What’s In My Basket: Living the Organic Life with Chef Nora Pouillon

Words by Jordan Anthony-Brown
Photographs by Space Division Photography
chef nora smiling
It’s a beautiful Sunday morning in late spring near Dupont Circle, and Chef Nora Pouillon is on amission, one that began decades ago and continues today. While the use of organic produce and ingredients in restaurants is far more common in 2015, Chef Nora was truly the originator of the movement, with her flagship Restaurant Nora becoming America’s first certified organic restaurant in 1999.

red onions


Red Russian Kale,
Spring Onions
red kale

Recipe for Restaurant Nora's Cold Egyptian Spinach Soup

The Austrian-born chef recently chronicled her nearly lifelong path as a pioneer of fresh, local and organic cuisine in a memoir, My Organic Life.

“When I first came to the United States in the 1960s, I saw firsthand all of the chemicals and pesticides that were used in the food here,” says Pouillon. “It was too processed, and what was being served wasn’t really food. I wanted to do things the right way.”

This belief that propelled Chef Nora to where she is today—an early activist dedicated to promoting the use of organically produced food who initiated D.C.’s FRESHFARM Markets. The market concept came to Chef Nora nearly 20 years ago after a visit to Union Square in New York City, where she was amazed by the quality of the producer-only farmers market.

“I felt that it was necessary for D.C. to have talking to vendorone as well, so with a grant from the Wallace Foundation, we got started,” she says. Today, there are 13 FRESHFARM markets in the area, but it’s the original version in the heart of Dupont Circle where Chef Nora still does her shopping on Sunday mornings. As she walks through the market with purpose, her love of organic food is evident as she converses with her go-to vendors, sampling what they have available for today.

“I come here every Sunday, either myself or one of my chefs,” says the chef as she sorts through boxes of freshly picked greens. “It’s very important to connect with the suppliers and producers. They’re very knowledgeable about what they do, and are more than happy to talk about their products—it brings people closer to the food.”

There are a number of farmers and producers at the market, but Chef Nora is technically only able to buy from three of them—The Farm at Sunnyside, New Morning Farms and Next Step Produce—all of which bear the sign of “USDA Certified Organic.” There are other suppliers that Chef Nora is certain work in accordance with organic standards, but as she explains, gaining the distinction of being Certified Organic is something that not all farms are able to do.

organics sold here“There are other producers here that I know engage in organic practices, but there is a large paper trail involved in the process to become USDA Certified Organic,” she explains. “Some farms aren’t able to keep up with that, so they don’t carry the label. The weather in this region, too, makes it difficult sometimes to be truly organic; the extreme humidity leads to quick growth of fungus, which in turn requires the use of some chemicals and pesticides. It’s difficult to grow organic, but that’s what produces the best food.”

As always, Chef Nora is veggie mountainshopping seasonally on this cool, sunny morning, looking for fresh radishes, spinach, peas and asparagus. As she samples several varieties of kale, including Lacinato and Red Russian, and searches for the season’s first heirloom tomatoes, she admits that shopping and cooking seasonally can be difficult. Because of the long and harsh winter endured by the region this year, seasonal produce is behind schedule, meaning that some of Chef Nora’s spring favorites are just beginning to appear.

Although she’s looking forward to summer items such as corn and tomatoes, it could be some time before those are availably locally and in their peak seasonal quality. As the market quickly fills up with like-minded shoppers, Chef Nora points out how markets like FRESHFARM help to build communities, saying “The markets aren’t just for food—look around you at all of the people! People come to connect with oneanother, along with those that supply their food. Markets are particularly important for our children, so they can learn at an early age what real food looks and tastes like.”

Chef Nora recognizes that, due to the nature of small, local and family-owned farms represented at the market (and many other farmers markets), organic and local food can be more expensive than produce that comes from factory farms; she notes that FRESHFARM has focused on incorporating SNAP and EBT programs at the markets, to help make fresh organic food more affordable for low-income shoppers, so that they don’t have to rely on cheaper processed food.

Despite all that Chef Nora has accomplished, she seems just as driven now as she was nearly 40 years ago to ensure that the food that’s being produced, cooked and served is of the highest possible quality.

Jordan Anthony-Brown is a freelance food writer and blogger living in Arlington, VA, and a linecook at Iron Gate in Dupont Circle.

Food and Dirt: A Day of Learning at the Rodale Institute

Rodale group By Melissa Jones, special to Edible DC

A group of eleven gardeners, farmers, foodies, and environmental advocates from the DMV took an August road trip to Pennsylvania to visit a one-of-a-kind research institute that has been on the forefront of organic farming since 1947. “Healthy Soil = Healthy Food = Healthy People” has been the Rodale Institute's motto since 1947. I'm the founder of Good Soil Events, a developing social enterprise that celebrates sustainable agriculture, advocates healthy soil and raises awareness through food-focused experiences. Considering that the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization declared 2015 the International Year of the Soils, this was an important trip for me to host and make available to others.

We kicked off our journey with a farm-fresh meal prepared by The Market Café at the Rodale Farm with a spread of Mediterranean sandwiches, fresh gazpacho, cucumber and tomato salad, kale salad, and a refreshing fruit salad. The attendees shared their food stories at the table – because food is an event, a connector and everyone has a food story to share.

Dr. Kristine Nichols, chief scientist at the Rodale Institute farm, greeted us during lunch and led the tour. Dr. Nichols is a Midwesterner who grew up in the heart of farm country. An expert on soil, she holds a PhD in Soil Science from the University of Maryland. She was the perfect tour guide for our trip.

Rodale soil

Our first stop was the soil pit at Rodale’s Farming System Trial (FST), America’s longest running, side-by-side comparison of organic and chemical agriculture. As we stood in the pit – Dr. Nichols pointed out the different layers or horizons of soil, so we could see the differences in soil that has been managed organically and conventionally. The organic and conventional crops are grown side-by-side, so we saw firsthand the differences between the two. We also had the opportunity to run soil tests.

The tour was an ongoing education about soil as we moved throughout the farm. We saw their impressive composting site, an on-farm experiment designed to combat stink bugs and more. Time and time again we were reminded that Mother Nature has her own answers to many of the challenges we face.

Rodale_donkey2Other experimental projects are their Tree as a Crop program and The Honeybee Conservancy. Rodale was designed, operates and evolves as an institute to meet the needs of modern day farmers, so the scientists there utilize and try to maximize output on all their farmland for growing food or other crops that could be used by farmers to generate income to continue to learn more. Rodale studies the entire food ecosystem which includes animals. From raising organic and heritage breed hogs to roosters and chickens, Rodale farm even had two rescue donkeys – Rodale is an environmental sanctuary for all things in a farm's ecosystem.

Rodale field

Our trip ended with a visit to Rodale’s farm shop that many of us visited. We walked out with fresh preserves, maple syrup, soil, educational books, t-shirts and more. On the bus ride back to DC, everyone had a chance to reflect on what an amazing day they’d had. They also dug into the road-trip goody bags we’d put together filled with snacks and other travel-friendly items from local D.C. artisans including Baklava Couture, Goldilocks Goodies, KateBakes, Karmalades, FruitCycle, and Watusee Foods.

The Rodale experience was truly remarkable – an opportunity to connect the dots of their great work with something we all love - food.