Caroline Schiff holds many positions in the food industry: executive pastry chef, head chef, writer, and culinary consultant. Today she talks with us about balancing her many commitments, her experiences as a female chef, and the effects the pandemic has had on the restaurants industry. As the largest employer in New York and one of the hardest hit by the pandemic, closures have left many with nothing. Listen as Caroline discusses the fears and hopes she has for the restaurant industry in the wake of New York’s second wave.
Caronline Schiff: [00:00:01] We, you know, people don’t have health insurance, they don’t have 401ks, they don’t have savings and so overnight most people in my industry were left with nothing…
Sam: [00:00:15] How do you turn a degree in French and a love of fashion into a successful career in the culinary industry? Caroline Schiff is an executive pastry chef at Gage and Tollner in downtown Brooklyn, head chef at Slow Up, and a writer, and culinary consultant. Caroline, thank you so much for joining us on ideamix radio today.
Caronline Schiff: [00:00:58] Thank you so much for having me. It’s great to be here.
Sam: [00:01:01] So, Caroline, for our audience, who may be less familiar, tell us about your work as a chef and a culinary consultant and how you balance those two things.
Caronline Schiff: [00:01:12] Sure. Well, my sort of main gig is I’m the executive pastry chef at Gage and Tollner, downtown Brooklyn. And we are recording this during Covid so we are bracing for a second wave here in New York. So obviously right now the restaurant is on hiatus. And so in the meantime I’m doing lots of consulting, but I mean, how do I balance it? I don’t know. Sometimes I feel like I don’t, I just try to take on projects that I know are really valuable and exciting to me. And I try to make a schedule for myself. And sometimes I bite off more than I can chew for sure.
Sam: [00:02:11] I think the side effect or the sort of subheading under high performing is biting off more than we can chew.
Caronline Schiff: [00:02:21] Exactly. Every week I kick myself and I’m like, oh, why did I take all this on? But to backtrack just a little bit, I really try to take on things that are exciting and meaningful and that I love and I’m in a very privileged position to be able to do that. So, yeah, I think everything I’m working on right now is really special.
Sam: [00:02:50] Absolutely. I mean, to say the pandemic’s being hard on the food and beverage industry would be such an understatement. In New York City alone, there have been over a thousand closures in September and with lots more businesses hanging by a thread. What’s it been like working in the industry this year and in the many ways you’ve been on the front lines of this?
Caronline Schiff: [00:03:13] It’s devastating. It’s absolutely heartbreaking. I mean, when we shut down and when the industry had to shut down in New York, whether you did it, you know, before the city said you had to or when they made us, I mean, it was absolutely heartbreaking. And I think it says a lot when the hospitality industry from delis to fine dining is, I believe, the largest employer in New York in New York State. So I think it really says something when overnight so many were left with absolutely nothing, no safety net. You know, we don’t, nobody in this industry is really operating with deep pockets. People live paycheck to paycheck. We don’t have health insurance. They don’t have four one KS. They don’t have savings. And so overnight, most people in my industry were left with nothing, and I think that’s very profound and it’s been truly heartbreaking. It’s been heartbreaking to see so many places close. And it’s not just the ones that you’re reading about that have this big platform. It’s, you know, the diner in my neighborhood that’s been there for twenty five years that just couldn’t make it. That’s a wonderful neighborhood, family owned spot. So this is affecting every part of the industry and it’s heartbreaking to see our leadership not really step forward and support us at all.
Sam: [00:05:18] Absolutely, I think the smaller the business, the greater the effect in many ways.
Caronline Schiff: [00:05:26] Absolutely.
Sam: [00:05:29] You’ve done one of the most laudable things during this pandemic, during the restaurant closures and lock down, you made meals that ended up feeding over a thousand New Yorkers. Tell us a little bit more about that.
Caronline Schiff: [00:05:47] Oh, gosh. I mean, in a way, I feel like it was like it was the only thing I could do. And it was sort of like the least I could do. I felt, especially in the early days of the pandemic when we didn’t understand the virus as well as we do now. So it was really and we kind of hadn’t even figured out like how to operate. I felt helpless. I’m somebody who wants to be doing something and I want to be doing something impactful. And I like helping people. And, you know, typically, you know, food – feeding people. Cooking for people, it doesn’t necessarily solve a problem or solve a crisis, but it helps and all of a sudden during the pandemic I felt like, oh, I can’t do this thing that I know is comforting to people. So I was really struggling with that. And then I was able to connect with my now good friend Krista, who is among many things, she’s a chef and a business owner, but she’s also on the board of an organization in New York that runs a lot of shelters in Brooklyn. And there’s a family shelter that has women and children, a lot of them had lost their homes due to Covid or were in situations of domestic abuse that got worse during Covid and they had to leave and they lost their homes. Through her organization, we were able to use the kitchen at the restaurant to cook for. All of these families every week, and we did it throughout the summer and it was awesome and it was the way that I felt like I could stay engaged with my community and that I could offer some kind of support and comfort. And, yeah, like at the same time, I wish I could do so much more. [00:07:55][128.1]
Sam: [00:07:56] Yeah, I mean, it’s so important, I think, to your point. This feeling of how we as individuals have an impact, I think it is exactly as you’ve illustrated, in our own local communities, in our own small ways, and it is entirely within our power to have that impact. And it isn’t about whether that impact is on one person or ten thousand people or anything in between. It’s, I think, just the act of having that impact on somebody other than yourself and your immediate family.
Caronline Schiff: [00:08:27] Absolutely.
Sam: [00:08:30] I want to take you back, Caroline, to 2007, you returned from studying French in Europe and decided to start applying for jobs at restaurants with very little culinary experience. Tell us, what made you want to take that leap then?
Caronline Schiff: [00:08:46] Sure. Well, I mean, I always, I knew I wanted to work with food, I’m a creative person and food has always been like a huge outlet for me and something that has brought me an incredible amount of joy and satisfaction. And so I knew I wanted to do that. And I think when you’re that young, you’re kind of like, you know, blessed to be a little like oblivious and kind of dumb.
Sam: [00:09:24] It’s the perfect time to take a risk.
Caronline Schiff: [00:09:28] I had no money and I just started to apply for jobs and it was different then, I mean, we hadn’t had the recession and there was really this amazing boom of small neighborhood farm to table restaurants happening in Brooklyn. And so I just kind of was like I’m going to throw my-
Sam: [00:09:57] Want to be a part of that.
Caronline Schiff: [00:09:58] Yeah, I wanted to be a part of it. And I was like, I’m going to throw my non-existent resume out there and see what happens. But I knew that it was something that I really wanted to do, and I think that passion is a huge driver, and so that’s what pushed me.
Sam: [00:10:24] I love that passion is a great driver. Talk to us a little bit, Caroline, about being a woman in a male dominated industry. What was it like when you started and how is it evolved and what do you feel it’s like now?
Caronline Schiff: [00:10:41] I get that question all the time and it’s really interesting because I started in a kitchen that was run by women and my mentors have mostly been women. So I had this really positive, empowering experience in the beginning. And then, as I, you know, moved on and got more experience in the industry, I realized, oh, you know, a lot of kitchens are not run by women. And you do kind of get, as a female, sometimes, and this isn’t to say all places I’ve worked, but sometimes you get boxed in or there’s an assumption made about you by the rest of the cooks and chefs as to what kind of chef you are, what kind of leader you’re capable of being because you are a woman. So I’ve kind of had both experiences in the industry. I think that now it’s really nice to— you know, there were always a ton of women, working in food.
Sam: [00:12:00] Just not in positions of power and influence, right?
Caronline Schiff: [00:12:01] Right – women have been in this industry for a very long time, but we weren’t getting the recognition. And the same goes for people of color, for black chefs, you know, brown chefs, anybody who was in a minority, that it was like if you were a white man, you weren’t getting the recognition – now we’re seeing it more and that’s really amazing to see. But I think that it’s still a challenge, especially for black and brown chefs, to be getting the recognition that they deserve. And if they’re female, I think it’s probably even more difficult. So, no, the industry is changing and it’s good to see, but the gatekeepers, a lot of them are still white men and I think that that’s something that we still need to change.
Sam: [00:13:14] There’s so much still to be done. I totally agree with that. So in addition to the work that you do as the executive pastry chef at Gage and Tollner, you also work at Slow Up, a food and beverage company trying to reconcile fresh foods with shelf-life. How do you approach the work that you do for packaged goods versus the fresh food that you’re creating in restaurants? That’s much more local and farm to table. An immediate in a sense, while packaged food has by definition got to go through some stages before it actually gets to the end consumer.
Caronline Schiff: [00:13:59] Slow Up is a really interesting company, because our whole mission is to take really fresh food that has a shelf life, it has an expiration date and make it as convenient as any other shelf stable bar that you’d grab off the shelves in a deli. So it’s been a really interesting, awesome experience getting to create those recipes, because I was able to use some of the same muscle of good ingredients, fresh flavors and fresh food and just put it into a form that has that convenience of a packaged good. But really, when you eat it, it reads very differently. So that work is really, really interesting. And we’re growing and evolving as a company. But I think we’re creating like a new category almost of packaged food, of snacks and small meals, and it’s really exciting.
Sam: [00:15:22] Amazing. I look forward to tasting some of it.
Caronline Schiff: [00:15:25] Yeah, I have to send you some.
Sam: [00:15:28] As a pastry chef, you spend a lot of time grappling with the technical reality of complex recipes. But there’s this room for creativity to come up with your own versions of often classic desserts. Tell us a little bit about the balance between creativity and the classics and sort of giving people what they want, but sort of pushing them to try something new.
Caronline Schiff: [00:15:53] Sure, I think, you know, obviously there’s a lot of kind of science and chemistry to pastry, and when you start to understand that how certain things are going to react with each other, what fats will do, what different percentages of gluten will do, hydration, all of that kind of stuff. Once you have a really good grasp of that and that science and that precision, then I which I you know, I’m still learning all of that. And it’s like I feel like I’m constantly figuring things out.
Sam: [00:16:36] I think you need to write a dessert recipe book because your desserts just look so singularly delectable every time I see the pictures on social media.
Caronline Schiff: [00:16:47] Oh, thank you. Well, hopefully someday soon. But yeah, like once you kind of understand how things are going to work together, then, you know, then that’s when I start playing around and like flavors that’s like an easy, that’s a much easier thing to change up and swap around, and so I kind of I build on what I know and then I can and then I can have fun.
Sam: [00:17:22] I love that building on what you know, but having fun with it. As a pastry chef and someone in this industry in general, you are always working as part of a team and at the same time you’re trying to get the team to execute your vision. Tell us a little bit about that dynamic allocating responsibilities amongst members of your team, taking creative input from them. How do you create that sort of culture of both performance and delivery, but also collaboration and input?
Caronline Schiff: [00:17:56] Well, one of the things I like about pastry departments. Well, sometimes I complain about it, but it is nice that you’re usually only a small team and a lot of that is due to budget in restaurants. But because of that, it’s like you know I’ll be working with one or two other pastry cooks. And so you really get to know each other and they really become, you know, I mean, your team is everything. I think listening to them is really important, whoever is on my team, I want to hear their opinion. I want to hear their ideas and just kind of make them really understand that I can’t do my job without them and they’re so, so valuable and also that’s how you start to mentor people and create the platform to then be their own boss someday. To start giving them some creativity and help them kind of hone their skills and that kind of thing. So I think it’s, working with people who are, again, really passionate, who really want to do it and giving them a little sort of pushes and that confidence that they need to start, you know, building themselves up as pastry chefs.
Sam: [00:19:48] The mentorship piece is so important.
Caronline Schiff: [00:19:52] Mentorship is really big for me because I wouldn’t have a career without it. So I think that that’s just the biggest thing. And I would tell any young chef/cook to find somebody who you really admire, who is excited about teaching you and stick with them and they’ll stick with you. I mean, mentorship is so, so valuable. I don’t think we talk about it enough.
Sam: [00:20:26] I totally agree. Caroline, what’s keeping you up at night right now?
Caronline Schiff: [00:20:34] What isn’t? Everything. I mean, I think right now – I don’t know when this is going to air, but we’re right before Thanksgiving 2020 – Covid is keeping me up at night. I am so, so worried for our communities, for all the people who have gotten sick, who have lost loved ones, who are forced to work in maybe unsafe conditions because this country hasn’t supported people, and I’m worried for anybody who is disenfranchised. I don’t think there’s ever been such a huge divide in our country between people who are privileged and people who are really making the choice of you know, putting their life at risk and and risking the lives of their family members, because if not, they’re going to lose their home. I mean, that is, you know, it’s inexcusable and that’s what’s happening in our country.
Sam: [00:22:01] I agree. I think I was reading this somewhere – You know, we used to be in an age of science and now we’re in the age of opinion, where the ability of a very large group of our societies in liberal democracies has lost the ability to understand the difference between fact and opinion. And it’s really driven these divides and differences. And it sort of turns into an endless stream of divides, if you think about it, because nobody’s actually working off a common set of facts.
Caronline Schiff: [00:22:40] Yeah, I am cautiously optimistic about the Biden administration. I was very relieved to see that he was already putting together covid task force, and I think that, you know, I hope he’s as aggressive in fighting it as he can be, because we’re losing so many people, we’re losing… I mean, I can’t even put it into words.
Sam: [00:23:24] It’s the lives lost and the destruction of the social fabric, it’s both.
Caronline Schiff: [00:23:29] Yeah, yeah.
Sam: [00:23:32] Last question, Caronline, where do you see yourself three years from now?
Caronline Schiff: [00:23:39] Honestly, I mean, not not too different than where I am right now, I mean, I feel really lucky to be able to do what I love and I hope that I can continue to be an active member of my community. I’d love to write more and just keep making delicious desserts. I mean, I feel like for all of the devastating, heartbreaking situations that we’ve all found ourselves in over the past couple of months, it’s also highlighted for me how lucky I am to to do what I love and so I you know, I just see myself continuing to do that and I hope I always am in a position where I can have my hands on the food and be making things. You know, I never really want to— I like being in the kitchen, you know, it fulfills me and makes me feel really happy. So, yeah, hopefully that I’ll be here in three years.
Sam: [00:24:58] That is the single most important thing is to feel enthusiasm and passion for what you do. But also as you just said, to feel a sense of gratitude for having found that and to be able to do that at this time in particular.
Caronline Schiff: [00:25:14] Yeah.
Sam: [00:25:16] Here’s something else you should know. Less than 7% of all restaurants in the US are headed by a female chef. Thanks to NBC and NPR for the data used in today’s episode. Carolyn, we love your story because it illustrates that even if you don’t figure it out at 18, you can still find your own unique path with a combination of different things, as you’ve shown, and so it’s deeply inspiring, thank you so much for being here with us today.
Caronline Schiff: [00:25:49] Thank you so much for having me. It was a pleasure.
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