Washington City Paper: With D.C.’s Certified-Organic Pioneer Bowing Out, ‘Handshake Organic’ is the New Normal

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From the Washington City Paper by Lani Furbank:

“D.C. became home to the country’s first certified organic restaurant in 1999, thanks to trailblazing Chef Nora Pouillon. Only a handful of restaurants across the country have followed suit, and no other establishment in D.C. has earned the stamp. But by summer’s end, Pouillon plans to retire and sell Restaurant Nora. Though the city will no longer have any certified organic dining spots, that doesn’t mean there won’t be organic food on local menus.

The world of organic certification for everything from farms to packaged goods is one of boundless complexity, with regulations, applications, inspections, and fees. For a restaurant, that complexity is amplified. “That’s a very difficult thing to do, to be certified organic,” Pouillon says. “You have to be passionate and crazy, as I am.”

The organic label is regulated by the USDA’s National Organic Program. To be certified, a product must comply with a “set of cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that support the cycling of on-farm resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.” Produce, for example, is grown without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, while livestock are raised without hormones. Certifications can be administered by a variety of accredited organizations.

When Pouillon set out to certify her restaurant, guidelines for a food service establishment didn’t exist. Oregon Tilth, a West Coast organization, agreed to work with her to develop a set of regulations that would suit the operations of a small-scale restaurant, rather than a farm or corporation. “I had to prove that 95 percent of whatever comes in the restaurant is certified organic,” Pouillon explains. Meeting this stringent standard was a simple decision for Pouillon because she had been building an organic foundation since opening.

When Pouillon first moved to the United States in the 1960s, she was appalled at the unhealthy food she found. She sought out local farmers and clean food to feed her family, and when she opened her own restaurant, she continued this practice. “I couldn’t kill my customers,” she jokes. “Food that is grown without any pesticides or synthetic fertilizer is better for you and keeps you healthier.”

In the 1980s, there were hardly any certified organic ingredients to work with, but Pouillon chipped away at her goal by convincing farmers to become certified and educating the public about the benefits of organic food. Now she works primarily with Tuscarora Organic Growers Cooperative (which she helped launch), Albert’s Organic, Coastal Sunbelt, and United Natural Foods.

Demand for organic products has seen double-digit growth nearly every year since the 1990s, and organic sales account for more than 4 percent of total U.S. food sales, according to the USDA. But Pouillon says she’s been unable to find a buyer who wants to keep her kitchen organic.

For starters, it’s still more expensive to buy organic products than conventional ones—about 20 percent more—according to Pouillon. Then there’s the exacting responsibility of managing an organic kitchen. Pouillon juggles numerous vendors, varying delivery schedules, and erratic product availability. Potential buyers have told her that running an organic restaurant is too costly and too complicated.

With Pouillon’s imminent plan to bow out of restaurants, will there be still be places to eat for diners who crave organic food above all else? Yes, because many D.C. chefs value organically grown products, saying they are typically higher quality. But instead of focusing on an organic label, these chefs nurture direct relationships with “handshake organic” farmers.

“I think there’s so many responsible farmers nowadays doing the right thing,” says Chef Rob Weland of Garrison. Instead of relying on an outside certification agency, he works with with farmers one-on-one. “It’s super important that chefs visit the farm and have a relationship with the farmer.”

Chef Spike Gjerde of Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore and the forthcoming Adams Morgan restaurant A Rake’s Progress agrees talking to farmers directly is the best strategy. “I’m open to the conversation around why a farmer doesn’t choose to be certified organic if they are practicing or using organic practices,” he says. One farmer told Gjerde that an organic label would only be useful if he sold his products in a grocery store, rather than directly to his customers.

Chef Marjorie Meek-Bradley of Smoked & Stacked also values local relationships over a label. “For me, local always takes priority over organic, and a lot of times smaller farms can’t really afford to be certified organic,” she says.

Weland, who uses ingredients from his own organic garden plots as well as local farms, is advantageously positioned to certify his restaurant as organic. He says 50 to 60 percent of his food is certified organic, while an even higher percentage is organic but not certified. But Weland isn’t considering it because of the certification fees, which vary based on a restaurant’s gross revenue.

“I think we really diligently source and have good relationships, and that’s more important to me than being certified organic,” he says. “I have the utmost respect for what Nora did; I just think it’s very, very hard to do.”

Even for a place like The Restaurant at Patowmack Farm in Lovettsville, Virginia, where organic has always been a hallmark, certification doesn’t have the allure it once did. The farm itself was the first to be certified organic in Virginia, but it has only kept that status sporadically since then. The restaurant has never been certified. “We do all the organic practices already,” says Chef Tarver King. “It’s just such a pain, and really at the end of the day … it doesn’t really pay off.”

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Featured photo by Darrow Montgomery for the Washington City Paper.