Erica Steenkamp – chef, musician, artist – on flow, time off, community

Photo of chef, musician & artist Erica Steenkamp

An increased awareness of community may, just may, be among the consolations of the pandemic, when we perhaps learned to love things local just a little more.

Erica Steenkamp, who owns Blue Belle Café in the south London parish of Penge, joins us for the latest in a series of monthly interviews with business owners and creatives. Erica, also a musician and artist, talks us through community knitting, resisting quick retail fixes, and the pleasure of daily creative challenges.

I know Blue Belle Café from when I lived back in south London. I recall many a happy Kaffee & Kuchen, sometimes in the company of my dog-niece Scout, now cousin to Seamus. (She still mentions the bowl of water served with a slice of lemon that you gave her.) How do you feel about the post(ish)-Covid return of the high street: are you optimistic, pessimistic or somehow in between? And why so?

So far, I have eschewed the charms of online shopping and still trot to the shops. After all, every one of us needs the exercise. I would like to believe the High Street will adapt and survive. I envisage large shops being converted into smaller units where small businesses can trade. If I had one wish, it would be for local councils to subsidise exorbitant rents to allow local commerce to flourish, helping foster a spirit of community in the process.

The past year of lockdowns has taught me one thing. I will never take anything for granted again, ever. Covid has disrupted the cosy predictability of waking up and embracing the familiar. I enjoy taking a walk down to the High Street to shop or graze but the tempting and monstrously seductive Amazon promising to deliver anything my heart desires, in a heartbeat, has required stoic resistance.

>>Another blog — Be more Scout: five suggestions about work (& life) from doggo of my heart

Feeling a part of where we live comes in many shapes and sizes. It might be joining in (uninvited) when people are struggling to answer a crossword clue in an independent café in Penge, for example. What does it mean to you, especially in the context of running your business? After all, I know for a fact that Blue Belle has a large and loyal local following…

When I consider our community from the perspective of running my business, I imagine my café as a woolly jumper knitting itself from the yarn of the local support. I knit one and my customers purl one! How’s that for a community creation?

Sheep image in an interview about community

(I once got into a lift in Romania where a lady was unexpectedly knitting. The French colleagues I was with made a knit/purl joke but my lack of wool-based vocabulary meant that the punchline passed me by at the time…)  

From artwork to music, singing to menus, you are a veritable Venn diagram of creativity. How does a spirit of invention in one of your roles inform your creative activity elsewhere? (While it’s unlikely that you’ll sing a song about the Penge Pasty, please correct me if I’m wrong!) When, where and how do ideas emerge for you… or is there no knowing?

Connecting the dots when it comes to cause and effect in the realm of creativity is impossible for me. The business itself makes creative demands such as presenting a beautiful plate of food, making an eye-catching sign board, icing a cake… for me, these are artistic challenges that call for constant innovation.

Still, doing this every day eventually dulls the senses and drains my energy to the point where the desire to be creative blurs into the dirty dishes piling up in the sink. I don’t think I would want to write a song or paint a picture about anything as literal and immediate as work.

Art is an escape from the everyday experience and I find inspiration in the oblique, shadowy world of imagination.

If someone told me that they never get discouraged or struggle with a project, I would be (healthily, we hope) sceptical and stroke my chin in puzzlement. What approach do you take when you hit a stumbling block with a project? 

I love the challenge of a new project, whether work or personal. Usually a work-related project resembles a recipe with quantifiable components. Much of my learning in business has come from trial and error and having survived some award-winning cock-ups I now have a better understanding of the logistics of a work project.

If I hit a snag and it’s late, I go to bed and hope to dream up an improvisation. Often a good night’s rest is what’s needed to get a fresh perspective.

>>Another interview in this series: Filmmaker & academic Elisabeth Brun on motivation, recrafting work habits

Personal projects, on the other hand, require me to be completely forgiving of my limitations. There are times when I paint a picture and it becomes the very thing I had in mind. Then there are the days when I doggedly work away at an elusive, shape shifting concept that ends up being turned towards the wall. At this point I either quit or rework the concept in a different medium.

Erica Steenkamp, who runs a community cafe in Penge, is also an artist and musician

My favourite projects are writing songs and making mosaics. A song may take days or months to develop and feels like an easy, gentle drift downstream. For some reason I experience anxiety when I paint, probably because I don’t paint often enough to find my true style and approach.

On the other hand, writing music* and making mosaics are a soothing experience. Experimenting with the tactile nature of tiles, their colours and shapes helps me to be in the moment. Each piece is carefully considered whilst time passes, unnoticed. [*Erica’s YouTube channel is here.]

Whatever we do, it seems to me that we’re all trying to find some kind of (elusive, shifting) balance between fulfilling work, relaxation and a healthy sense of self, or wellbeing I guess. How do you feel about that: embrace the chaos that can sometimes come from a lot of parallel projects… or perhaps you take a completely different approach? Please, tell us more.

The work balance enigma never really presented itself as a problem until I reached my mid-fifties. Up to that point I had plenty of energy and it was around this time that I took on the responsibilities of chef in my kitchen. The menu was popular and we got busy.

For around six months in 2017 I worked 7 days a week and one day, as the café closed I found I couldn’t breathe, something akin to an asthma attack. There were subtle hints along the way but this was the first time my body shouted me down and I paid attention.

Picture of a sleeping cat

After that incident I began working five days, but one of my free days would be spent preparing for opening next day, so essentially I had one day off a week. I continued this way until Covid hit and I was forced to close. Compulsory rest and having time for the things I enjoy was a revelation and put my ridiculous work schedule into perspective.

The café now opens four days a week and I have two blissful days off. Looking back, I realise that adrenalin can be both friend and foe. It gets you through those chaotic, heavy pressured days but the physical and mental depletion is insidious. I am lucky. I was able to reduce my trading days knowing I have the support of our local community.

>>On my events page — Mental Health First Aider (MHFA) training course: Mind East Kent

The post-Covid world, we hear it said, may be very different from the pre-pandemic one. After all the pandemic is at the confluence of other major changes and stressors, including climate change and, here’s hoping, a greater awareness of, and appetite for, a more inclusive society. Has the pandemic changed how you do things, or perhaps given you new directions to aim for?

The pandemic has changed things so much. It’s altered the dynamics in society and personal relationships, taken away our freedom yet at the same time offering the opportunity to reset thinking patterns, question and understand what’s going on around us, both in our local community and far beyond.

Its personal impact has made me more thoughtful and considered, more likely to think and plan ahead, less inclined to take things for granted. Having said that, I miss the spontaneity of the pre-pandemic era. Sometimes, as that song has it, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

(Image credits: Sam Carter, Steve Johnson & Erik-Jan Leusink on Unsplash; MiVargof on Pixabay; many thanks to Erica for the photos and to graphic designer Stephen Shillito for the photo montage.)

*Has your conception or experience of community shifted during the pandemic?
If so, how? Perhaps there’s a local café or small business near you
that’s helped bring people together?
Please add a comment below, I’ll be sure to reply.*

Photo of a blueberry cheesecake in a blog about community and small business

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