Susan Notter: Practice Makes Perfect

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(This interview originally appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)

Chef Susan Notter discovered the baking and pastry arts as a young child in England. The oldest of four girls, when she wanted something sweet, she made it from scratch. Perhaps her enduring modesty (she claims not to be particularly talented, merely having practiced a lot) comes from learning to view sweets as the result of the work of her hands. “I mainly organized my sisters’ birthday parties. I would make sandwiches, cookies, and then the birthday cakes, which would always be shaped to look like something – I remember hedgehogs, cottages, and clocks.” Thus began Chef Notter’s dedication to the art of creating ambitious pastries and confections.

Despite being raised in a family that did not revere the food industry (her mother asked her why she didn’t “get a real job, work in a bank, or work in an office”), she remains as committed today as she was when she baked as a child. A graduate of culinary school in England, Notter has coached and won high-level pastry competitions, taught and directed departments at the International School of Confectionary Arts, Culinard, and YTI Career Institute (a prominent Pennsylvania trade school), created chocolates in Luzerne and Zurich, and is now working for Max Felchin AG as the dedicated United States Chef and Sales Professional. Notter has also been a contestant on several Food Network shows, demonstrating her adeptness at creating blown sugar and impressively designed cakes.

When she was teaching at YTI, she was glad to see the progress the students made. “I taught mainly the chocolate and sugar showpiece classes to students in their final term before externship. It was rewarding to see them develop their creative skills, beginning with ideas and a drawing, then ending with a showpiece and final display table. The students were very proud of their work. We would have an evening where the parents and friends would come to see the students’ work, and they were often amazed at how far they had come in nine months of training.”

As the Felchlin United States’ representative, Susan travels a lot.  “I meet with the chefs, show them that we value their business, and introduce them to the product range that Felchlin carries. It’s so much better to meet face to face than just having a phone call, and I believe the chefs appreciate this also. And I get to visit my friends in the industry – what’s better than that?”

Despite being a worldwide company over 100 years old with distributors on six continents, Max Felchlin is not mired in history; it’s a company that likes to stay current. That means that communication between Chef Notter and her colleagues is crucial, and because industry conditions are always changing, frequent travel is necessary. “When I go to Switzerland, it’s good for me to touch base with my Swiss coworkers and have time to meet to discuss current and future projects. Each time I’m there, there’s a little different focus. I’ve been with customers from the U.S. that attended classes taught by Jordi Bordas. I’ve spent time in the factory understanding the production at a deeper level, training on the complete product line, and in R&D on the couverture testing and product development. Recently I was there with all seven of the chefs working on new recipes for 2019.” When Chef Notter is stateside, she’s just as busy as when she’s abroad, “organizing travel, visiting customers, working on presentations and classes, preparing finished products to take to customers, etc.”

Notter does not deprive herself of sweets, but prefers products that rely on rich tastes and from scratch ingredients. She’s a fan of simple cake rolls or fruit pies, or a chocolate with a thin shell and wonderful layers of flavor. Her focus on flavor and authenticity, however, hasn’t deterred her from artistry. Anyone who views her sugar sculptures can’t fail to be struck by the color and elegant forms she uses to craft her edible art. These pieces serve as evidence that one can be unswervingly dedicated to flavor and quality ingredients while creating visually complex work, and that refinement does not necessarily dilute the drama of a piece. Chef Notter’s perspective is that – particularly with desserts – people eat for pleasure, so the appeal had better be there, or customers won’t come back. And while the saying that “people eat with their eyes” might be a cliché, Chef Notter believes there’s a great deal of truth to it. In an era when many consumers work more than sixty hours per week, the appeal of pastries, breads, and chocolates made by someone else is undeniable, but these products have got to catch the customer’s eye, even if they aren’t works of art.

While Chef Notter acknowledges that popular cooking shows encourage home cooks and bakers to consider using strictly fresh and from-scratch ingredients, she wishes they would focus less on “colorful displays of suspense and emotion and more on the ingredients and techniques required to successfully produce delicious food.” When teaching, the type of students she was most impressed by (and would have liked to hire) were not the ones who spent time talking in class or focusing on their smartphones. It was the ones who always stayed late and finished cleaning up. Dishwashing is not required to create fanciful wedding cakes, and is rarely featured on cooking competition television shows, but in Notter’s classes, it was valued as part of finishing the commitment to the task at hand.

Despite the rewards of the baking and pastry world, Notter concedes that many industry veterans reach a point when they want to change gears. Most industry jobs are physically demanding, and many require intense focus. Years and years of this can stress anyone’s body or spirit. Anticipating a need to change channels is something that Chef Notter advocates: “I think each chef should consider early on where their career will take them. It’s tough to be on your feet and working 12-hour shifts as you get older. It’s a young person’s game, but there are opportunities in R&D, working for companies like Felchlin, playing more of a consulting role, teaching. Experience and industry knowledge can be very valuable to an employer. It’s important to develop many skills in and out of the kitchen, and have a lot to offer. Make yourself invaluable!” she advises.

Chef Notter certainly appreciates her career shift from classroom to corporation. And although one could assume otherwise, she sees that shift as a continuation, not a departure. “I see it as the next step. I am still teaching, but with specific focus, I am also learning a lot and this brings new challenges, but I enjoy the challenge. I like working more independently, and it’s up to me to make this work. The education profession is wonderfully rewarding, but does not always understand the hospitality industry and how important it is to network and be involved outside the schools. It was not a letdown; I feel my new position is perfect for my experience and background.” Chef Notter clearly loves her new job as much as she loves the pastry industry. Like the taste of a hot roll baked on site using fresh ingredients, there is nothing like it, and for Chef Susan Notter, this makes it all worthwhile.