A 2014 Eater Young Guns semifinalist for her whimsical French desserts at Le Pigeon, Nora Antene is one of the pastry chefs leading Portland, and now she’s putting her talents to work at the new Middle Eastern-inspired restaurant Tusk. But like all pastry chefs, she’s often hidden in the kitchen perfecting her playful breads, pastries, and desserts. Eater caught up with Antene to unveil the secretive life of a pastry chef and discuss the delicious things she’s making.
“I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love to cook or bake,” she tells Eater. “My mom would let my sisters and I play with old spices, and we’d play with them in the sandbox. A cookie jar in our pantry was never empty.”
But Antene didn’t always think she’d be a baker. “At culinary school, you can either cook or bake, and I chose to cook,” she says. A fateful internship at the L’Etoile restaurant in Wisconsin changed all that. “I was cooking on the line, baking, and hanging out on nearby a farm. I fell in love with the latter two.”
Moving to Portland in 2011, Antene scored a pastry position at Le Pigeon, and she has some advice for young bakers seeking their first gig. “Always be positive, listen to other people’s suggestions, don’t be too stubborn, and don’t be afraid of negative feedback and criticism, because those help you improve. And always keep your shoes clean. It sets the tone.”
Antene stands behind two of the most lauded plates at Tusk: Middle Eastern-inspired soft serve ice cream and fluffy 100-percent wholegrain pita bread (fluffy and 100-percent wholegrain? Believe it). Working with grains from Camas Country Mill, she also makes Tusk’s “crispy bread,” whole wheat soft rolls for its breakfast sandwiches, and brunch pastries.
And that soft serve? The current flavor is halvah, and Antene says she starts by preparing a base of milk, cream, buttermilk, and milk powder—for creaminess. “The halvah is a sort of meringue with nut paste folded into it, and we cut it into pieces and melt it into the base with a little salt. Then we throw it into the soft serve machine and serve it layered with cookie crumbs and olive oil.”
Antene’s soft serve flavors and preparations are always changing, and she says to look for an ice cream sundae down the road. She also says she’ll be helping out at the pastry program at Portland’s iconic Ava Gene’s starting in May.
“Baking is so methodical—maybe I think it’s more fun because you’re doing it with more love?” says Antene. “There’s definitely a strong association with my mom.”