Organic Trailblazer Nora Pouillon Reflects on Her Legacy
The nation's first certified organic restaurant will soon have a new owner, but the impact of its founder will carry on.
Part of what excites Nora Pouillon about the future is the uncertainty. She has helmed her eponymous Washington, D.C., restaurant for so long that one employee, who swam across the Rio Grande when he was 17, is now approaching middle age. Another long-timer is in his 60s. She’s watched staff not just grow up, but grow old. While retiring was an idea Pouillon kicked around for the past “six months to a year,” she only recently announced her decision to walk away from Restaurant Nora, which opened in 1979, for good. On that note, however, she is sure about one detail.
“I’m not selling it to McDonald’s,” she says.
So who will be taking over one of the organic movement’s true nerve centers? Pouillon isn’t sure and, maybe, she explains, that isn’t really a bad thing. Restaurant Nora became the country’s first organic certified restaurant in 1999. She admits that distinction will likely end the same time her ownership does.
Despite the rise of the health-vigilant consumer and the omnipresent farm-to-table culture, very few restaurants actually fight through the red tape of certification. It took Pouillon two years to meet the standards of agency Oregon Tilth. Ninety-five percent of everything that comes into Nora’s must be certified organic, which makes sourcing a rocky and onerous task. It raises menu prices. Even the soap is chlorine free and biodegradable.
“I can’t use certain chocolates. I can’t use certain vinegars. I can’t use certain oils,” Pouillon says.
From a strictly ROI perspective, it’s much easier just to stamp organic on a menu. Pouillon understands that reality, but it’s just not who she is.
Austrian born, Pouillon moved to the nation’s capital in the 1960s and taught herself to cook. She didn’t want to eat American food, which was almost celebrated for its excessive and gluttonous nature. Restaurant Nora sprung to life in an old grocery store in D.C.’s District—the concept’s first connection to the ingredients that would define its history.
“I think that is my biggest legacy,” she says. “I showed many people that healthy doesn’t mean not flavorful. Many people in the beginning would say, ‘Oh healthy, that’s tofu and bean sprouts.’ For them, it wasn’t what they wanted. They wanted their glass of wine and steak and potatoes. I tried to give them all these things but just certified organic so they could see the difference. So they could see how they feel afterwards, and they could see that there is actually a way of eating out there other than what they have been doing.”
Pouillon, who recently turned 73, has four children and five grandchildren. Watching her work incalculable hours over the decades, and perhaps just the weight of this legacy in general, has discouraged Restaurant Nora from becoming a family business. Yet all of her children have absorbed Pouillon’s spirit for social betterment. Her 48-year-old son runs a biodynamic winery in Washington State. His brother, who is 46, has a career in waste management. One daughter operates a sustainable fish business and the other is an interpreter for the deaf and blind, speaks nine languages, and teaches visually impaired people to use computers.
“I’m very proud of all of them. I think I’ve had some influence,” Pouillon says. “They’ve all found a way to express themselves and still be environmentally conscious. “
Pouillon first offered the restaurant to Haidar Karoum, a former chef at Asia Nora, Pouillon’s fusion brand. He graciously turned it down. That’s left the future of Restaurant Nora wide open. Pouillon says she doesn’t expect the new owner to adhere to her standards, but she will be selective when browsing offers.
“It’s their name on the front door, so they can do what they want,” she says. “But it would be a shame if they don’t at least continue, in some way, in that direction. This historic corner has made its name being healthy, sustainable, certified organic, and environmentally conscious. Health has always been my biggest thing.”
As for what’s next in Pouillon’s life, she expects to stay busy. She plans to return to working on her memoirs, which were released last summer and are called “My Organic Life.” She says some recipes might be added. Pouillon will also have time to travel, visit her sister for longer than "a couple of weeks at a time," participate in the five boards she serves on, and, of course, juggle the duties of leading a large family.
Pouillon will also continue speaking on the importance of organic cuisine. She hopes this conversation will eventually mature past the safety net of local sourcing and into something much deeper.
“I think it’s just a learning curve for everybody and it takes a lot of effort. Many people don’t want to change their routine and don’t want to make the effort. They feel like they don’t want to make the effort and that people don’t care,” she says. “But more and more people care. We cared everyday, and I think people loved and trusted us because of it.”