Georgetown Current

Legendary Organic Chef Prepares to Move On

February 23, 2017

By Mark Lieberman
Current Staff Writer

Nora Pouillon, a venerated organic chef with some 40 years of experience in D.C.’s culinary scene, recalls an odd moment early in her career that convinced her she was going down the right path.

Since she was a child, Pouillon has sought organic foods even if it meant paying more or enduring greater difficulty. That wasn’t so strange in Austria, where she spent her childhood and early adulthood. But when she moved to the U.S., she said, she was surprised how little Americans seemed to care about the additives and hormones in their store-bought food.

But then, in the early 1970s, Pouillon ordered organic beef from a farm in Pennsylvania, and was surprised to learn that she would have to retrieve the delivery on a side street near Chevy Chase Circle. Women in station wagons lined up in the minutes before the tractor trailer arrived, hopped out to collect the beef, returned to their cars and sped away. “It was like a drug deal,” Pouillon said.

This instance helped solidify her belief that organic food ought not be a secret any longer — and it later became a mainstay at her Dupont Circle eatery, Restaurant Nora. Now, at age 73, the Georgetown resident is working to retire and sell her restaurant. At a “Q&A Cafe” event in the George Town Club on Thursday, Pouillon appeared reflective on her impact on the city’s food culture — and slightly restless about her post-restaurant future.

Restaurant Nora has been located at 2132 Florida Ave. NW since 1979, and in 1999 it became the nation’s first restaurant to earn organic certification, having demonstrated that 95 percent of its ingredients come from organic farmers, growers and suppliers.

Pouillon, the restaurant’s owner and head chef, announced her retirement in October but plans to wait until she sells the business before establishing a firm end date. She’s in the process of negotiating with a few prospective buyers, she told The Current, but no deal is final yet. She asked several of her D.C. chef colleagues if they’d be interested in taking over her restaurant, but they all declined — maintaining organic certification is a daunting task that only a handful of chefs nationwide are willing to take on, she says.

Despite her undeniable bona fides, Pouillon never attended culinary school and didn’t grow up intending to become a chef. When she moved to the States in the early ’70s, she taught cooking classes and made meals for her husband. Eventually, she took a job as a chef at the Tabard Inn, 1739 N St. NW. It was the hotel’s first restaurant, and owner Fritzi Cohen took a chance on her. It paid off.

Pouillon opened her namesake restaurant decades before the city’s now-flourishing culinary scene had diversified, and she said convincing customers to try a restaurant with an unfamiliar concept was a challenge.

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For Pouillon, the benefits of organic food go beyond the nutritional value. It’s also more filling and substantial than non-organic food, which means a smaller portion can constitute a full meal. Still, convincing others requires patience and a team of strong partners, she said. “It’s not just that you decide to call yourself organic,” she said.

Now that organic food has become trendy, the word has come to signify less than it did before. When “Q&A Cafe” moderator Carol Joynt asked Pouillon whether she trusts that Whole Foods offers as much organic food as it touts, she didn’t hold back. “I’m amazed how little is organic,” she said. “I might as well go to Safeway.”

Pouillon’s other legacies in the city include helping establish Dupont Circle’s FreshFarm organic market, which spawned numerous other neighborhood markets citywide, and setting a precedent for women to take leadership positions in the culinary world.

Eventually, she began to reap the dividends from her ambitious project. She says the Clinton White House approached her about becoming its designated chef, but she had to turn down the offer because she wasn’t an American citizen at the time. The Clintons visited her restaurant numerous times, particularly once Bill Clinton had finished his two terms, Pouillon said. When Joynt asked her what she would have done in the White House job, Pouillon replied sardonically, “Probably kill myself.”

In 2010, President Barack Obama hosted a surprise birthday party for Michelle at Restaurant Nora. More recently, the Bravo reality series “Top Chef Masters” asked her to compete. That offer would have intrigued her a couple decades earlier, she said, but not when she was in her 60s. “You’re a little late asking me,” she told producers.

In January, she learned she’ll be honored this spring with a James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award, which she prizes above a Michelin star, she told The Washington Post.

Even as Restaurant Nora is winding down, business remains vibrant: Pouillon says she sold 50 filet mignons this past Valentine’s Day alone. She said she’ll miss the kind words from her customers, the diligence of her staff, and — most of all — her food. She’s touched many lives along the way: Joynt said she ate at the restaurant the night she found out she was pregnant with her son, and at Thursday’s event, Pouillon’s former employee Lisa Tumminello declared proudly that working with her was “the best job I’ve ever had.”

But with retirement approaching, Pouillon will have a little more time to consider other ideas. She says she has long dreamed of opening an organic equivalent to McDonald’s: “I love hamburgers, I think it’s a great way to eat,” she says. Alternatively, she’d love to transform a vacant gas station into a drive-thru restaurant serving full organic lunch and dinner.

Whether either of these ideas comes to fruition remains to be seen. In the meantime, she’ll remain fervent in her quest to keep her diet organic, and to encourage others to do the same. She’s proud of her legacy as D.C.’s original organic restaurateur, but she hopes someone will pick up the mantle.

“You have to make the decision sometime, right?” Pouillon told The Current. “I felt that it was time to move on to the next thing.”

This article appears in the Feb. 22 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.

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Agency Adopts Concept for Boathouses

February 16, 2017

By Mark Lieberman
Current Staff Writer

A long-gestating plan to build new non-motorized boathouses along the Potomac riverfront in Georgetown was finalized Monday by the National Park Service, though detailed design and implementation remain a long way off.

The Park Service has essentially formalized an iteration of the plan presented to the community last summer, which establishes a maximum development envelope for possible facilities. With this overview in place, the next step is to create detailed designs for each piece and seek community feedback, agency spokesperson Jeremy Barnum told The Current. He couldn’t provide a detailed timeline or estimated cost for the project, but finalizing the initial plans represents “significant progress,” he wrote in an email.

“What we have to do now is reach out to the various partners who are interested in this and go from there,” he said in an interview.

The agency’s proposal, generated after several rounds of back-and-forth with community stakeholders, would allow a three-story, 13,800-square-foot boathouse between the waterfront park and the Key Bridge; a three-story boathouse of between 3,600 and 7,200 square feet just west of the bridge; a two-story, 6,000-square-foot boathouse between the Potomac Boat Club and Washington Canoe Club; and a canoe/kayak launch area beyond the canoe club that could include a 2,700-square-foot storage building. The proposal doesn’t include any architectural plans for the buildings, which will require extensive review at the local and federal level when they become available.

The plan also proposes altering the streetscape near the entrance to the Capital Crescent Trail on Water Street, with two travel lanes and a shared bike lane, as well as a 30-foot-radius cul-de-sac and between 26 and 36 parking spaces. The D.C. Department of Transportation would be responsible for implementing this portion.

As a further aspect of the work, the Capital Crescent Trail would be widened to 10 feet and continued on the south side of Water Street, connecting it to Georgetown Waterfront Park. Other planned upgrades include an expanded kayak rental facility and a rehabilitation of the Washington Canoe Club building, 3700 Water St. NW.

Community leaders have been supportive of the prospect of new boathouses overall but circumspect about various particulars. Bob vom Eigen, president of Citizens Association of Georgetown, told The Current he remains skeptical that the Park Service will find the funding for these projects and uncertain that the planned boathouses will revitalize the riverfront area to the degree the agency is promising.

“It’s not clear that the growing community is going to embrace the highly rigid design that they’ve concocted,” vom Eigen said. He’s frustrated that the Park Service doesn’t appear open to substantially revising its plans, though the agency has said particulars could change as the design progress.

For its part, Georgetown University is “grateful to the Park Service for its leadership on this important effort to expand public access to the river” and plans to stay active in future discussions of the boathouse project, according to spokesperson Rachel Pugh. George Washington University didn’t respond to a request for comment in time for publication.

In August, Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2E (Georgetown, Burleith) urged the Park Service not to let a large boathouse interfere with views of the river and the Key Bridge.

Commissioners haven’t had a chance to review the latest update, chair Joe Gibbons told The Current on Tuesday, but ANC 2E will be closely monitoring the impact on traffic from this project and others happening simultaneously in that area, he said.

Meanwhile, C&O Canal Association first vice president Rod Mackler remains pleased with the progress on the project after years of delays.

He’s particularly enthusiastic about the prospect of revitalizing the vacant lot west of the waterfront park and improving safety for pedestrians at the Water Street entrance to the trail. He shares ANC 2E’s preliminary concerns about oversized boathouses, though.

“There is a lot yet to be designed and done as the design phase comes about. We’re keeping an eye on those things, whether the boathouses grow and become disproportionate to the Washington waterfront,” Mackler said. “Generally speaking we’re positive about this document.”

The Georgetown Business Improvement District is also optimistic about the plans and looks forward to contributing further to them, according to president and CEO Joe Sternlieb.

This article appears in the Feb. 15 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.

The Feb. 15 article “Agency adopts concept for boathouses” incorrectly states that the Washington Canoe Club building has been condemned. Portions of the building are unoccupied due to safety concerns, but the club remains active in the rest of the building.

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Deal Teacher Wins School System’s Top Honor

February 9, 2017

By Kate Magill
Current Correspondent

Jan Schuettpelz, a seventh-grade science teacher at Alice Deal Middle School, recently won D.C. Public Schools’ top honor as the Teacher of the Year.

Schuettpelz learned of her award Feb. 1, in her classroom full of cheering students, as D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and newly appointed Chancellor Antwan Wilson made the announcement.

“I am just always inspired by the students to try to bring my best every day,” Schuettpelz said moments after she received the award in the Tenleytown school. “I think it’s just a passion for what I do, and for trying to make science come alive for them, so that they might be our next great scientists.”

The school system’s annual award comes with a $10,000 prize, and nominations can come from students, parents and community members. Schuettpelz will be recognized alongside other honorees at the Standing Ovation for D.C. Public Schools event on March 13 at the Kennedy Center.

“When we look to find the Teacher of the Year, we look to find teachers that have demonstrated that their students are growing, who have demonstrated that their colleagues ... look up to them, that they have an unquenchable thirst to learn, and to grow and to be better,” Deputy Mayor for Education Jennie Niles said following the announcement.

Schuettpelz was recognized for her innovative lessons in the classroom as well as for her extracurricular efforts with students, including founding the Girls STEM Science Club and the “Mighty Girls Book Club” at Deal.

She also participated in the Inspired Teaching Institute last school year, in which she built on skills to create more “engagement-based instruction.” The institute is run in partnership with D.C. Public Schools, as part of an effort to strengthen teachers’ practices and to foster professional development.

A Woodley Park resident, Schuettpelz is now in her fourth year at Deal, and her 19th year as a teacher.

She credited her students with pushing her to grow as an educator. “We have the greatest humans in the District right here, they’re amazing,” Schuettpelz said. Her students, she said, “come in and work hard every day, [and] inspire me to come up with interesting lessons.”

The award announcement Feb. 1 also marked Wilson’s first official appearance as D.C. school’s chancellor. He comes to the District from Oakland, Calif., where he served as the superintendent of schools.

Wilson expressed his excitement to build on the progress that Bowser’s administration has made in improving the city’s school system, including an increased focus on middle schools. He said one of his top priorities is to create school environments in which students feel valued and challenged.

“Quite simply we want to focus on excellence in education and equity,” Wilson said, “making sure our students know that we are preparing them — not just to be successful while they’re in school, which is extremely important, but we’re preparing them for what’s going to meet them when they graduate. And we expect them to graduate.”

He also emphasized the importance of social and emotional learning for students, in order to foster self-awareness and self-motivation.

One of Wilson’s goals in his first year in office is to visit every school in the District, a process he has already begun. After touring several classrooms at Deal last Wednesday, he mentioned how impressed he was with the engaged educators.

“I love being in classrooms because I’m often mesmerized by how teachers captivate students’ attention,” Wilson said. “At the end of the day, a good classroom is one where students are challenged, where they are put in positions to be successful.”

This article appears in the Feb. 8 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.

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