News & Politics

Nora Pouillon’s Memoir Reminds Us How Rotten DC Food Used to Be

The woman behind Restaurant Nora shares how she convinced Washingtonians to eat better food.

Photograph by Scott Suchman

Before people began not only to eat kale but to drink it; before “locavore” came into popular usage; before “free-range” and “cage-free” showed that there’s fine linguistic nuance to the conditions under which laying hens are kept; before suburban farmers markets became a thing; before Whole Foods; before Fresh Fields, even; before Mark Bittman started writing about food policy; before Michael Pollan started writing bestsellers; before Trader Joe’s spread east; before that episode in Portlandia where two foodie diners ask a waitress to recite the life history of the chicken they’re thinking of ordering; and way, way before Michelle Obama picked up a trowel and told a nation to change its eating habits, there was Nora Pouillon.

Pouillon—who launched Restaurant Nora on the outskirts of Dupont Circle in the late 1970s and turned it into one of the city’s leading power-dining establishments—was an early adopter of the pesticide-free, humanely raised, locally sourced food ethos. Such an early adopter, in fact, that on her original menus she struggled to find a description for the food Restaurant Nora would be serving. Fearing that most diners circa 1979 wouldn’t know what “organic” meant, she came up with the rather wordy and unappetizing “new American food with additive-free ingredients.”

Nora Pouillon’s memoir.

We learn from her memoir, My Organic Life: How a Pioneering Chef Helped Shape the Way We Eat Today, that Sally Quinn—the journalist and socialite who along with her late husband, Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee, was an early patron and financial backer of the restaurant—advised her to play down that good-for-you part: “Don’t mention anything about being healthy and natural.” Pouillon ignored the advice. In fact, she became so obsessed that at one point, in the quest to make her establishment the nation’s first certified-organic restaurant, she ordered 1,000 pounds of organic sugar (the smallest amount she could obtain) and had to dedicate nearly a whole room to storing it.

Pouillon’s spare, clearly written memoir is built around two complementary narratives. One involves the culinary journey of a country where you can now buy organic sugar by the bag at your neighborhood grocery. The other involves her more personal journey from ingénue housewife to self-made restaurateur. While never as famous as Alice Waters of California’s Chez Panisse, Pouillon had as much influence on our local culinary landscape as, say, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan had on our physical one. She was so ahead of her time that you feel she hasn’t gotten enough credit. Who knew that Pouillon was a driving force behind the Dupont Circle FreshFarm Market, which, unbelievably, some merchants at first resisted? Or that she was part of the political movement for national standards for organic certification?

Without being preachy, her memoir is also the story of an uncredentialed female cook making her way in the sexist high-chef culture, the story of a natural-born problem solver working to build a small enterprise before there was talk of start-ups or woman-owned businesses. It’s also a testament to the personal consequences—not good ones—for a wife and mother who succeeded at becoming a breadwinner before that, too, was a thing.

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In the annals of food history, the most famous culinary epiphany is the one experienced by Julia Child when she tasted sole meunière in France and understood just how good food could be. The Austrian-born Pouillon had what you might call the reverse epiphany: On arriving in the US in the 1960s—her French husband had landed a job at Voice of America and the couple rented a small house in Tenleytown—she was so appalled by the local supermarket’s iceberg lettuce, processed cheese, and packaged, precut beef that she understood for the first time just how bad food could be.

Sooner or later, everyone comes to Nora’s: Pouillon once considered organic tablecloths. Photograph by Scott Suchman.

She sought out alternatives, educating herself by prowling ethnic markets, talking with the proprietors about how to use lemongrass or feta or cilantro or queso fresco; by showing up early to dinner parties and watching what the host was making; by hunting down a farmer who sold grass-fed beef out of the back of a van, at a time when doing so was furtive and illegal. Restaurant Nora grew out of her perambulations.

That said, the most evocative parts of the book come early. Pouillon was born in 1943, and her father, an Austrian businessman, sent his wife and three daughters to wait out the war on a mountain farm that was a two-hour hike from the nearest village. Nora lived there, on and off, until she was eight, reveling in Tyrolean farm life: the picking of wild mushrooms, the making of fresh butter, the baking of sourdough, the resourceful consumption of all parts of the animal. “[S]he’d cut off the head and legs, pop out the eyes, put water on to boil . . . [then] cut out the tongue and the comb for a special omelet,” she writes, casually, about her grandmother’s approach to a freshly killed chicken.

Later, Pouillon came to savor the urban sophistication of Viennese restaurants and cafes. None of this prepared her for the shock of encountering Wonder Bread.

The book conjures what it was really like—and often still is—to eat and socialize in Washington. During their early married life, she and her husband, Pierre, attended the kind of informal dinner parties that many of us do: non-expensive, non-famous, nothing high profile, just somebody cooking in a small apartment kitchen, drinking wine and using whatever cutlery happens to be in the drawer. She also took advantage of some uniquely Washingtonian opportunities, picking up tips from the expats in their circle and sourcing good wine—once so hard to find—from barrels at the French Embassy.

As she gained confidence, Pouillon began giving the dinner parties. When she realized her husband’s salary had topped out, she went to work to help support the family, which included two young sons. She started catering and gave classes in how to cook on a budget, which she learned by reading James Beard. She was invited to launch the restaurant at the Tabard Inn; after a successful year in which the N Street lunch crowd learned that BLTs taste better with local Virginia tomatoes and house-made mayonnaise, she decided to open her own place.

Before it became a gustatory headquarters for Clintonites, Restaurant Nora got its start as a lower-priced establishment catering to journalists and aficionados who were allowed to run up a tab, in part because Pouillon couldn’t afford credit-card fees. Restaurant Nora, at first, was almost a club. When Pouillon went upscale and white-tablecloth, some regulars were offended and were replaced by an expense-account crowd.

• • •

People who come to this memoir hoping for insider tidbits will be disappointed, however: Part of the author’s success arose from her discretion. While she mentions her excitement at serving Meryl Streep or Baryshnikov, the closest she comes to gossip is revealing that Nora Ephron and Carl Bernstein had an argument at her restaurant—hardly surprising. But to be present when a spat between those two happened! It seems at this point historic. You feel there should be a commemorative plaque at the table, like the one in Georgetown’s old Au Pied de Cochon (now Five Guys) marking where former KGB officer Vitaly Yurchenko re-defected.

But a feminist thread also runs through this story, and it’s kind of a sad one. Some of Pouillon’s early influences were women’s-libbers, friends who told her she was too good and too smart to be spending nights getting drunk at parties. Not all aspects of ’70s culture were so encouraging: When she was getting started, she recalls, “I’d talk to the fishmonger, and he’d say, ‘Hey, babe, because you’re so sweet, I’ll sell it to you for $6.50 a pound.’ ” Her male partner would be quoted a price more than $2 cheaper. “They thought I was naive and helpless,” Pouillon notes. “. . . [H]e seemed to have a lot more buying power as a man.” Yet she remained committed to local purveyors. To ensure farmers could afford to raise the beef she wanted, she would agree to buy the whole animal, even though it meant she had to convince diners who wanted New York strip to take the lesser cuts as well—ground beef and the like—not to mention things like pork jowls and ears, which went into terrines. She’d give farmers imported seeds for arugula or Italian parsley and commit to buying their whole crop, even if the insects got it.

Her husband’s response as she began to find her calling was to have an affair with the au pair. She had a retaliatory fling, moved out, and began dating a younger hotel manager who became her business and life partner. They had one child and adopted another. Decades in, she says she learned he’d been having a long-term affair with their children’s piano instructor. By the end of the book, she’s 70 and alone. Workaholic females, beware! “I am a mature European woman,” Pouillon writes, sounding brave but also poignant. “. . . Being separated and single has been a big change for me.”

If it seems glamorous to have a restaurant named after you, Pouillon reminds us that it’s crushingly hard work. She remembers mixed or bad reviews without apparent rancor—though she does remember them, including from this magazine—and seems to have a healthy tolerance for failure, maybe because she grew up skiing and knows that falling, as the instructors say, means you’re learning. There are times when she sounds demented—at one point, she’s determined to have all-organic tablecloths—but visionaries need to be obsessive.

In the end, Pouillon reflects that what she has tried to do is restore us to the way people ate before the war that defined her childhood—before the era of the atom bomb and better living through chemistry. She has tried to recreate the farm food she knew growing up, to take us forward by going back.

Finishing the book, I knew where I wanted to go. I wanted to go to Restaurant Nora and see what she’s been up to.

Liza Mundy is a Washington journalist and author.

This article appears in our April 2015 issue of Washingtonian.