Schiff rose to national prominence at the Brooklyn chophouse. Photo: Lanna Apisukh

A couple of Monday mornings ago, Caroline Schiff answered the door to her Fort Greene home wearing a vodka-sauce-colored cardigan and jeans. Her eyeliner was perfectly symmetrical. Her hair had been pinned up in the topknot chignon she’s known for, which mimics the swoop of the Baked Alaska she made famous at Gage & Tollner. Upstairs, in her fourth-floor apartment, she swooshed a scoop of sourdough starter (named for Edna Lewis) across a skillet. She tossed dill, radishes, and arugula in vinaigrette. She fried two eggs until the whites were ringed with crisp, and she draped one over each half of the sourdough pancakes. On the table was a small plate that held four different options for hot sauce, which she had arranged earlier that morning. There were four different options for salt. I pointed out that this seemed like a lot of work. “Oh,” she protested, “it was so easy.”

Whether it actually was is beside the point. Schiff operates with an air of buoyancy that makes the rest of us feel dense. Her home should be a new class of SSRIs. Each room is full of cheerful antiques (mostly pilfered from her grandmother’s collection), cookbooks from the 1970s that instruct one to stuff a sandwich loaf with mayonnaise and shredded Swiss cheese, and tidily stored alt-grain flours in labeled canisters. It could serve as the set for a Frances Ha sequel in which Frances opens a micro-bakery.

Schiff lives how she cooks: bounding around merrily, admiring the weight of old things, and adding enough peculiarity to make them feel new. At Gage & Tollner, her coconut cake comes with pink-peppercorn dust in the cashew brittle that gets strewn across each slice. Her chocolate tart is malted and tangy from sourdough discard. Her Baked Alaska is made from a trio of ice creams, torched-to-order meringue, and a salty cookie crumble that would’ve made a 19th-century pastry chef blush. Her cheesecake is made with chèvre. And on March 31, she’ll serve her last slices at the rebooted Brooklyn chophouse.

After more than three years at the helm of the restaurant’s pastry program, she is ready to do her own thing. Schiff plans to spend a year preparing to open her own diner, along with business partner Tori Ciambriello. So her mind, lately, has been filled with ungovernable thoughts. Most of them — about the new menu, and the vibe, and a “sheet of the week” program with a shifting cake flavor — are useful. Less so are the “what ifs” and stress dreams about needing to make an urgent call but being unable to find a phone. “My identity is being a restaurant chef,” she says. “I am scared of not being in that space for a little while.”

Ciambriello is another veteran of special-occasion dining. Before becoming general manager at Gage & Tollner, she was the sommelier and captain at Gramercy Tavern. She and Schiff bonded over their love of takeout diner food: club sandwiches (Ciambriello) and grilled cheese (Schiff) and French fries dipped in coleslaw (both). Their references for their own version, for which they’re looking at spaces in Ridgewood and Brooklyn now, could form a Criterion Collection of fluorescent-lit houses of drip coffee and omelets. Schiff loves 7th Ave Donuts & Diner, Neptune Diner II, Cobble Hill Coffee Shop, and B&H. Ciambriello still goes to Andros when she’s back home in Connecticut and loves Clark Street Diner in Los Angeles. They both think that Budd Lake Diner in New Jersey is the platonic ideal, with its chrome and floor-mounted swivel chairs. “Diners are for everyone,” Ciambriello says. “You can just walk in and they’ll give you a table. Even when they’re bad, they’re good.”

For now, the two have to decide what exactly “good” means. Schiff is weighing the balance of adaptable diner classics against a more prescriptive menu; on one hand, “a diner is about choice — that’s an expectation,” she says. On the other hand, she has a vision. “Do I have a standard grilled cheese? Or do I lay down the law and say: This is the grilled cheese you’re having?” She feels a great deal of pressure to find her next Baked Alaska.

That dessert, meanwhile, will remain on the menu at Gage & Tollner. After she departs, Schiff will hand the pastry program off to Kathryn Irizarry, who spent nearly 15 years working at a financial-technology firm before leaving to attend Le Cordon Bleu in Paris in 2019, and has been working under Schiff’s tutelage. Since Irizarry spearheaded the “State Fair Sundae” special a couple years back — blueberry and lemon ice creams, kettle corn, candied peanuts, berry jam — she has been, as she put it, “unofficially the sundae creator.” As of April 1, it will be official. She has no plans to remove the Parker House rolls from the menu, though she would like to expand the bread program and, eventually, introduce a few additions: “I’d love to get into the discussion that’s happening in New York right now about big pieces of chocolate cake; what’s the Gage & Tollner version?”

Schiff, meanwhile, is in the “imaginative phase.” Her sourdough pancakes, which somehow get even crispier as they sit, are one of the sure bets for her diner menu. In her apartment, as we each popped our yolks, she listed a few other items she was certain will make the final cut: stuffed cabbage, a big salad, and several breads baked in-house. (“I don’t have a minimalist bone in my body,” she says.) Handling both the sweet and savory menus will be a natural evolution for Schiff; she began her career as a fry cook and has spent the last 16 years building fluency across all parts of the kitchen, beginning and ending with tenures under Gage & Tollner’s chef, Sohui Kim. At their diner, the one thing both Schiff and Ciambriello want to avoid is kitsch. “We’re not interested in retro-diner uniforms,” Schiff says. “It’s not a throwback to the 1950s.”