(This article appeared in the Winter 2023 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
Baking & Pastry Arts Faculty
Pennsylvania College of Technology, Williamsport, PA
A Chef-Instructor at Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport, PA, Charles Niedermyer has been teaching baking and pastry arts since 2005. He is a 2018 Bake Magazine Twenty-Five top educator, a 2017 Top Ten Pastry Chef in America as named by Dessert Professional Magazine, and holds several awards from the college, including a Distinguished Teaching Award in 2015. His industry experience includes bakeries, restaurants, hotels, and clubs, including The Penn State Bakery and The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company. Not one to sit on his laurels, Chef Niedermyer’s work extends well beyond the campus classroom. He is an active member of The Bread Bakers Guild of America and the Retail Confectioners Association, teaching at educational conferences all over the country. Charles leads production at the Kentucky Derby each year, where they cook and bake for thousands of guests. He is also a guest instructor for the Department of Food Science at Penn State, lecturing on baking science and product development. In 2015, Charles was a national finalist for Team USA, which competed at the 2016 Coupe de Monde de la Boulangerie. Here Chef Niedermyer discusses his passion for teaching, his drive to motivate students and the advice he offers to a future generation of pastry chefs.
You have an impressive culinary background that includes working at bakeries and the pastry departments of luxury hotels and restaurants. What made you decide to pursue a career in teaching?
Mentoring new pastry cooks was always one of my favorite job responsibilities. I really enjoyed training and passing on the knowledge that was given to me by my mentors. When the opportunity came to teach at my alma mater, I knew I had to go for it! It’s an honor to help students and graduates pursue and achieve their dreams. There may be a perception that pros turned educators have peaked; maybe eased off the pedal and are now cruising down easy street. It’s quite the opposite; my responsibility to fully prepare students for success in today’s market drives me to stay on top of trends, to maintain good relationships throughout the baking and pastry industry, and to continue to hone my craft, every day. The students’ curiosity and creativity inspire me to keep my foot on the gas.
How do you manage to inspire students who might not be naturally motivated to succeed?
The world can be a very tough place right now. Students often hesitate to step up because of fear or self-doubt. Success breeds confidence. Exposing students to what the culinary world has to offer, such as industry trade shows, professional conferences, and our annual participation at the Kentucky Derby broadens their view of where their training can take them. These real-world experiences offer tremendous insight and inspiration.That’s why we, as educators, put forth the effort to get them there, even when it’s not easy. It helps shape career goals and motivate students to achieve more.
You’re very active in professional groups outside of your college. Is that one of the ways you stay on top of new trends and techniques?
Teaching is just one of the many toques I wear. I’m very active with several industry organizations and have the opportunity to teach and lecture all over the country. Staying on top of new trends and techniques is a natural part of that process. In recent years, I have presented candy making techniques for Retail Confectioners International, modern viennoiserie at Bread Bakers Guild of America conferences, and bakery product development for the Penn State Food Science Department. These experiences allow me to hone my expertise, but also collaborate with industry experts across many disciplines. You never stop being a student. You never stop learning. Don’t be afraid to say, “I’m not familiar with that, please tell me more!”
You’ve been involved in high-level competitions, and were a national finalist for Team USA, which competed at the 2016 Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie. What are some lessons you’ve learned through all your competitive experience that you can impart to your students?
Competing at a national level requires you to push beyond your ‘max’. It afforded me a space to explore and dive deeper into pastry than I ever had previously. Creating and practicing new techniques is a process of continuous improvement; failure leads to lessons learned, that’s how we grow. The process compels you to persevere until you find a solution – and when you do, wow! Your understanding of the science of baking grows, as does your view of possible pathways to success. I tell my students that if they are driven to compete, go for it! You will learn so much about baking and yourself. Win, lose, or draw; you will grow, both personally and professionally.
What advice do you give your students to prepare them for the realities of the professional pastry kitchen?
It’s an exciting time to begin a career in pastry! The doors to the best kitchens in America are wide open and ready to welcome eager, hungry apprentices. Additionally, entrepreneurship ventures exist in most communities without the costly brick-and-mortar requirements of the past. If you have a great work ethic, curiosity to keep learning, and remain open to feedback, you will rise to the top quickly. Be patient with the process. Be prepared to start at the bottom and prove yourself. I also strongly recommend that a graduate pursue the job that will offer the greatest learning opportunity over the one with the biggest paycheck. Choose the best experiences and the money will come!