Austrian-born chef Nora Pouillon moved to the United States in the late 1960s and was shocked to see what people were eating. "America was a culinary wasteland," says the award-winning chef and owner of Washington, D.C.'s Restaurant Nora, the first certified organic restaurant in the country. Bewildered by the popularity of foods such as Wonder Bread and iceberg lettuce, Pouillon made it her mission to get wholesome foods into the American diet.
Remembering the chemical-free farming methods of her European homeland, she immediately began to seek out organic farmers in the D.C. area. "Organic defines nature, and the closer you imitate what nature does —that's really my goal —the better you are," says Pouillon, who first introduced diners to her organic foods in 1976 in a small hotel restaurant in the trendy D.C. neighborhood Dupont Circle.
She opened the upscale Restaurant Nora 25 years ago and sought organic certification for it in 1999—something that had never been done before. National guidelines for restaurant certification were created with her help; they now require that at least 95 percent of the ingredients used be certified organic, with the paperwork to prove it.
Pouillon's view of organic dining is quite broad. Her restaurant has a composting program that she believes is a critical component of an overall organic system. "It's a cycle," she says. "You give back to the earth, then whatever grows out of this soil has this life energy in it that you gave it. You yourself become part of that. You eat life and it gives you energy."
A 60-year-old mother of four, Pouillon maintains her energy with a holistic fitness regime that includes belly dancing, Rollerblading, and a weekly Synergy Yoga class she's been attending for the past 15 years. "For me, yoga is a mental healing process," she says. "Because I understand better how things work in my body, it leaves me in a more relaxed and balanced mood. So when I come to work, I can focus better and be more efficient and creative."
A self-taught chef, she is constantly exploring her edge in food, changing her gourmet menu daily and learning new techniques. A decade ago, for example, she sought private lessons from numerous Asian chefs before opening Asia Nora—her second organic restaurant. "Many people don't realize how complicated it is to be a professional chef," she explains. "You have to be creative; you have to be an economist; you have to be like a mechanic to realize your ideas; you have to be an artist to make it look pretty on the plate. That complexity makes it very satisfying for me."
Catherine S. Gregory is a writer and former food editor in Colorado. She draws culinary inspiration from an eclectic yoga practice.