From studying French in Scotland to becoming an award-winning chef in the US

Caroline Schiff, from the US, completed her undergraduate degree in French Studies at the University of St Andrews in Scotland in 2007. Now an award-winning Executive Pastry Chef at Gage & Tollner in Brooklyn, New York, she was a finalist in the US Study UK Alumni Awards in 2023. Hear how her study experiences have helped shape her incredible career.

‘I studied French because I wanted to be taught the intricacies of the language'

People would always ask me why I chose to study French in Scotland. I wanted to be in a place where I would learn through somebody teaching me the actual language and its grammar. As part of my four-year degree, I spent one year in France, where I was able to become completely immersed in the language.

'I've been able to use my French in kitchens in New York, and while travelling around the world'.

‘Speaking another language opens you up to so many more opportunities’

I think speaking another language is so important, and it’s something many Americans cannot do. But if you do, it opens so many opportunities to communicate with people who you might not have been able to otherwise. I’m now at a point in my career where I can marry two things I’m so passionate about - travel and food. A while ago, I started working with a culinary and chef-driven travel company and curated a trip in Morocco for around 20 chefs, helping them explore the country through its food. Almost everyone speaks French there - so I was able to communicate easily.

Kitchens in New York are also notoriously international. So you hear a lot of languages all the time. I’ve been able to use my French at work - both with French-speaking suppliers - and with French-speaking staff members from all over the world.

'St Andrews is a beautiful small town on the east coast of Scotland'.

'The University of St Andrews was very welcoming to international students'

I fell in love with St Andrews as soon as I arrived. The university was very welcoming to foreign students. They made the whole application process really accessible. It was also an amazing contrast to the US, as St Andrews had a rolling admissions process. It meant that I could apply early, and when I was accepted in October to my first choice school (university), it was the best feeling in the world. Then, when I was accepted, I was given lots of practical information on what I needed to know, like what visa I needed and the basics of even just getting to this small town in Scotland.

‘You can live and find comfort in places that are unfamiliar to you’

It’s so gratifying to learn that you can live and find comfort in places that are unfamiliar to you. I was nervous before I arrived that St Andrews might be too small and remote for me, having come from New York. But I was able to adjust and find my routines. There were some things - especially foods - I knew I wouldn’t be able to get, but then I realised that I was fine without them, and I could discover new things that I loved. Now, I travel quite often for work. I will end up somewhere for a week or more. With this experience of being away from home, I now know I can thrive.

Caroline is an expert in her field and has won multiple awards during her career to date.

'Food has always been the thing that drives me'

Food has always been the thing that drives me, and I've always loved being in the kitchen. I've been baking since I could walk, so it's such a big part of who I am. When I'm travelling and going to new places, the first thing I do to situate myself is to go to the store to see what people are buying and find out how they are eating and what they are cooking. It's a great way to connect with the place I am. Cooking in a new place always gives me a sense of comfort and also offers the opportunity to learn about the products that are available locally, and about local produce seasons, agriculture and farming. It's so important.

'In the UK, there is an incredible history of agriculture, dairy farming, fishing, whiskey making and even winemaking (in England)'.

'The food in the UK is delicious, it's local and it's diverse'

There is a rich culinary tradition through the UK not only from within, but from the diverse immigrant community. There is an incredible history of agriculture, dairy farming, fishing, whiskey making and even winemaking (in England). There is such a silly conception that the food in the UK is bad. The reality is it's delicious, it's local, and it's diverse. The UK is one of my favourite places in the world to eat. To me, modern British cooking is marrying traditional British food with food that has been introduced by immigrant communities and seeing it all in the same kitchen.

'Food is not just about making a dish and giving it to somebody. It's about community.'

'Cooking during my studies helped me take steps towards my career as a chef'

Beyond asking what I can cook with, I think who I will share it with. It becomes a way to build a community. At most universities in the US, there are meal plans in a dining hall where you can get anything at any hour of the day. Most people live in dorms throughout their studies. But in the UK, after your first year, you'd usually find a house or flat to share with your friends. So, you're cooking for yourself every night, sharing food with people you live with and inviting friends over. It helped me take steps towards my career as a chef. I learned that food is not just about making a dish and giving it to somebody. It's about engaging with the local community, the producers, the farmers, the cheese makers, the bakers - all of those people.

I still have my closest friends from St Andrews, and they used to my house for dinner every night. Having dinner together got us through our studies, and was such a huge part of the experience. It was also the first stepping stone into my career as a chef.

'Millionaire's shortbread is the greatest food on earth' .

'My experiences in St Andrews solidified what kind of chef I was going to be'

St Andrews is a small town. There was this bakery, Fisher & Donaldson, and you could get a mixed box of all the shortbreads, tea cakes and sponge cakes. They also made this millionaire shortbread, which is the greatest food on earth. It's shortbread with a layer of toffee and then a layer of chocolate on top. I'd just go and get a box and sit by the water and enjoy them. I think that having these experiences in such a beautiful place started to solidify for me what I was going to do and what kind of chef I was going to be.

Caroline was a finalist in the US Study UK Alumni Awards in 2023.

'Studying at St Andrews was the best decision I ever made'

Studying at St Andrews set me on this trajectory of studying things I'm truly passionate about. It gave me a sense of independence and adventure and shaped me personally and professionally. To this day, I think it's the best decision I ever made. It was enriching. It was exciting. It was different from anything that I would have experienced in the United States. Choosing where to go to university can be a scary decision, and it is one of the biggest decisions you'll ever make. When I went to Scotland, it quickly became home, in a way I hadn't expected. When I was in France on my year abroad, I was homesick for Scotland. About a year ago, I did a big return to Scotland trip and it was so great to be back.

Listen to Study UK's feature on Milk Street Radio

Listen to Caroline's feature in Christopher Kimball's Milk Street Radio podcast, where she talks about her time at St Andrews and how it sparked her successful culinary career.

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