Legendary Organic Chef Prepares to Move On

Photo by Courtesy of Carol Joynt
Carol Joynt, right, interviewed Nora Pouillon about her career
Carol Joynt, right, interviewed Nora Pouillon about her career

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.