Capital change-up

Illustration by Mark Stivers

Modern mousse: As the new pastry chef at Old Sac’s fine dining Firehouse Restaurant (1112 Second Street), Lilah Rogoff has spotted similarities between the food scenes in quieter state capitals: They often have lower rents than the large metros, enabling chefs to take risks.

Rogoff, 30, got her start in Raleigh, North Carolina, where she worked at the five-star Umstead Hotel & Spa, then launched lucettegrace, a modern patisserie that was “a new and exciting thing for Raleigh,” she says. It’s akin to the type of business Rogoff would like to start in Sacramento someday, combining local ingredients and recipes with classic French techniques to create a menu both exciting and accessible.

Her mentor Daniel Benjamin taught her those tricks, as well as how to manage a restaurant with grace in an era when reality TV chefs bark at their kitchens in hellacious tirades.

“There are a lot of cultural issues in the restaurant industry in terms of how employees are treated, how women are treated and people of different nationalities,” Rogoff says. “He taught me how to transcend that. … Most of it was the attitude that you have toward people, realizing that you’re just making pastry and not saving lives—you’re not an ER doctor. While we want to have rigor and care, it’s more important that you care about the relationships you have with your coworkers.”

Rogoff then went on to work at Catalyst Restaurant in Boston, but found herself longing for a smaller city with the room to experiment. When her boyfriend landed a job in Vacaville, she got excited about the prospect of innovating in Sacramento, a city that reminded her of Raleigh—save for its abundance of local produce.

When a realtor showed Rogoff and her boyfriend houses in the area, they kept count of all the citrus trees in backyards.

“My boyfriend and I were losing it, and our real estate agent was like, ’What’s going on? Every house has a tree in their backyard.’”

Rogoff used local inspiration to unveil a new dessert menu at Firehouse last week with confections too complex for home kitchens, she says. She’s modernized and lightened up the formerly traditional dessert menu, tossing out the commonplace crème brûlée for white chocolate meyer lemon soufflé ($12.50) and dark chocolate mousse cake ($9.50).

She flirts with the frisson between textures and flavors like the strawberries and cream ($9.50), where the soft richness of brown butter cake and buttermilk vanilla mousse play against the acid tang of lemon curd and strawberry gelee and the crunch of white-chocolate feuilletine.

“I don’t like going to a restaurant where I can’t decide if I like it because it’s confusing,” she explains. “I want my desserts to be approachable, and I want people to eat a whole bowl of them, but for it to be exciting and new—something they haven’t seen before.”