By Lisa Comento, Foodable Contributor
Restaurant Nora opened its doors in 1979 and was America's first certified organic restaurant. Many years later, the concept continues to thrive on the creativity and culinary innovation of chef and owner, Nora Pouillon, along with the support of her two partners, brothers Thomas and Steven Damato who have been with her since day one.
How it All Started and the Chef's Idyllic Childhood on the Farm
Nora grew up in Austria where her father leased a working farm in the Alps during World War II. She recalls even as a toddler being fascinated by farm life- from watching how the farmer’s wife milked to cows and separated the milk from the cream. Then her grandmother made for the kids to have with strawberries and cake from the fresh whipped cream. It was at this early age, where she started learning from her grandmother about the different parts of a chicken and how to prepare them.
She remembers picking fresh heads of lettuce with her mother from the gardener to take home, drizzling the salad with sunflower oil and tarragon vinegar, and the smells of chicken cooking or fresh butter lingering in the kitchen.
One fond memory is of her grandmother wishing everyone good health instead of have a good time. “Health is the most important thing in life,” her grandmother was often known to say. These healthy habits inspired Nora and the healthy eating concept is the foundation of her restaurant.
Bringing the Farm to the Table
“I have always been for natural foods, raw foods and foods without any antibiotics, hormones or pesticides—good tasting and wholesome food,” said Pouillon. Those with food allergies or restrictions, for example, feel comfortable knowing her food will not have any added chemicals. Her Mediterranean style menu is flavorful and diversified which she feels has attributed to the on-going success of her restaurant.
When she first moved to this country with her husband in the 1960s, restaurants were scarce. And the availability of fresh bread and fresh herbs was also scarce. Once she had children and cooking was more in demand, she searched international markets for wholesome natural foods. Cooking for her family grew into cooking for friends at dinner parties. She soon started her own cooking class or school and catering business, which began opening even more business opportunities in Washington, D.C.
In those days, her cooking budget for the family was $50 a week for four dinners. The cookbook, “How to Eat Better for Less Money” by James Beard was her bible! Restaurant Nora was a natural progression stemming from her passion for food. While working at the Tabard Inn located in Washington, D.C. she met her two partners the rest, as they say, is restaurant history.
A turning point came in 1997 when she began looking for a certification agency to certify her restaurant as organic. The biggest challenges were finding products and farms that would also become certified. Once she discovered a third-party certification agency, Oregon Tilth, they worked together for less than two years to meet the organic standards for restaurants.
In 1999, thanks to Nora’s efforts, Restaurant Nora became the first ever certified organic restaurant in the country. Her dynamic business practices are not only healthy for her customers– but are healthy for the environment.
On April 21, 2015 her memoir, "My Organic Life: How a Pioneering Chef Helped Shape the Way We Eat Today" will be released. Pouillon will be featured on the Diane Rehm Show that day and you can listen at WAMU.org.