Nora Antene | Age: 28 | Hometown: Chicago
Andrew Mace | Age: 29 | Hometown: Laurell, Montana

"I love the freedom of pastry. It's unnecessary, so you can be playful."—Nora Antene (left); "I'm a fan of breaking molds. Putting dessert in the middle of dinner. Plating something on a whole bone."—Andrew Mace
"I love the freedom of pastry. It's unnecessary, so you can be playful."—Nora Antene (left); "I'm a fan of breaking molds. Putting dessert in the middle of dinner. Plating something on a whole bone."—Andrew Mace

Most people relax on their days off. Le Pigeon line cook Andrew Mace and Little Bird dessert doyenne Nora Antene used theirs to plan and throw a free, 10-course pop-up dinner for a table full of Portland chefs and food insiders, featuring everything from razor clam sashimi paired with trout roe and silky passion fruit custard to coriander-crusted foie gras adorned with grapefruit and caramelized white chocolate. 

“Honestly, it was just a chance for us to play,” Mace says of the dinner he and Antene (who have since become a couple outside of the kitchen) threw at Southeast Portland wine bar Sauvage last March. “We didn’t realize how intimidating it would be. We were either really ballsy or really stupid.” Or, really delicious. Within days, word spread of the pair’s innovative, free-spirited dishes. (At one point, they ignited dried bundles of herbs as an olfactory counterpoint to a charred fruit dish.) “I was blown away with their creativity and thought process,” remembers Ox’s Greg Denton. He liked the dinner so much, he asked Mace and Antene to sign his menu for posterity. 

They’re not too bad at their day jobs, either. “Andrew is amazing,” says Le Pigeon’s Gabriel Rucker, who hired Mace in 2010—in part because the focused cook had “a sharp knife” and mopped the floor without being asked. “We have a piece of craft paper up in the kitchen where we all spitball ideas,” says Rucker. “There was a flavor combination written down there: ‘black olive, peaches, and eucalyptus.’ My sous-chef and I just looked at each other and said: ‘That’s an Andrew Mace combination.’” The oddball flavor master, who ended up staying in Portland after his Subaru Outback broke down here en route from Montana to San Francisco, has met his match in bubbly, Chicago-born Antene. When she isn’t whipping up riffs on French classics like blackberry crêpes Suzette at Rucker’s downtown bistro, the dessert trickster is filling her own chocolate beignets with Chartreuse-chocolate mousse or hiding quail egg yolks inside lemon verbena panna cotta. “Nora is the complete package,” Rucker says. “She’s got the passion and skill, but she’s humble enough to listen to others.”

For this couple, food is one part serious art and one part playful expedition: sit with them for an hour and the conversation ping-pongs from the influence of abstract painter Josef Albers and French food icon Michel Bras to how crazy-good the taco toppings they made from Le Pigeon meat scraps taste. Just don’t expect their “flavor-focused, minimal” food experiments to appear at a big, bustling restaurant of their own anytime soon. For their most recent pop-up in early October, they whittled the concept down to a series of meals for only four people at a time over the course of two nights in order to create an “ultra-intimate” dining experience. “This is gonna sound weird, but I don’t really like cooking in a restaurant,” Mace admits as Antene laughs quietly. “I don’t like to be...rushed. Ideally, I’d like a really, really small place—even one table would be fine with me.” He smiles, and looks over at his partner in crime: “Me and Nora could just hang out and cook whatever we want.”

• Nora’s Résumé: Pastry chef at Little Bird; pastry assistant at Chicago’s MK; savory intern at Madison, Wisconsin’s L’Etoile

• ANDREW’S Résumé: Line cook at Le Pigeon; line cook at Lincoln; line cook at the Woodsman Tavern; line cook at Bozeman wine bar Plonk; “cooked and washed dishes at a shitty bar and grill” in Missoula

• Biggest Fan: “I love collaborating with Andrew,” says Rucker. “He and Nora are going to go places...I just hope they don’t go too soon.” 

• Signature Dish: A landscape of crisp, salty trout skin topped with luscious trout tartare, compressed shallots, and clouds of briny, smoked-oyster whipped cream with baby mustard greens is Mace’s perfectly balanced showstopper. Antene excels at deliciously weird fever dreams like brown-rice frozen mousse with green apple.

• Current Obsession: Mace harvests the pollen and young, green shoots from neighborhood fennel plants to garnish dishes like a goat baklava with white pepper frozen yogurt. “He roams the town collecting fennel pollen in little bags,” Antene says. “People think he’s weird.”