Donna Nordin is a Tucson treasure. That she is not more widely known now is in part because her iconic Café Terra Cotta, a pioneer in Contemporary Southwestern cuisine, shuttered its doors in 2009. In addition, Nordin is not one for self-promotion. As a result, even many of her longtime admirers may not be aware of her illustrious background.
Before moving to Tucson, where she was hired to teach at a cooking school owned by Don Luria — reader, she married him — Nordin rubbed elbows with some of the top names in the culinary world. She attended Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and, just outside that city, completed the intensive pastry class at the famed École Lenôtre. She subsequently started a cooking school in San Francisco, where she worked with such culinary luminaries as Jacques Pepin, Guiliano Bugialli, Julia Child, Diana Kennedy, and James Beard.
She and Luria opened Café Terra Cotta in St. Philips Plaza in 1986; it was moved to the Foothills and renamed Terra Cotta in 2001. In 1993, they debuted a Scottsdale location, which closed in 2002. Among her kudos: Nordin was nominated as “Best Southwest Chef” by the James Beard Foundation; she received the Chef’s Award of Excellence from the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP); and she was featured in “Great Chefs of the West” series on PBS.
Nordin published Contemporary Southwest: The Café Terra Cotta Cookbook in 1995. She currently teaches cooking classes in Tucson that focus on classic French and contemporary Southwest recipes and runs culinary tours in Europe.
I was reminded just how much I missed Café Terra Cotta at the “Gone, But Not Forgotten” GUT dinner that I attended earlier this year. One of my favorite dishes, the shrimp with herbed goat cheese, was presented there, along with the chocolate mousse pie, which has an early claim to fame. While Nordin was still in San Francisco, the pie was featured on the cover of Bon Appetit — doubly surprising the recipe’s creator because there was a piece about Julia Child in the same issue.
That she was surprised at this turn of events remains characteristic of Nordin. She is one of the nicest, most generous people in town — and one of the most modest. If there is a thread running through my conversation with her, it is her perpetual delight and astonishment at her well-earned successes.
You were the co-owner/executive chef of one of Tucson’s iconic restaurants from 1986 to 2009. What was that like? Do you miss anything about being in the restaurant business?
In the beginning, it was a little overwhelming, because I had only done very little cheffing in my life. I did some training of people in restaurants up in Sacramento and a couple of things in San Francisco, but I wasn’t really a professional chef. So it was kind of amazing and uplifting because quickly, we got noticed. We became almost an instant success. I didn’t expect that at all.
As far as missing anything about that business, I miss seeing the people that I only saw at Terra Cotta. They were just acquaintances, but you get to know them over time, and see them quite often. And then all of a sudden, you don’t see them. So that’s a little void. But I kept busy.
I’m so glad not to be in that business now. Post-pandemic, it’s hard to get staff. And not only here. I just got back from France, where the same thing is happening. I’m sure doing a restaurant with robots is in our future.
Has the environment changed for women chefs or is it about the same as when you got your start? I’m thinking of the subsequent #metoo movement, things that writers like Anthony Bourdain described.
When I started out, there weren’t too many, but we had quite a lot of women working in the kitchen at Café Terra Cotta, prep cooks, and line cooks. That trend continued for a while and then it dwindled. Now it’s popped back again. We have quite a few women chefs on the forefront. There’s Tucson native Charleen Badman at FnB in Scottsdale who won the Southwest James Beard Award in 2019. I call her my surrogate daughter. She started working for us as a student in the Catalina High School culinary arts program during her senior year. When she graduated, we put her in charge of our catering company and she opened our Scottsdale location. She is an amazing chef who is a promoter of other female chefs. And she did it by not going to a $ 30,000-plus school. To get all of her professionalism, she just concentrated on what she needed to know.
I didn’t have any problem with [harassment]; maybe it went over my head. And I don’t think we had any problems that way with Terracotta and none of the many women chefs I know now are wallflowers. I guess I can say this: I absolutely hated Anthony Bourdain’s first book, Kitchen Confidential. He was so awful about how people were in the kitchen, with the drugs and all that. I’m sure there were people in our kitchen doing certain things, but it was never as widespread as he made out.
Are there any up and coming — male or female — chefs that we should look out for here in Tucson?
I’ve admired Chef Maria Mazon from the very beginning, when I met her at the first margarita competition at La Encantada. I still remember having an octopus taco when I went to her tiny, tiny place on Speedway. I thought she was delightful. She was doing things her way, not putting up with anybody trying to tell her to do anything any other way. Her son was very small at the time. They were getting ready to go for the first trip to Disneyland. And the way she interacted with that little boy at the time we were having our tacos just went to my heart.
What do you think about celebrity food/chef culture these days? Do you watch any of the food shows?
I don’t watch the Food Channel. A lot of those shows seem staged. But I absolutely love Phil Rosenthal’s [Netflix] show, “Somebody Feed Phil.” I’m sorry I was away while he was in town. I’ve seen almost every one of the episodes. When I saw the one on Singapore, I wanted to go back because of the changes I saw from when I’ve been there. I texted my very best friend — I called her my wife — and I said, ‘We need to go there and eat again.’
You came full circle, starting with catering and cooking classes in SF to opening a restaurant and now back to teaching and leading culinary tours. When did you start doing tours?
The whole cooking class thing always went up and down and up and down. When celebrity chefs came to be into being, everybody wanted to go out and didn’t want to take classes so much — and then they came back. It was just always been a roller coaster kind of thing. Right now, I’m happy to be back at square one.
I’ve done food tours every so often since my time in San Francisco. I think the first one I ever did was in 1978, in Normandy. It was with a different husband. He was French so, besides my love of France and having gone to Cordon Bleu etcetera, it was a perfect fit. After I came to Tucson, Don and I did a couple of very small tours, one to Paris, a couple of wine tours to Napa and Paso Robles. Then we just started thinking, ‘Well, where else would we like to take people?’ I started doing these trips and it’s amazing how popular they’ve been.
I thought ‘Well, I really love Perigot.’ So that’s how it started. I like to pick a region and then just do the tour from one location. In the Loire and Cote D’Azur, we researched and found cooking schools. They did the classes. We usually do two classes during the week and the rest of the time we eat and drink at very nice restaurants, one [Michelin] star at least and then we try to finish with two- or three-star places.
Now that we’ve just finished our last tour in the Basque country, I’ve done most of the regions in France I want to do. I decided that my bucket list trip for the last ten years has been Puglia, in Italy. I did one delightful tour in 1980 or ‘81 to Tuscany with Guiliano Bugialli but the only other times I’ve been to Italy were personal trips.
We’re in the process of planning Puglia for next September, two weeks back-to-back.
How can people find out about your food tours and cooking classes?
The cooking classes are on my website, Donna Nordin Cooks, and I have a mailing list that readers can get on via the site’s Contact area. Sometimes when I send out the cooking class schedule for each season, I will say ‘Here’s a sneak preview to a trip’ and I’ll get responses that way. Or it’s just word-of-mouth during classes. With the Puglia trip, I’ve had so much response from that sneak preview that I had to take a list of about 30 names; we have ‘groupies’ who come again and again. So the first week of that tour is already pretty much full. But things always change.
For more information on her cooking classes, visit donnanordincooks.com.
Edie Jarolim has worn many hats, including a sombrero on a one-too-many-margaritas night. She earned a Ph.D. in American literature from New York University and was a guidebook editor at Fodor’s (Random House) and Frommer’s (Simon & Schuster) in New...