Sweet Artistry

Susan Notter, honored as one of the year's 10 best pastry chefs, creates whimsical pieces that have the food world applauding

October 13, 1999|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,Sun Food Editor

To call Susan Notter a pastry chef somehow doesn't do her justice. xxx Not that she isn't masterful with tarts, pies and cakes, but her skills transcend rolling out a crust, making cookies or whipping up frosting.

Think instead of whimsical creations made of lifelike parrots on a perch, or an underwater scene with angelfish, sea grasses and coral -- all made of chocolate. Or envision a glazed cake with marzipan seals frolicking amid a backdrop of tiny edible icebergs, or elegant bouquets of fragile sugar roses and ribbons cascading from a multitiered cake.

Notter doesn't just bake. She creates. And her artistry has earned her attention.

The Maryland resident recently was honored by Chocolatier and Pastry Art & Design magazines as one of this year's 10 best pastry chefs in America, joining such prestigious company as Chris Broberg of Lespinasse restaurant in New York, Stephen Durfee of the French Laundry in California and Richard Ruskell of the Phoenician in Arizona. Dessert master Jacques Torres of the famous Le Cirque 2000 restaurant in New York is a former winner.

"I always loved doing baking," says Notter, 38, who is a corporate pastry chef at Albert Uster Imports Inc. in Gaithersburg. "I love being in the kitchen. Every day is very different."

At Albert Uster -- which imports and sells specialty food items, such as high-quality chocolate, candy shells and cocoa butter, to commercial markets -- Notter develops recipes, responds to clients' technical questions and fashions the company's products into beautiful presentations for catalogs and demonstrations.

A native of Birmingham, England, Notter is well-known in the industry for her chocolate work and spun-sugar creations -- intricate pieces that resemble fine china sculptures. For Michael Schneider, editor-in-chief of the magazines that feature the top pastry chefs, choosing Notter for the annual list was not difficult.

"What we look for is someone who has tremendous skills, has given something back to the industry ... and whose career is rising," he says. "Susan is a real easy one. She is everything you would want a pastry chef to be."

Notter, a youthful-looking, energetic chef who keeps fit by running and ballroom dancing, is pragmatic about such honors.

"It's rare to have recognition," she says with a pleasant British lilt. "I work very hard, very long hours."

At one time, her boss, Albert Uster, president of the family-owned company, had no idea of the extent of Notter's pastry skills, although he was quite impressed with her sugar and chocolate creations.

"I never thought of her as a food person but as an artist," he says. "She is very talented, like a delicate Chinese painter."

But Uster, who met Notter when she and her former husband, Ewald Notter, operated the International School of Confectionery Arts in Switzerland, realized the breadth of Notter's culinary talents when the couple brought the school to the United States.

"She makes super pastry items," he says. "Her pastry work was almost overshadowed by her sugar work."

In addition to her responsibilities at Albert Uster, Notter travels around the country and other parts of the world -- from Europe to Japan to Hong Kong -- teaching her craft and taking part in culinary competitions. Last month, as part of the Nation's Capital Chef's Association Team, she and her three teammates won a gold medal and first place in a Super Challenge Team Competition in Orlando, Fla.

Notter, a former pastry chef for the 1996 Maryland Culinary Olympic Team, also earned a spot as one of two pastry chefs on the 12-member Culinary Team USA 2000 after a demanding tryout. The designation means numerous events as the chefs gear up for the Culinary Olympics in Germany next year.

Notter, who lives in Potomac with her two children, ages 6 and 10, barely has time to stop and smell her own marzipan roses now. As a single mother, she's juggling family, work and often 26 straight hours of practice sessions.

She compares her marathon schedule to training for a sport. She also has help with a flexible work schedule and a full-time baby sitter. And she takes her children on her travels whenever she can.

"You make it work," says Notter, who has studied at schools in England, Germany and Switzerland and co-authored a book on spun sugar. "I have a lot of energy. You have to have high stamina."

Notter also enjoys entertaining at home, where she serves guests "simple things," such as peach pie or poundcake with fresh berries. "If I like to eat it, then I think others will like it," she says.

The petite chef, whose pearl earrings add a feminine touch to the standard toque, chef's jacket and checkered pants she wears most days, bemoans always being in uniform. Wearing a dress to events would be nice once in a while, she sighs.

But she is proud of the impact she is making on the culinary scene.

"It's a very good time to be a woman," Notter says. "More women are coming into the industry. They're looking for role models."

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