When it opened in 1979, so many presidential administrations ago, Restaurant Nora was unlike any other eatery in Washington. The gustatory landscape then was dominated by dark, masculine establishments with crepuscular lighting, meat, more meat and puddles of Old World
Nora’s was light, airy, healthy, with farm-fresh offerings, a riot of vegetables on the plate, a frisson of frisée. Says Nora Pouillon, the Nora, “It had a woman’s touch.” It was one of the few restaurants with a woman at the helm and her name on the door, and it was significantly ahead of the times.
After 36 years, Nora is still here, where it has long stood, in a former stable at Florida and R streets NW, an organic herb garden blooming by the kitchen door. Valerie Jarrett and a party of 20 White House staffers dined here the other night. The Obamas (the president staged a surprise birthday party for the first lady), the Clintons (many top officials were regulars), Nancy Reagan, the Carters, have all been patrons. “Everyone but the Bushes,” says Pouillon, although Laura Bush came once with her daughters.
But these are our salad days, with many restaurants serving similar fare. Kale is king and quinoa queen. Locavore reigns on menus so heavily annotated as to rival works by David Foster Wallace.
Nora’s, however, does organic on steroids — not that there would be a trace of those in her food — at what is billed as the nation’s first certified organic restaurant, as she reveals in “My Organic Life: How a Pioneering Chef Helped Shape the Way We Eat Today,” which is part polemic and part memoir, a polemoir — and no recipes. The book, co-authored with Laura Fraser, the project’s third collaborator, took three years to produce. Exacting and direct, the
Austrian-born Pouillon is many things, but easy, even admirers say, is not one of them. (Of course, hers is the very behavior that makes male chefs television celebrities.)
At Nora’s, water gets complicated — it’s triple-filtered, involving sand and charcoal. With sparkling water, patrons have a choice of small bubbles or large. (Apparently, there is a difference.) Pouillon recommends the triple-filtration mixed with a dash of small bubbles.
The waiters’ shirts are organic, washed in biodegradable soap. The carpet is biodegradable, too. Does this matter in terms of what’s on the plate?
“It matters to me, because so many people say they’re organic and they’re really not,” says Pouillon, who possesses the aristocratic bearing of a woman once courted by the son of a count. At 71, graced with high cheekbones, almond-shaped eyes, barely a line on her striking face, and a lithe body, she is the best advertisement for the organic life. “I really wanted to say that I go to these lengths to have everything organic, my salt and my pepper. I have to do it.”
Almost no other restaurant bothers. There are eight organic establishments in the nation approved by Oregon Tilth, a leading certifier — one of them, of all things, a Seattle doughnut shop.
The efforts required to maintain certified organic status seem like a spectacular headache (one that would, no doubt, be remedied homeopathically).
“It’s not difficult for me because I’m so used to it,” says Pouillon, sitting in the restaurant’s sun-drenched garden room. “But every chef who comes here can’t believe how much work it is. Many of them give up after a while. They feel that you can’t be really creative because many things aren’t available organically.”
How many people have passed through her kitchen? Pouillon estimates 50 chefs and sous chefs; the latest chef, James Martin, began in April.
“Oh, no, I would say it’s more like 157,” says Haidar Karoum of Proof, Doi Moi and Estadio. “She chews up chefs like they’re nothing.” And he’s a fan, a Nora veteran of nine years, seven as executive chef at the acclaimed, now-shuttered Asia Nora. “She’s brutal and demanding, rightfully so. Nora has a certain way that she wants things. If you’re not on the same page, she has no problem expressing herself.”
Pouillon doesn’t receive enough credit for what she has done, Karoum says. “She’s the Alice Waters of the East Coast,” he says, although Waters, who opened Chez Panisse in Berkeley eight years before Pouillon launched her restaurant, is far better known. “I think Nora’s dedication and commitment to the whole organic food and farm-to-table movement is something. It deserves more attention”
Pouillon helped establish FreshFarm Markets, the nonprofit collective of regional farmers markets. (She remains on the board, as well as on the boards of four other food and environmental groups.) As research and development chef, Pouillon developed menus for Fresh Fields, which was acquired by Whole Foods.
“She is a classic pioneer and has very strong opinions and very high goals,” says FreshFarm Co-Executive Director Ann Harvey Yonkers. “She is the classic example of a changemaker. They tend to be quite direct, very focused. It can be uncomfortable, but you don’t move the needle unless you’re like that.”
Patrick O’Connell, chef and owner of The Inn at Little Washington, which opened a year before Restaurant Nora, says that becoming a certified organic restaurant “was a wise decision. It gave her a very unique position. During the Clinton administration, Washington was filled with people who were concerned and interested with the quality of what they were eating,” he says. “It is so astonishing how much history has been packed into 35 years, most of it completely forgotten. Young kids today tend to think it was always this way but, back then, arugula was unheard of.”
Maintaining these exacting organic standards, “for me, it’s not so hard because I love it,” says Pouillon, who long ago gave up cooking, except for Sunday dinners with her family. Most weeknights, she can be found overseeing her domain at the lone table by the entrance and the bar. “I’m passionate about the cause. Perhaps I would hate it if I just cooked in a kitchen, but I cook with a mission. I have a mission to introduce people to food that is good for them.”
The restaurant, decorated with the same Amish crib quilts for decades, seems suspended in aged balsamic. As more establishments came to be like Nora, with its “grilled Amish pork chop, with sunchoke puree, carrots, asparagus, Swiss chard, elderflower jus,” the restaurant lost its distinctiveness.
Foodies flock to the latest place that’s drunk with buzz. And Nora’s prices are vertiginous — $38 entrees, $14 gin and tonic (with nasturtium garnish), $14 desserts — which will happen when the owner insists on running a strictly certified organic business. She shells out $200 for a case of organic lemons, while other restaurants spend less than a quarter of that for conventional ones.
Critics have not been kind. In 2010, The Washington Post’s Tom Sietsema gave Nora one-and-a-half stars, writing that “never have so many enhancements delivered so little flavor.” Former Post restaurant critic Phyllis Richman is no fan. “I think she gives herself more credit than I think she deserves for being the only and the original,” says Richman, who recalls Pouillon instructing her on when she should review the restaurant. “She has good intentions, and started with good ideas and good food, and her personality got in the way of that.”
For all Pouillon’s commitment to organic food, it may pale compared with her personal story. She is insistently candid. For the book cover, she wanted a seemingly nude photo of herself posed with a Vitamix blender. Her publisher nixed it. (She is in great shape, exercising daily. “It’s work to stay beautiful,” she says.) Her forthright nature, which can wilt staff, even friends, can be as refreshing as her gin and tonics. Her editor cut out some personal revelations, Pouillon says, and toned down others, “because Americans are just not ready for this.”
She was born Nora Aschenbrenner, a child of World War II, in a family that was more aristocratic in behavior than in wealth. In her memoir, Pouillon writes, “Although the war ended when I was just eighteen months old, I am surprised by how much I remember.” Nora, her mother and her sisters lived in a tiny town in the Tyrol, hiding Jewish friends. Her father, based in Vienna, made safety glass used by the military and visited when he could.
Her father was partial to healthy food and to affairs, both of which would become leitmotifs in Pouillon’s adulthood. At 21, she married Frenchman Pierre Pouillon, 17 years her senior and already demonstrating serious cad potential, as he was married when they started courting.
The couple moved to Washington, where he worked as a radio broadcaster at Voice of America, while Pouillon was aghast to find the supermarkets filled with products lacking in quality, nutrition or, for that matter, flavor. There were icebergs of iceberg lettuce — Pouillon shudders at the thought — but otherwise minimal produce. The bread, named Wonder, inspired none.
Pouillon became celebrated for entertaining — although, due to the size of the gatherings and her limited funds, the wine was invariably Gallo or Almaden, which she poured into an elegant French decanter. As a cook, Pouillon was largely self-taught, learning from family and neighbors in Austria, from friends and from cookbooks, especially those by English cookery titan Elizabeth David. But her European cooking and resourcefulness, finding three delicious ways to use one chicken, was held in awe by a smart set of Washington women who were sophisticated about so many things, but not about cooking.
So the cooking classes began, and a cult arose. For her classes, Pouillon shopped the ethnic markets of Adams Morgan. She was ever resourceful. She had two sons. Her husband had many affairs.
Then Pierre took up with the au pair. “Look,” she recalls telling him, “I can take you having an affair with anyone else, but don’t do it with her.”
Pierre did it with her.
In retaliation, Pouillon took up with the house contractor. Then, after landing her first chef job at the Tabard Inn, she took up with hotel manager Steven Damato. “In some ways it was ridiculous,” she writes. “He was barely twenty-one, and I was a thirty-three-year-old married mother of two children.”
Pouillon was the one to move out of the family home. “I’m sure there are a lot of women who do not agree that I left my kids with my husband,” she says. “I moved across the street, so they could see me all the time. I was working most of the time, so I only saw them on Sundays. They were upset in the beginning, but at the end, they were very proud of me. ”
In Damato, Pouillon met her match. “He was passionate, opinionated, and sometimes brusque and rude,” she writes. “From the start, our relationship was tumultuous.”
Says her friend Susan Sechler: “They were an awesome combination. They are both incredibly strong-willed.” They were together 33 years.
Pouillon opened Restaurant Nora in partnership with Damato and his brother Thomas. She writes that The Washington Post’s Sally Quinn, an initial investor with husband Ben Bradlee, advised, “Don’t mention anything about being healthy and natural. That sounds so unappetizing. That sounds like hippie food. Do lots of pasta. People love pasta.”
Pouillon had two daughters with Damato, whom she did not marry. She never divorced Pierre, who died in 1999.
“So I am a widow,” she shrugs. Later, she discovered that Damato was having a long-term affair with their daughters’ piano teacher. They split. The restaurateur has been on her own for five years.
She remains business partners with her ex-romantic partner — although he is more involved in a wholesale fish business — and his brother. It is all very European and makes for interesting reading, possibly more so than the triple-filtration water system and the biodegradable carpet.
As for revealing her personal life, “people told me it’s too much.” she says. But “I wanted to show people that I had the same kind of troubles, the same kind of events happening in my life than anyone else.”
And in spite of it all, 36 years later, she’s still running the restaurant, her name on the door, and her hand firmly on the helm.