Taste Bud Profile
Chef Caroline is such a vivid, expressive person—and if you’ve ever been lucky enough to try her desserts, you’ll know that that energy is present in every delicious bite. From a young age, she knew she wanted to create beautiful things, and lucky for us, she chose sweets as her medium! Find out more about how a love of art and a “crazy sweet tooth” led her to a career as one of the most celebrated pastry chefs in the country.
Caroline Schiff: I have so many vivid memories of making cake messes in the kitchen. From the time I could express myself, I think I was obsessed with baking and sweets and cake in particular. When I got home from school, I wanted to bake. I wanted to create things with my hands, but not with toys. And I had—and still have!—a crazy sweet tooth! I was always obsessed with food and I’m still obsessed with food. I don’t really know where it comes from. I just think about it all the time, and I love it. I’m a true restaurant person—everything I do in my life is through the lens of food.
I was a very artistic child. I loved art class, and pottery, but I also just loved cookbooks, and watching cooking shows. I’d see things being made and I’d have to try to do it myself. I’d sit on the kitchen floor with all of my cookbooks and I’d flip through them and dog-ear the ones I wanted to make. One thing that really impacted me was my love of museums. I was so lucky to be able to go to the Met as a child, and my mom would take me fairly often. I always wanted to go straight to the Impressionist’s wing, with Monet and Renoir, and Degas—I just wanted to go see my favorite paintings over and over. I loved the color schemes, and that they all seemed like a dream. Like the picture wasn’t clear, but you still knew what it was. To me that perspective was magical. If you look at my desserts now, they’re not super technique driven or perfect. I actually love the imperfections, and I never want things to feel prescriptive. My favorite thing to make here at Gage and Tollner is the baked Alaska, because every single one is different. I treat every plate like a little canvas, like a new piece of art. I do get very excited to plate each thing! And fortunately I get to do it dozens of times a night, and every time the sauce will bleed a certain way, different from the last time—and I love that. It’s magic. If there’s a ribbon of buttercream on a dish, I want it to really be like you threw a ribbon in the air and it fell beautifully onto the plate. It’s never going to fall the same way twice. My niece has a book about different art movements, and we were reading about the Impressionists together, and I was reminded about how they never wanted to color within the lines, so to speak, or follow rules. They weren’t accepted by the art world at the time. I just love the idea that you can create things on different levels, and that things I create can really and truly be free expressions of myself.
I think food is a really wonderful way to learn how to express yourself. It engages everything—it’s not just about making a dish start to finish. It engages all of your senses, certainly, but also the need or craving to create.
It satisfies that. When I’m teaching someone how to make something they’ve never made before, they’ll often say they’re nervous. ‘What if I screw it up?’ Well, the good news is, the stakes are pretty low. It’s an exciting way to create something with the potential for a really big impact, with very little risk. It’s a really gratifying space, making a cake from start to finish, because don’t forget—you get to eat it when you’re done! What’s better than that?
One thing I love to do with my niece is build a cheese board and then taste everything together, and decide what she likes and doesn’t. It’s really, really fun. She forms all these opinions, like which cheese goes best with whatever fruit we have, and also challenges me to try pairings of this and that and why shouldn’t she get to decide whether this fig goes with this cheese? It’s interactive and fun for both of us.
I’d never expect a five year old to execute a recipe, but there are these magical moments in cooking and kitchen time where food starts to transform, and I think that’s something else a kid can be involved in as well. Like when eggs change consistency when you beat them, or when you add butter to meringue and it turns to buttercream. Cooking is like this very accessible alchemy, and it’s to pay attention to those transformation moments and share them with kids, even if they seem mundane to you when you’re cooking all the time. They can be magical! Adults don’t always see these actions as the coolest tasks in the world, but who knows—it could be the start of something really inspiring and visually motivating for a kid!
If Kalamata had existed when I was a kid, I think I would have understood earlier that there are no “good” and no “bad” foods.
There’s no morality to food. You can like it or not like it, but if you don’t like it—it doesn’t make it “bad”. You’re allowed to not like things but you should remember that it might be good to someone else.