(April 8) Not too many people get famous on one name. Madonna. Cher. Pele. Emeril.

Certainly, it takes that little extra “something” to earn notoriety. And in the world of cooking with organics, there is Nora, who has devoted that something and a lot more to spreading the tastes of sustainable agriculture.

Nora Pouillon is executive chef and owner of Nora, billed as America’s first certified organic restaurant. In the heart of Washington, D.C.’s fashionable Dupont Circle district, she has etched out a following, or more of a coming to, if you will.

Nora — the restaurant — is mecca to many folks who appreciate organics. Nora — the chef — is the reason they come. Patrons, who run the gamut from families to environmental activists to corporate groups, come for the unique flavor and dedication to natural foods.

Pouillon says she feels organics are more flavorful, mostly because they are seasonal. She shares convictions with many of her patrons that organics are more nutritious by nature. “Conventional vegetables are grown in dead soil with chemicals added to spur growth,” she says. “It’s like plastic produce. If you grow in dead matter, it can’t become truly alive.”

Pouillon, who is from Vienna, Austria, moved to the U.S. in the 1960s.

“I didn’t go to cooking school. I learned by myself. I’m very much into health, and I realized how much food is manipulated with pesticides and antibiotics,” she says.

She became inspired and in 1976 helped open a restaurant in Washington, D.C.’s Tabard Inn, a small hotel.

“I introduced organic there, but left in December of 1977,” she says. “It took us a year to open Nora.”

At first, finding product was difficult, but so was educating customers and the kitchen staff. “I wanted to put together a team that believed in pure food,” she says. When Pouillon started, she used perhaps 20% organic foods, but since 1999 has maintained a 95% organics standard to remain certified by Oregon Tilth, a certification agency.
Procuring organic produce is still a challenge, and Pouillon employs a full-time buyer because with many items there is only one variety or grower, especially for artichokes. “I can get them only two weeks a year and that’s not enough. The same with apricots,” she says.

In addition to California product, she buys locally starting in April until the first frost, typically November or December. “But things are plentiful (locally) only in two months, September and October,” she says.

Still, Pouillon’s committed to local food because it tastes fresher.

“In the beginning, the organic wholesaler didn’t like it when I dropped him (in the summer) and bought local. But now they are more educated themselves. The ones who used to buy California are now buying local too,” she says.

Seasonality drives the menu, which changes daily based on availability. There is always a vegetarian option, but the chef will cater to special dietary needs.

AVOIDS PIGEON-HOLING

For flavor, Pouillon draws mostly from Mediterranean influences, but she doesn’t feel pigeon-holed by the label. “In the Mediterranean, there’s France, Spain, Greece, Turkey, Tunisia — so many other countries with distinct, good flavors.

“It’s very seasonal,” she says. “You need fresh, flavorful vegetables prepared in a simple way so each vegetable can retain its flavor.”

Salads are one way to highlight seasonality, she says. In the winter, she adds roasted apples to leafy greens along with walnuts and goat cheese. In late summer, she tosses roasted peaches and goat cheese with the greens. Roasted pears, blue cheese and nuts also make a good salad topping, she says.

A common Mediterranean dish she prepares features fennel, peppers, olives and spring onions with a pan-seared fish topped with saffron and aioli, a garlic-flavored mayonnaise.

Other favorite seasonings include raz al hanout, harissa, olive oil, organic sea salt, curry, mustard and all types of peppers. “I’m more on the strong flavors, spicy side. I’m not a sweet person. I wouldn’t cook with sugar.

“I really love to saute,” she says. “I love to roast and grill at home, but at work it’s the sautes. Or sometimes I’ll pan-roast and pan-sear, then finish it off in the oven.”

HEALTH CONSCIOUSNESS

Not a great fan of cooking in butter, Pouillon also won’t let food soak up too much oil. This is a restaurant with many health-minded patrons, after all. “I don’t do much deep-fat frying, except for tempura and crispy onions (used atop steaks),” she says.

Vegetarian risotto and filet mignon are mainstays, but a popular dish is the chef’s menu, basically a four-course dinner of the chef’s choice, she says. “One day when 80 or 90 people dined, 24 people ate the chef’s menu.”

Recently, Pouillon branched out, opening Asia Nora, also in Washington, D.C. The restaurant uses many organic items but is not certified. “Many Asian items, like banana leaves, lime leaves and different spices are not available organically,” she says, adding that she probably will not open another location unless the right situation comes along.

“I would love to open an organic fast food chain to bring this taste to the people. For now, I’m thinking of writing another cookbook,” she says.

Until then, she will continue to push the cause of sustainability, though she believes the overall low cost of food hampers the ability of organic growers to remain profitable. “The giant corporate farms are soulless … food has lost its meaning. It’s like taking a pill.

“I don’t think many people connect agriculture with food. I think farmers and teachers are the least appreciated people, but the most important. We should pay them twice as much,” she says.