Chef Nora Pouillon earned the first organic restaurant certification in the United States. Her memoir, My Organic Life, leads readers from her early years in postwar Vienna to her role in the American organic food movement.
Co-written with Laura Fraser, My Organic Life staggers a bit before finding its rhythm. After a rocky start, we learn that Pouillon’s family were avid outdoorspeople, passionate about exercise and healthy diet. The family spent a great deal of time on their farm, just outside Vienna. There on-site caretakers Nanni and Alois grew all their own food, composted, baked and made their own soap. Everything that could be used or reused was, including human waste. Pouillon lovingly describes home-made cream, corn mush, and a sourdough bread that took all day to bake.
Pouillon’s interest in food began early. Besides hanging out in Nanni’s kitchen, she watched her grandmother, Omi, kill chickens neatly and carefully before using every bit of the bird. The tongue and comb went into an omelet; the feet, gizzards, and neck went into the stockpot. Pouillon’s mother, Mutti, was also a fine cook. Avoiding Vienna’s traditionally heavy cooking, Mutti served crisp Wiener schnitzel, light potato salads, and delicately cooked green salads with thin béchamel sauces.
Upon graduating high school, Pouillon traveled with her sister Rosi to Yugoslavia, where they met Pierre Pouillon (Nora Pouillon’s maiden name, which she does not use, is Aschenbrenner). Pierre was older, French, and working as a radio journalist. After a bumpy courtship, Nora and Pierre married—the book is gauzy about dates—and moved to Washington, D.C., where Pierre had a job with the Voice of America.
Pouillon’s descriptions of her first months in the United States echo Julia Child’s horrified return from France. A kind friend led Pouillon through the ’60s-era American supermarket experience. Pouillon was shocked by the market’s scentless sterility. Meats were wrapped in Styrofoam and plastic. There was no butcher to ask about cuts or cooking. The bread was soft, white and awful. The produce limited. Staff and shoppers were strangers, unfriendly and chilly. The entire experience “seemed very sad and lonely to me,” she writes.
A newlywed in a new country, Pouillon began learning her way around the kitchen. As the couple began entertaining, Pouillon explored the surrounding neighborhoods, discovering ethnic markets and trying new ingredients. Soon she was teaching cooking to eager housewives.
By the time sons Alexis and Olivier were born, her marriage was foundering. When Pierre had an affair with the au pair, Pouillon retaliated—with the contractor.
Meanwhile, Pouillon was learning how American foods were adulterated. Seeking wholesale purveyors for her cooking classes, she found a farmer who raised his cattle organically. Purchasing meat from the man was akin to arranging a drug deal, including secret meeting spots and cash. Horrified by animals fed corn and pumped with antibiotics, Pouillon began searching for organic food.
Pouillon’s cooking classes led to her first professional position. At the Tabard Inn, she cooked using whole grains and grass-fed beef. She soon earned a reputation for excellent sandwiches, including pork with Austrian-style cabbage salad and paté with homemade pickles. Her food drew the attention of Washington Post reporters, who made the Tabard Inn their hangout. Pouillon also drew the attentions of Steven Damato, who became her partner in business and love.
I’d come across Pouillon’s name once prior to reading My Organic Life. In Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones, & Butter, Hamilton describes being invited to The Culinary Institute of America to sit on a panel of women chefs. She grudgingly attends, snarking inwardly throughout. As the women are pelted with questions about balancing working life with marriage and children from nascent female chefs (Hamilton has already mentioned Pouillon by name): “I really started itching when this sixty-year-old woman droned on into the mic to her twenty-year-old audience about the joys of building relationships with local, sustainable farmers, as if these young cooks were about to enter jobs that would put them anywhere near to the sourcing of the restaurant’s ingredients.”
When Pouillon accepted the Tabard Inn position, her marriage was falling apart. She had just begun a relationship with Steven Damato, who was 22 to her 33. It was the late ’70s, a time when organic food was virtually unknown. Alice Waters wasn’t a household name. Leaning in hadn’t happened yet. Nor had flexible parenting policies.
There was no factoring two small children into that equation. Pouillon’s sons went to live with their father: Pouillon lived nearby. She writes her sons “had a hard time understanding and forgiving me for not being around as much as they wanted.”
Back to that panel Hamilton wrote so unhappily about. Perhaps Pouillon, who went on to open three restaurants, write two cookbooks, and helm the first organic restaurant in the United States, didn’t care to disclose her personal sacrifices to an audience of 20-somethings hoping to hear differently.
With Damato as partner, Pouillon opened Restaurant Nora, serving local, seasonal, additive-free food. This sounds old-hat today, but in 1979 the concept was utterly foreign. That Pouillon was working in the eastern United States, where summer’s bounty is brief, made her mission that much harder. Winter’s turnip hasn’t the summer tomato’s allure.
City Café and Asia Nora followed, each following the same strict menu guidelines. Pouillon searched out local farmers, serving local, seasonal dishes. Obtaining quality meat proved especially challenging: Pouillon describes having to buy entire cows, resulting in limited amounts of prime cuts and a glut of ground beef. “So I had to learn to be extremely creative about using ground beef. “
At age 44, Pouillon, then juggling three restaurants, gave birth to daughter Nina. A few years later, at Steven’s urging, the couple adopted a daughter from Irkutsk.
In the mid-’90s Pouillon decided to seek organic certification for Restaurant Nora. The minutiae involved in obtaining organic certification are incredible. Every edible product, from flour to salt, fruit to beef, has to be organic. Pouillon’s purveyors all had to be certified organic. She had to buy sugar by the thousands of pounds, olive oil in drums. Pouillon decided to make the restaurant’s cleaning products organic as well—again, far more challenging in the ’90s, when shelves weren’t lined with organic cleansers. Doing laundry organically entailed installing washing machines and dryers in the restaurant’s basement. Even the restaurant’s carpeting is biodegradable. In 1999, Restaurant Nora received the first organic restaurant certification in the United States.
Pouillon is now 70 years old. She continues to be heavily involved in numerous food-related organizations. Comparisons to Alice Waters are inevitable, though the two are quite different. Pouillon is a European chef/restaurateur whose sensibilities were impacted by World War II. She was proselytizing to her diners, not the public at large. Waters, conversely, is very much an American, one who came of age in the ’60s. By her own admission, Waters is not a chef. Instead, she is a revolutionary seeking to change very food on American tables. To compare them is a disserve to both.
My Organic Life may suffer from unevenness, but it offers a glimpse into what was, not so long ago, an uphill battle find organic food in America. It also offers an honest look at the decisions many working women are forced to make. At the memoir’s close, Pouillon writes: “It has always been a challenge for me to combine my work and advocacy with a satisfying personal life.”
Pouillon survived a war, moved to a foreign country, weathered divorce, and opened America’s first organic restaurant. Amazing achievements all. When it comes to balancing work and life, however, she’s as stumped as the rest of us.