Ask anybody who has lived in the nation’s capital for more than two years if they know Nora and you’ll most likely hear a variation of „Of course, I ate there multiple times.“ Nora – the restaurant and the woman who created it – is synonymous with daily fresh organic food, local farming and the shared belief that a dinner out on the town can actually contribute to your health, not your waistline.
By Bettina M. Gordon, publisher ConsciousBusinessMagazine.com
(c) Photos by Matthew Rakola
To read the story in German, please click here
If you didn’t know any better, you would think that the White House was regularly relocated to Restaurant Nora. US President Jimmy Carter, First Lady Nancy Reagan, and power couple Bill and Hillary Clinton have spent numerous evenings there. Even President Barack Obama invited friends and family to the dignified eatery to celebrate Michelle’s birthday. For more than three decades, the Nora – named the first certified organic restaurant in America in 1999! – has been an institution in Washington and is famous far beyond the city limits. This success is owed to a charming woman who gave the restaurant its name and manages it with her heart and soul: Nora Pouillon, born Aschenbrenner, from Vienna, Austria.
Like so many other immigrants, Nora’s ascendancy to master chef and pioneer of the healthy, organic kitchen began by chance – instead of being planned out, it just simply happened. Nora had just become of age when she married journalist Pierre Pouillon, 17 years her senior, and followed him to Washington when he was hired by Voice-of-America.
Money was tight and Nora, who bore her two boys Alexis and Olivier at home in 1968 and 1970, became inventive when it came to feeding her family and, above all, when inviting friends over for dinner. “I really dove into cooking,” says Nora, 69, remembering the beginning of her career. Her guests were thrilled with the quality of her dishes and soon urged her to press on with her cooking knowledge. So, in the 70’s, Nora began with “The Budget Gourmet” cooking classes and “Food for Friends” catering. She exclusively used organic products and meat from humane sources, and everything came from local farmers. “To me, sustainability is not just a word, but a philosophy,” according to the visionary.
Nora’s good reputation preceded her. She was asked to manage a restaurant in the Tabard Inn hotel, which she practically established overnight. But the new professional challenges went hand in hand with private turbulence. Pierre and Nora separated, and the boys stayed with their father since the restaurant demanded a lot from the mother. However, Nora soon found a new love and business partner in Steven, who would be by her side for 33 years and with whom she had two daughters, Nina, 23, and Nadja, 20. The logical next step: opening her own restaurant in the well known neighborhood of Dupont Circle in 1979.
Restaurant Nora is a true institution in Washington, even acting presidents and first ladies are regular guests. How does someone continuously manage a restaurant so successfully for more than 30 years?
Nora is not just a restaurant, but a way of life that my guests share with me. During my childhood in Vienna, I learned three things from my parents that have defined me and flow over into my kitchen: I learned to eat healthy food, to spend a lot of time in the fresh air, and to look after my health. With the right diet, one can prevent disease and sustain good health. My guests know this. The school children that are growing up in America today are the first generation of children to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents. This is also the reason for Michelle Obama´s initiative to stop childhood obesity and to replace junk food with health food.
What else have you brought to Washington with you from Vienna?
Secondly, I learned to revere and respect food and our environment. I was born in 1943, and during the postwar years, when Vienna was occupied, we spent a lot of time at the alms in Tirol. My grandmother showed me how to grow vegetables, and I saw how much work, time, and effort are required to cultivate enough food so that the family can survive. I learned to respect food and nature. Back in Vienna, I went to a French school, and there I saw how refined people eat, several courses served and lighter food prepared than typical Austrian cuisine. All of that shaped me.
You were a visionary decades before it was hip to preach the advantages of organic foods. Was the quality of food so bad then?
It was awful. My husband Pierre didn’t earn much money and my household budget was tight. Therefore, I wanted to buy a quarter of pig or beef because it was more reasonably priced. The farmer proudly told me that his animals received hormones and antibiotics daily, and that three months before slaughter they were fed only corn so they would become nice and fat. I was shocked. There were hardly any fresh vegetables, and when there were, then they were completely sprayed with pesticides. It was clear to me then that this cannot be healthy, and I searched intensively for the right farmers who grew organics and treated their animals humanely. I know the farmers personally from whom we obtain our products. I have helped them organize themselves and get more customers. I also initiated the first farmers’ market in Washington, and today there are 11 in the city.
How did you go from being a housewife to a restaurant manager?
When the Tabard Inn Hotel was being planned, I was asked to manage the restaurant. That was when Pierre and I separated. I had no idea how a restaurant was managed, however I had to earn money to support myself. The boys stayed with my husband since he had a 9 to 5 job, but I was at the restaurant practically around the clock. In the Tabard Inn, I met and fell in love with Steve, the hotel manager. By the way, he is 13 years younger than me. We were together for 33 years and had 2 daughters together, Nina and Nadja, both in their 20s. Steven and I opened Nora together in 1979.
You yourself are in great shape. Does that come only from healthy eating?
Not only. I either go to the fitness center daily for one to two hours for synergy dance, for example, or I go hiking on the weekends. Also, I only eat twice a day. A lot of us are so fat because we eat three times a day, only to sit in front of the computer and drive everywhere in our cars. I eat yogurt and fruits for breakfast and then again at dinner, or in the restaurant between 4 and 5, if the team eats before business gets going. Then I eat well and also drink wine, which is typical Austrian.
Why did you choose to stay in America and not go back to Europe?
I travel to Austria at least twice a year to go skiing or hiking and to spend time with my sister and friends, but I never wanted to completely go back because I like my life here. In America, you are less bound by tradition and it doesn’t matter where you come from or who you are, success depends solely on you. I came from a nice middle-class home and knew a lot of people in Vienna, but I never would have been able to open a restaurant there. In Austria, everything is so bureaucratic. You need a trade license, an education, and other paperwork. I don’t have any formal cooking training, but rather training as an interior designer, which I have never used in America.
The popular US cooking show Top Chef chose you to be a juror for the Washington D.C. episode. You sit on the board of directors of various large environmental conservation organizations, and the industry bible StarChefs honored you in September for your contribution to American cuisine, a very high accolade. Is there anything that you have not yet achieved?
For years, I have floated around the idea for a kind of healthy McDonald’s with organic, affordable meals, a family-friendly chain that offers healthy food at low prices. But so far I haven’t been able to bring the right investors together. A literary agent recently contacted me and wants me to write my memoir, which I will probably do. But to be completely honest, what I really want to achieve is to stay healthy. And maybe once again to find someone with whom I can share my life because family is very, very important to me.
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