A Craftsman’s Pursuit
Focus on ‘small things’ leads to big honor
by Jennifer A. Cline, writer/magazine editor
Published December 7, 2017
With a view overlooking the Hudson River, mere steps from New York City’s World Trade Center, hundreds gather to view the works of trendsetting artists, experts in a medium that catches the eye and makes the mouth water.
Only 10 are invited to display their work: Dessert Professional Magazine’s 2017 Top Ten Pastry Chefs in America, as named by the nation’s leading publication for the chocolate, pastry, artisan bread and frozen dessert industries.
In a large reception room, where a flock of photographers will soon crowd shoulder-to-shoulder for the publisher’s official announcement, Pennsylvania College of Technology’s Chef Charles R. Niedermyer II keeps his intricate edible artwork stocked as attendees gather to snap photos, talk with the artist and taste a sample.
Niedermyer, a 2000 graduate of the college’s baking and pastry arts major and an instructor in the program, is humbled by the honor, which is one of the highest bestowed on pastry chefs in the U.S.
“It’s kind of surreal,” he says. “It’s the kind of thing you dream about in pastry school.”
Niedermyer was 12 years old when he found his calling. The “preacher’s kid” was helping to make thousands of cookies for a church youth group bake sale under the coaching of caterer and family friend Chef Mary Ann Combs.
“She took to showing me the way,” Niedermyer said.
In eighth grade, he told his parents that he knew what he wanted to do with his career.
“He came up to me and said, ‘Dad, I want to be a chef,’” said his father, Charles Sr. “From that point on, he started to work for that.”
“My first job was washing dishes in a bakery at 16,” the younger Niedermyer said. “My first question was: Can I eat?”
But his motivation was serious. He worked in the bakery for three years, gaining experience in various corners of the operation. At home, he practiced his passion by prepping family dinners.
“I went all through high school knowing I wanted to be a chef,” Niedermyer said, and he set his eyes on enrolling at Penn College.
“I was just all in. I’ve never done anything else as a professional career.”
After his graduation from Penn College, Niedermyer worked in hotels, restaurants and bakeries – including the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. and Penn State Bakery – before answering a call from his former instructor Chef Judith P. Shimp to return to his alma mater to teach part time. Less than a year later, in Fall 2005, he joined the Penn College faculty full time. He has since received the college’s Excellence in Teaching and Excellence in Academic Advising Awards, earned his bachelor’s degree in technology management, and was nominated by a student to present the college’s David London My Last Words lecture.
During the address, Niedermyer explained that to practice a craft is to focus on “small things.”
“As a true craftsman, you’re always focused on the smallest of details, the simplest of tasks, always with the goal of improving on the result,” he said. “A craftsman is in a never-ending pursuit of quality.”
That quest has led Niedermyer and faculty colleagues to industry events across the country, as both teachers and observers, usually with students in tow.
“As a true craftsman, you’re always focused on the smallest of details, always with the goal of improving on the result.”
Such events are essential in a field where technical requirements are growing and trends in product design and consumer taste are continually evolving.
“The industry doesn’t stop. The trends don’t stop,” Niedermyer said. “The opportunities are out there, and I want to make that all available to my students.”
When Niedermyer’s students provided demonstrations and tastings at the 2016 Atlantic Bakery Expo, the expertise they demonstrated as they provided product insight to business owners caught the attention of Dessert Professional Magazine editor Matthew K. Stevens, who looked to the education the students receive at Penn College.
Stevens remained impressed as he interacted with Niedermyer – usually accompanied by Penn College students – at more events.
“Our industry is grateful to talented, dedicated chef-instructors like Charles Niedermyer,” Stevens said.
“I am really honored and humbled to receive this award, but it’s a reflection of the work that the department of hospitality is doing here,” Niedermyer said. “I’m just lucky enough to be the one to receive it.”
He remembers how he got to this point, and how he’ll get to the next milestone: It isn’t by happenstance.
“When I give tours, I always emphasize to prospective students that baking is not a glamorous, high-profile, lucrative career and business,” he said.
Rather, it’s about getting up early, working on your feet and, to achieve a craftsman’s expertise, remaining focused on improving the basics.
“We’re in the pursuit to solve problems,” Niedermyer said. “When I teach a simple technique or process, when you get to the end result, there’s always something you want to make better. There’s something, always, you want to fix. … The craftsman is always trying to solve these problems. But here’s the catch: Inevitably, when you solve a problem, it opens up two or three or four more. It’s this never-ending pursuit.”
While Niedermyer’s pursuit continues, with goals of competing on Team USA in the World Cup of Bread (Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie), and of making Penn College known as a national leader in hospitality education, he hopes the pursuit endures in the hearts and careers of students.
“I always emphasize with my students: Is there a better way to do this?” he said. The students, in turn, find new ways of doing things. “It’s so much fun to be working here with creative, energetic minds. … The students keep me coming back. They keep me on my toes.” ■