Chef, restaurateur, and author
Born Nora Aschenbrenner in 1943, in Vienna, Austria; married Pierre Pouillon (a journalist; divorced); companion of Steven Damato; children: Alexis, Olivier (from first marriage), Nina, Nadia (with Damato).
Addresses: Office —Nora, 2132 Florida Ave. NW, Washington, DC; Asia Nora, 2213 M Street NW, Washington, DC.
Chef, restaurant at Tabard Inn, c. 1976; founder, co-owner, and chef, Restaurant Nora (organic restaurant), Washington, D.C., 1979—; opened second restaurant City Café, 1986, revamped as Asia Nora (Asian fusion), 1994; published cookbook Nora: Cooking in a Healthy Way, 1994, published as Cooking with Nora: Seasonal Menus from Restaurant Nora, 1996; lobbyist, Public Voice for Food and Health Policy, 1998; spokesperson for "Give North Atlantic Sword-fish a Break" campaign for NRDC/SeaWeb, 1998-2000; Restaurant Nora certified organic, 1999; created organic frozen dinners with Green Circle Organics, late 1990s-early 2000s; consultant, Fresh Fields Wholefoods Market and Walnut Acres Organic Foods.
Member: Les Dames d'Escoffier, Washington, D.C. chapter; International Association of Women Chefs and Restaurateurs; Chefs Collaborative 2000 (founding board member); International Committee on Alternative and Complementary Medicine.
Awards: U.S.A. Chef of the Year, American Tasting Institute, 1996; Catherine B. Sweeney Award, American
Austria-born chef and restaurateur Nora Pouillon owns the first certified organic restaurant in the United States, Restaurant Nora, located in Washington, D.C. Pouillon had sought out the certification as she was an active supporter of organic foods. Pouillon later opened a second restaurant, Asia Nora, in the same city, which was as organic as possible. An activist in food-related causes and education, she also published a cookbook full of recipes inspired by her organic cooking. As Pouillon was quoted as saying in Art Culinaire, "Organic is not about diet but about agriculture. My customers come for the good food. They don't have to understand it, but for me it is the only food that is good to eat."
Pouillon was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1943. Living in post-World War II Europe, fresh food supplies were limited, so the family grew their own. Her parents got her interested in cooking. Meals were often simple with fresh ingredients, instead of eating in the rich French tradition that was common at the time. Though Pouillon was raised in Austria, she attended a French boarding school in Vienna with her sisters. There, she learned manners and how to eat formally. Pouillon spent her summers in a village in the Alps, where many farmers were self-sufficient, another aspect of food that intrigued Pouillon as an adult.
Though Pouillon was a student of interior design, food and cooking soon became the focus of her life. In 1965, when she was 21 years old, she moved to the United States with her journalist husband, a Frenchman named Pierre Pouillon. The couple had two sons, Alexis and Olivier. Pouillon enjoyed cooking for her family. Because of her flair for cooking, friends of her husband began asking her to help out with their parties. Pouillon soon had several home-based businesses including hosting and teaching cooking classes, and later, a catering business.
In the course of doing these businesses, Pouillon became very familiar with the kinds of produce available in American supermarkets and was disappointed by the quality. She also learned that American beef and chicken was often full of growth hormones, and vegetables were covered with pesticides. For these reasons, Pouillon became interested in organic meat and vegetable products. She wanted to buy only organic food products, but sometimes had to make an extra effort to get them. For example, Pouillon would drive to places like Virginia to pick up produce, since many organic farmers did not deliver.
Around 1976, Pouillon was hired to help open the restaurant at Tabard Inn, serving as its chef, though she had no formal training. She separated from her husband that year and began what became a longtime relationship with Steven Damato, the manager of the restaurant. (The pair eventually had a daughter, Nina, and adopted another, Nadia.) With the help of Damato and his brother, Thomas, Pouillon opened her own restaurant in 1979 called Restaurant Nora. Together, the three raised money among friends and associates to fund the new restaurant. The focus of Restaurant Nora's menu was healthful, European-influenced American organic cooking.
Pouillon's concept for Restaurant Nora was seen as far outside of the mainstream when it opened. At the time, healthy cooking meant tofu and bad hippie fare that had no flavor, the opposite of what Pouillon offered on her menu. This idea persisted for many years, even as attitudes changed. In 1996, she told Jerry Shriver of USA Today, "People have this fear of healthy food. They automatically think it tastes disgusting and looks disgusting, and that you have to eat it in some sort of little hippie place . I wanted to tell them, 'Look, health food is the best way to eat, and I give it to you in an environment I want to eat in myself.'"
Restaurant Nora was located in what was once a nineteenth-century grocery store. The store front had been a failed Yugoslavian restaurant before Pouillon and her partners took over. The interior was decorated with Mennonite and Amish quilts for baby's cribs that were of museum quality. In addition to decorating the restaurant herself, Pouillon did much of the cooking, serving, and bussing of tables in the early days. She even planted the flowers and herbs near the building. As the restaurant grew and more employees were hired, Pouillon sometimes had problems retaining staff, especially chefs, because she was demanding and a perfectionist. Also, her emphasis on organic meant certain ingredients were off limits, pushing the bounds of what chefs were trained to work with.
Over the years, Restaurant Nora received many good reviews. One reason for Pouillon's success was her insistence on the best ingredients, including meats and vegetables. She did business with organic growers as much as possible. Though the process was time consuming, she developed relationships with organic farmers that produced the ingredients she wanted. Because Pouillon would only work with in-season fresh ingredients, her menu changed daily based on what was available. When the produce arrived at the restaurant, one employee was dedicated to cleaning it with a special sophisticated water filtration system. Even the water she served to customers was filtered three times before it appeared on their table. Though such processes sometimes made for high costs, other restaurants soon followed Pouillon's lead to obtain and serve the best ingredients possible.
Restaurant Nora's amount of business continued to grow on annual basis. However, it did take time for Pouillon's take on cooking to really catch on, though Restaurant Nora always had a devoted patronage. By the early 1990s, it was a very popular spot in D.C. During the two terms of Bill Clinton's presidency, many members of his administration, including the President himself, dined at Pouillon's restaurant. Pouillon was even considered for the post of White House chef during Clinton's second term.
While Restaurant Nora was on its way to becoming a success, Pouillon and her partners opened a second restaurant, City Café, in 1986. It was a more casual and inexpensive version of Restaurant Nora. Despite the fact that City Café was popular, in 1994, Pouillon turned it into a very different restaurant called Asia Nora. As the name suggests, it served Asian cuisine, featuring dishes from China, Vietnam, India, Thailand, and Japan, but with an organic, Western interpretation. Before opening Asia Nora, Pouillon took private lessons from a number of Asian chefs to get her menu right.
As with Restaurant Nora, Pouillon tried to make Asia Nora as organic as possible. However, because many ingredients used in Asian dishes were not available in organic form, her goal became to use organic when available. While Asia Nora received some good reviews early on, the restaurant's reputation greatly improved in 1995 after Pouillon began working with a new chef to revamp the menu and the restaurant's organization.
When Pouillon began working in food and establishing her successful restaurants, she had a goal of publishing a cookbook. She was rejected three times over a 20-year period, and was often told that restaurant cookbooks were not good sellers. In 1994, Pouillon finally reached her goal. Originally published in Japan by Shibata Publishing, Nora: Cooking in a Healthy Way, focused on cooking healthy with menus and recipes. Two years later, the cookbook was published in English in the United States as Cooking with Nora: Seasonal Menus from Restaurant Nora by Park Lane Press. After receiving a number of positive reviews, the book was a finalist in the Julia Child Cookbook Awards, in the "First Book" category. In 1996, Pouillon was also named U.S.A. chef of the year from the American Tasting Institute. This marked the first time a woman was given this award.
In the late 1990s, Pouillon pursued another goal. She wanted to get Restaurant Nora certified organic by one of the six private organic certifiers in the United States, Oregon Tilth. (At the time, the federal government had no standards for what constituted certified organic. Such standards were developed in the early 2000s.) Because no other restaurant had wanted such a certification before, Pouillon spent two years documenting how organic her restaurant was as Oregon Tilth developed this standard for restaurants. To gain the certification, Pouillon had to prove that at least 95 percent of the ingredients used—including meats, vegetables, dairy, flour, coffee, chocolate, and oils—were from farmers and suppliers that were certified organic.
Pouillon's efforts paid off in 1999, when Restaurant Nora received this organic certification. Being certified organic gave Restaurant Nora an even wider audience. In a CNN.com chat from 2000, Pouillon said of her certification, "I think what it does is give an enormous amount of confidence to my customers and makes my claim to being organic credible and gives them trust in what they eat in my restaurant—because it has been certified and not just because it says so on the menu, but because I have legal proof. And it brings awareness to the food consumer in general that there is actually something out there that they can feel safe in eating."
As Pouillon became a well-known chef, she began using her skills and name in other related areas. With Damato, she began working with Green Circle Organics to help create a certified organic line of products in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Such products included frozen burgers, and pre-cooked ready-to-eat foods like meatloaf and roasts. Pouillon also worked as a consultant for Fresh Fields Whole-foods Market and Walnut Acres Organic Foods, which sold organic foods through catalogs.
From 1998 to 2000, Pouillon was also a spokesperson for "Give North Atlantic Swordfish a Break" campaign for NRDC/SeaWeb. She had stopped serving swordfish in her restaurants in the mid-1990s after she learned that swordfish were being overfished. With the group, she asked for a moratorium so that the swordfish population could be replenished. This was not the only dish she would not serve in her restaurants. She also stayed away from foie gras and fish from the Gulf of Mexico as it was too polluted.
Pouillon also was involved with promoting culinary education. As a member of Chefs Collaborative 2000, she worked with the Adopt a School program to teach children about good nutritional choices, world cuisine, and how to cook. In addition, Pouillon was involved with similar programs sponsored by the Federal Agricultural Department and served as a lecturer to adult education students.
Pouillon's future included perhaps opening a third restaurant, an idea that had been floating around for several years. In the early 2000s, she continued the challenges of being a power chef. She told Catherine S. Gregory of Yoga Journal, "Many people don't realize how complicated it is to be a professional chef. You have to be creative; you have to be an economist; you have to be like a mechanic to realize your ideas; you have to be an artist to make it look pretty on the plate. That complexity makes it very satisfying for me."
Nora: Cooking in a Healthy Way, Shibata Publishing (Japan), 1994; published as Cooking with Nora: Seasonal Menus from Restaurant Nora, Park Lane Press (United States), 1996.
New York Times, May 10, 1998, sec. 6, p. 51; May 14, 2003, p. F6.
Organic Style, November/December 2002, pp. 58-62.
Publishers Weekly, February 19, 1996, p. 211.
Restaurants & Institutions, February 15, 2003, p. S13.
USA Today, March 11, 1994, p. 1D; May 24, 1996, p. 8D.
Washingtonian, May 2001, p. 147.
Washington Post, September 22, 1993, p. E1; December 11, 1994, p. W21; November 3, 1995, p. N28; December 3, 1995, p. W43; March 10, 1996, p. X15; November 19, 1998, p. J1; February 10, 1999, p. F1; June 23, 1999, p. F1; July 3, 2002, p. F1; January 4, 2004, p. W5.
Washington Times, May 1, 1996, p. 3.
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