It’s been a year of firsts for Conor Mertens and Carly Black. The couple, who recently celebrated their first anniversary, have also marked the first year of their sought-after pop-up dinner series Chimera, adopted their first dog – named Kaiser, after the bread roll – and collaborated with Clooney, their first colab with a three-hatted restaurant. Had you asked them a year ago, they say neither could have predicted this trajectory.

After a chance meeting at Auckland’s Orphan’s Kitchen where Conor was head chef, the two agreed to meet to discuss an idea Conor had for a popup restaurant. Carly, a hospitality stalwart who had just begun working her way through the ranks at Coffee Supreme, also dabbled in graphic design and was more than happy to help Conor get his idea off the  ground. “Our first date was actually a Chimera branding meeting,” explains Carly. “We sat down and right off the bat I said the name was ridiculous because no one could  pronounce it. Branding-wise, that’s terrible.”

But Chimera (ky-meer-a) had been in Conor’s head for two years before that meeting and he wasn’t willing to let go of it. “I’d been working for a long time on the concept and figuring out how the service style would run, the style of food, the atmosphere, the music, the lighting… Chimera as a name felt right.”

What also felt right, he says, was the dynamic between himself and Carly. “She fit perfectly and filled most of the gaps I had.” Needless to say they walked away from that meeting together, having laid the foundations for a partnership in business and in life. More than a year on, they are thriving both personally and professionally.

Having worked in a range of esteemed kitchens both here and in Japan, Conor is now responsible for the fare at Zane Kelsall’s trendy new wine bar, Cave á Vin, on Auckland’s  North Shore where he drives a clever produce-driven menu designed to complement the natural wines on offer. It’s the perfect space, he says, to test ideas for Chimera. “Zane has been incredibly supportive of Chimera and has been happy for us to use Cave á Vin as a test kitchen of sorts.”

Carly, now an account manager at Coffee Supreme, says her work family couldn’t have been more supportive, either. “They’ve been so generous. They fully acknowledge the benefits of encouraging and supporting their people to branch out and do their own thing.” Chimera has gone from strength to strength, morphing from humble beginnings as a dinner party for friends into a polished pop-up dinner series hosted by some of New Zealand’s most acclaimed restaurants.

Collaborating with established restaurants such as Gatherings, Madame George and Cocoro has given Conor and Carly the opportunity to explore how an à la carte service or tasting menu might work instead of their usual set dinner offering, but Chimera is still firmly rooted in its dinner-party origins. Their events are intimate, lively occasions with diners typically sharing a communal table and, like any good dinner party, they pour delicious wine and shit beer. To accompany the generous flow of drink, Conor and his team serve innovative, unfussy food that often riffs on nostalgia.

At their six-course ‘To Your Health’ dinner at Clooney earlier this year, they proudly served grilled cheese and a Victoria Bitter to a group that included some impressive industry heavyweights. The dish was a roaring success and the entire evening – the profits of which went towards various mental-health projects – highlighted for the couple that they really could do good food in their own way.

A permanent space for Chimera is on the two-year plan, but in the meantime you can catch them in November at Summer F.A.W.C! in their next collaboration working along with natural wine labels Amoise and Halcyon Days.