“Even on my days off, I just want to cook,” says Caroline Schiff, the pastry chef at Gage & Tollner, a historic oyster and chop house in Brooklyn. “I was talking to my mom, and she was like, ‘For Thanksgiving, you’ll be so tired from work, we’ll order prepared foods.’ And I was like, ABSOLUTELY YOU WILL NOT TAKE THIS AWAY FROM ME.” Today, Caroline comes out with her first cookbook, The Sweet Side of Sourdough, inspired by her (and everyone’s?) pandemic hobby. We were excited to chat with her about Baked Alaska, her gravity-defying hair, and a surprisingly hard part of the job…
Where was your first restaurant job?
At The Good Fork in Brooklyn in 2008. I was a line cook, but I had a crazy sweet tooth and wanted to be a fancy shmancy pastry chef. The chef/owner Sohui Kim said, if you want to do pastry, you have to get into a kitchen that has a pastry program and pastry chef and work your way up. She pushed me to do that, and then I was, like, bitten by this bug. Now I’ve been a professional pastry chef for, oh my god, at least 13 years.
What’s hard about your job that people might not expect?
It’s *incredibly* physical. My job is my workout; I’m on my feet all day, lifting things. My team members are always like, engage your core! At night, I feel it in my body.
In his review of Gage & Tollner, Pete Wells of the New York Times wrote, “There are Parker House rolls, basted in butter and so pillowy you’d want to stretch out and go to sleep on them if they weren’t served scalding hot.”
Yes! We make the Parker House rolls every day. The bread service is probably the most labor intensive thing we do. I always hope that people know that when a dish costs a certain amount, we’re not trying to take someone for a ride. There’s love and labor involved, start to finish.
Tell us about your Baked Alaska! It looks incredible.
From day one at Gage & Tollner, I was like, there HAS to be a Baked Alaska. It’s this opulent Victorian-era dessert, which takes three days to make. We churn three flavors of house-made ice cream — amarena cherry, fresh mint and dark chocolate — and they have to set in molds overnight. We unmold and slice them, then cover everything with French meringue whipped fresh to order. Then we blowtorch it. I wanted it to be this whimsical, oversized creation; and when it comes your table, you’d think, Wow, this is wild.
At restaurants, I always wonder if pastry chefs get stressed if people end up too full for dessert.
At Gage & Tollner, that actually doesn’t happen. You have projections for whatever percentage of people will order dessert, but those projections were blown out of the water.
Why do you think that is?
People here are seeing the meal like a play, and you’re not going to walk out before the third act. It’s so COOL to be able to make desserts here. When I was six, I would lose my mind walking past a bakery or ice cream shop; I wish I could go back and tell my little self, Hey, you’re going to get to do this for a living.
Speaking of creations, tell us about your amazing hair.
My hair has always been big. My mom also has it. I figured out how to pile it on top of my head with one of those giant claws, and I wrap it in scarves in the kitchen. I love that it’s something that people know me for.
Do you always wear it piled up?
For my brother’s wedding, a stylist gave me a blow out, and I was like a dog when you take them to the groomer, and they FREAK OUT. I immediately went home on the subway and took a shower.
What beauty products are always in your bathroom?
I put on tinted sunscreen every single day. If I’m getting dressed up, my go-to is black eyeliner and black mascara. I’m still buying the same one I bought in high school — the classic drugstore Maybelline.
How about skincare?
Working in a kitchen, I end the day with a film of flour on my face. So, once a week, I exfoliate with Fresh Sugar Polish to get the flour out of my pores!
What else makes you feel good?
I never take off my bat mitzvah necklace, which is the Star of David. It’s been on my body for most of my life.
Congrats on your new book, The Sweet Side of Sourdough, which comes out today.
My pandemic baby! The cookbook reveals all the sweet things you can make with sourdough starter.
What inspired you to write about sourdough?
Gage & Tollner was supposed to open on March 15, 2020. When we abruptly had to slam on the brakes, I thought, I can’t let the restaurant’s sourdough starter die, so I’ll take it home for a couple weeks. So, I’m making bread at home, but I’m kind of losing my mind because you can only eat so much bread. I was thinking, what else can I do with this sourdough starter?
Ooh, what else did you come up with?
I started adding it to pie dough and cakes. Then came babka, sticky buns, doughnuts, double chocolate chunk cookies, fig brownies. Each recipe is something I worked on during a very dark time for everyone, and it was a way to nourish people. I could text friends and say, Ride by and I’ll toss you a focaccia or I shoved some biscuits in your mailbox. I’d leave cookies downstairs and text the neighbors that they were on the radiator in the lobby.
This is random, but I’m curious: What do you think of The Great British Baking Show? My doctor sister hates most medical shows.
Cooking shows weirdly give me strange anxiety. I’m like, You’re not baking it long enough! I prefer to watch The Office because it couldn’t be more different from my world.
In your career, was there ever a time that you felt hopeless but kept going anyway?
Absolutely. When you’re working toward a goal, it can be an emotional rollercoaster. Some months, I would be working freelance and not making any money and feeling like a total failure and thinking, What am I even doing? What is wrong with me? I’d panic, I’m never going to get a job again. Those moments you start to spiral.
At restaurants like Gage & Tollner, what can diners do to show appreciation for the pastry chef?
Positive feedback means the world. When someone tells me they love my coconut cake, I’m dead. Deceased. If a diner says they’d like to meet me, I always go say hi. I love walking out into the dining room and seeing everyone engaging in conversation and having their moments. Honestly, I’m just over the moon.
Thank you so much, Caroline!
(Top photo by Andrew-Bezek. Baking photos in blue sweatshirt by Gabby Jones. Portrait in front of desk and with yellow bowl by Yumi-Matsuo. Portraits in black t-shirt by Lanna-Apisukh. Photo in kitchen with drink by Nancy Borowick.)
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