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Organic pioneer Nora Pouillon wins James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award

Nora Pouillon (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

Nora Pouillon, the chef whose eponymous Washington restaurant paved the way for other chefs to cook with local, organic ingredients, will be honored with a James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award, the foundation announced Tuesday. She will accept the prize at the James Beard Awards on May 1, in Chicago.

“To get a Michelin star – for me, that would not be as much as getting this award,” said Pouillon.

The award is especially poignant because it reminded her of the time that James Beard himself dined at her restaurant in the early 1980s, a few years before the death of the prolific author, TV host and cooking teacher.

“James Beard was my big hero. He believed in local, seasonal food, and he cooked delicious food, but simple food, and that’s what I wanted to do,” she said. “He came to the restaurant —  he had so much terrible gout, he came in his slippers — and we sat at the bar.”

There, she opened up to him about how difficult it was to get diners in her adopted country to understand her philosophy about food.

“I told him I was struggling with the Americans because I had to buy whole animals, and no one wants to eat liver or kidney,” she said. “He said, ‘Just keep on doing what you’re doing, and they’ll come around.'”

Organic pioneer Nora Pouillon plans to retire, sell her eponymous restaurant

Austrian-born Pouillon, 73, moved to Washington in the 1960s with her French journalist husband and was shocked at the unhealthful food she saw here. She began a cooking school in her home, and opened Restaurant Nora in 1979. It was the first restaurant in the nation to become certified organic, inspiring a generation of chefs to source the best ingredients from farms with sustainable practices. She also became a female chef-owner in an era when they were scarce.

“As the first chef to open an all-organic restaurant over 38 years ago, Nora has truly impacted the way people and the industry think about the food we eat,” said Susan Ungaro, president of the James Beard Foundation, in a press release.

Pouillon also helped establish FreshFarm Markets, the network of Washington-area farmers markets, and she serves on the boards of several environmental non-profits. In 2015, she published a memoir, “My Organic Life.” Her restaurant was mentioned in Washington’s first Michelin Guide, which called Pouillon “the Alice Waters of D.C.”

The award is coming at exactly the right moment: In October, Pouillon announced that she is preparing to retire, and sell her restaurant. When she was notified of the award, “I said, ‘Just in the nick of time.'” She hopes to sell the business and its building to a chef who will continue her legacy of healthy food, if not her onerous organic certification. She has taken meetings with a few interested parties, but does not have a buyer yet.

The award also came at a good time for her morale.

“I am very happy I got this honor right now. I needed to be cheered up. What is coming with our new administration and government looks like it is not very uplifting for me,” said Pouillon. “With all the things I was passionate about, I tried to influence people and convince them to live a better, more sustainable lifestyle and think more about the future, and now it seems like we are going backwards.”