Years before farm-to-table, sustainable, organic kale was on the menu at seemingly every restaurant in the District, you would find it at one restaurant — and that restaurant was Nora’s. The rustic but elegant dining room bordering Kalorama was the first restaurant in the country to be certified organic, inspiring a generation of chefs to shop locally for high-quality ingredients.
Self-taught, Austrian-born chef Nora Pouillon has spread the gospel of farm-fresh locavorism far and wide, and, her mission now accomplished, she has decided to put her namesake restaurant out to pasture. She intends to sell the 37-year-old restaurant and its building, and retire as soon as she can find the proper buyer.
“I have to accept the fact that I am just getting too old,” said Nora, who will turn 73 this month. “At the beginning it was, for me, sort of a shock to think that the restaurant, after all these years, does not continue. You always hope that somebody continues with your name.”
Her four children did not want the restaurant. “They have seen their mother slave away,” she said. She’s not so sure she would have wanted them to take it, either. She knows the toll that the business takes on family life.
“I have, soon, five grandchildren. My daughter is expecting any day,” she said. “I really never had time to be a grandmother.”
But don’t expect Pouillon to leave her restaurant without having a say in what will take its place. She’s looking for a buyer who will continue her legacy.
“That would be ideal — somebody that would continue under his name, but with the same philosophy,” she said. Or, barring that, “somebody that continues at least with local, and perhaps keeps the healthy aspect.”
She expects, though, that the restaurant’s organic certification will end when her ownership of it does. There are only a handful of such restaurants in the country because the requirements are extremely onerous: All of the food that comes into Nora’s kitchen must be certified organic, which is reflected in her menu prices. Even her table linens are laundered in chlorine-free biodegradable soap.
“I realized that it’s so difficult to be certified organic. I don’t think I would find anybody who would do it,” she said. “You have to be a little crazy.”
Pouillon’s career and topsy-turvy personal life have been documented in her memoir, released last summer, called “My Organic Life.” A young woman married to a French journalist, she moved to Washington in the 1960s and found “a culinary nightmare.” Horrified by how unhealthy American food could be, she taught herself to cook and then began to teach others. After a stint in the kitchen at the Tabard Inn, she bought a former grocery store and opened Restaurant Nora in 1979. Female chef-owners are still, regrettably, rare, but in those days, they were almost nonexistent.
“I believe that Nora forever will be a heroine of the food scene of D.C.,” said chef José Andrés. “To me, she deserves everything. She’s shown us the way.”
The restaurant was one of the approximately 100 to get a mention in D.C.’s first Michelin Guide, released last Thursday, though it did not receive any stars. In their write-up, inspectors praised the vegetarian tasting menu and called Pouillon “the Alice Waters of D.C.”
It took her two years to develop the standards for an organic restaurant with the certification agency Oregon Tilth. The restaurant became certified in 1999.
The fact that there aren’t more certified organic restaurants is “sort of depressing,” she said. “I was hoping there would be more, but often restaurants perhaps strive toward doing it, but after awhile they lost interest, because they figured their clientele didn’t really care.”
That may be because talking a good game about farm-to-table food is, for many customers, no different from proving those bona fides through certification, as Nora does.
“They don’t understand that you cannot just say ‘I’m organic.’ You basically have to prove it,” she said.
It also disappoints her that her proteges have not taken the same path.
“In 37 years I went through, I think, 40 different chefs,” she said, “And none of them — none of them — has an organic restaurant. They all do their own thing.”
One of them is Haidar Karoum, former chef of Proof, Estadio and Doi Moi.
Pouillon was “very influential in terms of how I think about food,” he said. But when he opened Proof, he never considered organic certification, even though he bought from the same farms he did while a chef at Asia Nora, Pouillon’s fusion offshoot.
“I think my staff were able to explain that to guests without making it a thing,” he said. Working for Nora, “I saw what was great about [certification], and what was not so great about it. It really demands . . . a full-time position of somebody who is just doing buying. It’s extremely difficult to get the certification, even more to maintain it.”
Pouillon offered him the first chance to buy her business — he recently struck out on his own — but he turned her down.
“I feel like every spot wants to be something. I feel like that’s a place that should always have linens and a certain style,” he said. Although he was honored to be considered, “What I’m going to be doing is going to be a little less formal. I didn’t think it was the right fit.”
So the hunt begins. She doesn’t expect the eventual buyer to be from the District — maybe the West Coast, she thinks. She declined to discuss the price. It will take a while, maybe as long as a year. That’s good news for her regulars, who will have more time to partake. Still, she expects “they will be furious.”
But Pouillon has made peace with her decision.
“I think it’s easier for me to think that somebody will take it over, and not keep the name and do something that I wouldn’t approve of,” she said. “I think that I am past that. I think that whoever buys it, I just wish him the best.”