and frustrating search – I heard over and over again from farmers that they wanted to grow in a way that was better for our health and the health of the environment, but that the market just didn’t exist. They feared taking the financial risk of switching from conventional to organic.

Despite these challenges, with the help of a small group of committed, daring farmers, we started introducing more organic items on our menu. And we didn’t stop once our food reached the plates.

For me, serving organic asparagus or sustainably raised fish also meant offering up a side of knowledge.

I talked with our customers about the benefits of clean, healthy food, and tried to help them see the benefits of supporting organic growers with their wallets. Our staff joined in, becoming passionate about serving delectable food that they knew was not contaminating the soil, water, or people’s bodies.

And as we shared our message day after day, we saw the momentum for organic dining grow, bringing in more curious and knowledgeable eaters and allowing us to buy ingredients from an ever bigger group of organic farmers.

In 1999, Restaurant Nora became the first certified organic restaurant in the country, thanks to the organic farmers we’ve relied on to consistently fill our kitchen with wholesome, high quality, and low-impact ingredients. From our local beef farmers in Virginia to our goat cheese producers at Lazy Lady Farm in Vermont, the organic pioneers who supply our restaurant are the true heroes of the American food revolution.

It’s their care for the environment and passion for organic food that gives our cuisine an undeniable, delicious taste of the earth.

Thankfully, chefs today have a growing array of organic farmers as resources. I recently helped judge the Natural Resource Defense Council’s 2010 Growing Green Awards, which honor leaders in sustainable food and farming, and the 170 nominees astounded me. The winners ranged from Russ Lester, an organic walnut grower who is dramatically protecting the health of our environment with energy efficiency measures, to Karl Kupers, who is building a market for sustainable wheat growers in the Pacific Northwest.

I was thrilled and inspired by the stories of these growers and food producers. Still, the unfortunate reality is that the American food system continues to depend on unhealthy, chemical-based industrial agriculture.

As chefs, we have a responsibility to support farmers who are growing food that’s good for our bodies and the environment. But even more than that, we have the exciting opportunity to share those values with our customers.

We all try to serve food that captivates and surprises eaters with new, inspiring aromas and taste combinations. With each plate, we can serve up new and innovative ways of thinking, as well. A chef’s job doesn’t start or stop in the kitchen. Through our food and restaurants, we should strive to connect diners with sustainable and organic farmers who are growing healthy, delicious food for our future.

3 comments on “Nora Pouillon: Growing Momentum for Sustainable Farmers
  1. Larry says:

    Nora,

    I understand from Travis Price that you are spending a lot of time in Finland these days. (he is designing a house for me!) But is there a restaurant in DC that serves decent Finnish cuisine?

    Larry

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