Nora Pouillon is the chef and owner of two Washington D.C. restaurants, Nora and Asia Nora. Nora is a founding board member of Chefs Collaborative 2000 and author of Cooking with Nora.


Why does your restaurant choose to serve some kinds of seafoods and not others?

Because it matters where food comes from. As with all the food I serve, the origins of the food and the conditions in which that food was cultivated and harvested are central concerns. So many types of fish have been catastrophically overfished that they are near extinction. I cannot, in good conscience, contribute to that trend.

Do your clientele appreciate the fact that you serve organic and environmentally-friendly food?

Oh yes, I'm sure of it. In fact, I think it is part of the character of the restaurants. First, people have heard that we serve organic food and that we have the first certified organic restaurants; they seek us out and come from all over. Then they eat with us, and see how much better it tastes. People also learn more about organics and sustainable development; the back of the menus has some basic information, and all the servers are educated about the food and wine. I look at the restaurants as partly educational, and no one has ever accused me of being too didactic or preachy. If anything, I get requests for more information or explanations about why, for example, we don't serve swordfish. I feed those who already agree with my positions and those who need to be shown why it's a good idea to work and live in an environmentally conscious way.

Apart from educating people do you also feel that you're helping to empower your customers in their decisions about which food they choose to eat, thereby helping to change the way we fish?

Absolutely. People like to be able to make informed choices. It is difficult for people to keep abreast of all the developments in aquaculture and agriculture and biotech and so on. When they come to one of the restaurants, they can get at some of that information in a relaxing setting; no-one is shouting at them, telling them what to do. The food speaks for itself, and we can supplement this with the simple message that sustainable is best, and that every single person, every guest is empowered to make a difference by the choices they make. It is so important that people put themselves and what they eat in context. Non-organic food doesn't just have an impact on the person eating it, but on the farmer, on the land, on the atmosphere, on the water. In taking responsibility for yourself by eating organically, you are accepting our collective responsibility towards each other, the earth and to future generations who will also need to grow and catch and raise food, but may end up doing it on a denuded planet if we keep going the way we are. We've already destroyed so many mangrove swamps and coastlines.

Do you believe there is a growing number of people requesting organic food and environmentally-friendly seafood?

Certainly. 20 years ago, there was hardly any public awareness of organics and environmentally-friendly seafood. That started to change about 10 years ago, but, really, awareness didn't become mainstream until about 5 years ago. I think that had a lot to do with supermarkets like Whole Food/Fresh Fields and Wild Oats. They educate the consumer all the time about where food comes from, the distinctions between organic and non-organic, local and imported. Then they let the customer make a choice.

Of course awareness and availability are linked; 15 years ago it was difficult to get, for example, organic coffee, even if you wanted to. Or tuna. Look how long it took before dolphin-safe nets became an issue.

Has your philosophy and passion to provide dishes with organically-grown food and environmentally-friendly seafood helped your business?

I think so, and certification has also helped. People know absolutely that mine are clean, responsible restaurants. I think that it has helped the organic food industry in the US that Europe refused to accept genetically modified or hormone-treated US agricultural products. I mean, I think Americans were shocked when they realized that a whole continent was saying, "Hey, we don't want your food". I think it made people kind of pause and think, "If they don't want our food, maybe we shouldn't want it either." Really, I think public awareness was greatly heightened by the European boycott; people here were educated by the raised consciousness of the European market.

Have you noticed any correlation between seafood quality and the means by which it was caught or selected?

I have certain criteria that have to be met before I'll buy seafood. I don't like to buy my seafood from areas that are polluted, and I constantly try to educate myself about how the seafood is caught. So, for example, I only buy turtle-safe shrimp. Personally, I have to admit that I can't taste the difference between a turtle-safe shrimp and a regular shrimp, but it definitely makes me feel better to know that I am not enjoying my shrimp at the expense of the turtles. In other fish, however, flavor is a contributing factor to the decision. I mean, if you eat fish drawn from heavily-polluted waters, contaminated with heavy metals, exposed to a lot of waste dumping and so on, then you taste it. It's revolting -- to you, to the planet, to the fishermen.

To what degree do you serve farm-raised seafood and what are your criteria for including it on the menu?

I do everything I can to avoid serving farm-raised seafood. In general, running an organic restaurant is much harder than a regular restaurant. Where regular restaurants may deal with only 3 or 4 vendors, we deal with ten times that and it's often a hassle. For example, we have to go to the airport to pick up the turtle-safe shrimp. So when I can't get wild seafood, I may serve some raised. Having said that, I make my preference known; I try to use my purchasing power to let vendors know either that I support them or that I would support them more if they got things I could really feel good about serving, such as wild seafood. Every consumer can - and should - do that.

I just got back from a trip to Oregon, and I really got a sense of the scope of the problem with the salmon. Talking to people working in aquaculture about the way that salmon are raised showed me that it's often no different or better from the antibiotic-pumped, barn-raised cattle herds. I won't buy from those fish farms. I research all my producers and farmers for all my food, and I find that people get a sense of what you want and what you expect and will accept even just by the questions you ask.

How do you monitor the status of the various wild marine fishery stocks so you know what's overfished and what isn't?

I just try to stay informed. I receive a lot of environmental publications. I am part of Sea Web. In fact, when it became clear that most swordfish was sold to restaurants, Sea Web invited me to educate other chefs about the depletion of Atlantic swordfish stocks. That was the Give Swordfish A Break campaign, and I think it was very successful. We were able to get the word out, and now people know about swordfish and fewer places stock it and fewer people buy it. I mean, public awareness pushed the government to issue regulations on the subject.

I have friends at all sorts of environmental organizations. For example, it was a friend at the Consumer Choice Council who turned me on to the turtle-safe shrimp. The Audubon List is a resource that I would recommend to anyone. In many ways, I am lucky to be in Washington where there are so many groups and activists in this area at international, national and local levels. It makes it much easier to get good information.

Do you think consumers have to question the origin of the seafood they buy?

Yes, I think that's important with all food. I don't know why it has taken people so long to start to ask questions about what it is they put in their mouths, where it comes from and how it got there.

Fish has become much more popular, yet the way that fleets and governments have responded to that popularity almost guarantees that that demand cannot be met and that our resources will be destroyed - our waters are overfished, our waters are polluted. We have treated the seas like dumps; why would anyone think it a good idea to eat something that was yanked out of the dump? Yet, this is precisely the way people must think about most of the fish they are offered.