Tenbergen’s students paying close attention to the instruction. Several of his students have competed in annual, national baking competitions.
Photos courtesy of John Norton
There is only one thing that can match Klaus Tenbergen’s love of baking, and that’s his passion for education.
Throughout his 35-year career as a baker and educator, Tenbergen has won numerous awards celebrating his mastery of his craft. For six years he has been involved in the community, clocking over 3,000 volunteer hours.
Recently, Tenbergen was one of only two in the U.S. that earned the Modern Baking magazine’s 2012 Leadership Award for Industry Service for “serving the baking industry as a teacher, association leader and mentor.”
Tenbergen’s passion for learning has taken him all over the world. Originally from Oberhausen, Germany, he has cooked in parts of South Africa, the United States, as well as traveling to Chile and Mexico.
Recently, Tenbergen returned from Cochabamba, Bolivia where he instructed a company in how to empower the local people, who create gluten-free products in the Andes. Many of these products are sold in various local markets in the U.S. such as Whole Foods.
But no matter how far out he travels, Tenbergen always returns to Fresno State, to be in the company of those who share in the love of learning.
“In a certain stage of your life you give back to the people who were good to you and become from a mentee to a mentor,” Tenbergen said. “You become a mentor to other people who ever want it.”
As a young man in Germany, Tenbergen was presented with two different options for his education. As typical for European education, he was given the choice to either go to school for nine or 10 years and then choose a trade, or finish 12 years of schooling and enter a university.
Tenbergen, however, chose his own option.
“It’s one thing to go into your PhD. and go right into teaching without any real life experience and work experience,” Tenbergen said. “I did it the other way around.”
He went into the trade first, beginning as an apprentice baker in Germany in 1977.
Soon after, he traveled to South Africa where he lived and worked in Namibia, Bophuthatswana, before becoming the owner of a bakery, restaurant, confectionary and importing and exporting business in Pretoria in 1989 called Der Zuckerbäcker, a favorite spot for Nelson Mandela.
“Nelson Mandela was one of my customers for many years—a regular customer,” Tenbergen said. “He came once every week, once every other week, to pick up some of my creations.”
“He was particularly fond of Bienenstich, our specialty cake,” Tenbergen said.
“He had a special love for that.”
Tenbergen was an in-house caterer at the American Embassy in Pretoria. It was there he served Al Gore, who visited the embassy for the inauguration of Mandela when he became the first freely elected president of South Africa.
“You meet some really interesting people throughout,” Tenbergen said.
In 1996 Tenbergen immigrated to the United States, where he converted a barge into a floating fine dining restaurant, called Bistro Thabong, while living in Peoria, Ill.
Tenbergen came to a crossroad in his career.
“I realized that, in America, you need to have two things: education and certification,” he said. “I was self-employed very early in life. I thought ‘what do I want to do with the rest of my life?’”
At the age of 38, he decided to return to school.
After earning his high school degree, Tenbergen went to Chicago where he enrolled in Kendall College in 1998. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees while there, and sat as the chair of the baking and pastry program.
In 2006, Tenbergen joined the faculty at Fresno State, where he earned his doctorate in educational leadership, he said.
He is currently the director of the culinology program and assistant professor of food and nutrition at the department for food science and nutrition.
For around seven years Tenbergen has taught students how to excel in the industry of food science.
Tenbergen works with students who are in a degree program, transition and special education students at Sanger Unified, and works with the Poverello House to provide service-learning opportunities.
For those interested, Tenbergen offers a special opportunity to some of his students. In his Culinology 50 class, Tenbergen offers a challenge for those up to the it.
As part of the curriculum of the class, the students only bake for several days. However, if someone is interested in doing more, Tenbergen offers the extracurricular work.
In 2010, Chee Her accepted Tenbergen’s challenge, and he took her under his wing.
After training under Tenbergen’s tutelage, Her competed in the third annual America’s Best Raisin Bread Contest.
She competed along with 36 of her peers, but against only two others in her category of student artisan.
Her made bread prepared with ingredients including natural yeast, Parmesan cheese and red pepper flakes.
Proving her skill, Her won, earning her a free trip to Yosemite, Napa Valley, San Francisco and the Culinary Institute of America.
“For someone who never baked to go to a national competition, that’s quite a challenge,” Tenbergen said.
She presented in front of a panel of judges, comprised of authorities of baking in the U.S. One of the judges was Tenbergen himself, so the pressure was surely on.
“It was tough love,” Tenbergen called it.
“I’m glad I didn’t give up,” Her said. “It was something I really wanted.”
This year, Tenbergen has a new student who has stepped up to his challenge.
Alessia Nardocci will compete in the same competition as Her this October. She plans on making an Italian recipe of her grandmother’s—a bread called Mio Bucellato.
Nardocci said learning under Tenbergen has been a new experience.
“My dad is from Italy, so the mentality is similar in ways of character,” she said.
Tenbergen is tough, she says, but his teaching is sound.
“I learned how to be patient,” she said. “I learned how to listen. I want to learn from the best.”
Tenbergen said he plans to continue to expand the culinology program and proceed with offering his services to the community and to his students.
“It’s not about me,” he said. “I’d do it anyway, with or without recognition. That’s who I am. That’s what I do, and that’s what I continue to do.