Suppose you’re a chef. You learn to make very good meals, of all varieties, over the course of a working lifetime. You can prepare superb entrees, main courses, deserts, pastries – you name it. You can cook in a variety of styles and you do them all to an excellent standard. One day, the opportunity arises to open your own restaurant. You saved a little money and decide to give it a try. Having spent many decades as a chef, in other people’s restaurants, you know how to do this. Your own restaurant is not in a very salubrious part of town and passing trade is minimal, but at least it’s a start. If you can grow your business, you can move to better premises and serve more customers.
You put some of your signature dishes on the menu. You work hard and diligently at perfecting your offerings. They’re all good. You’ve prepared them before, in other kitchens you have worked in and they have met with acclaim. People know you and you have a burgeoning reputation for good food. Some dishes you have prepared more recently than others, but the ones you really liked making you kept making, even when they weren’t on the official menu, for friends and family or special customers. You’ve kept your skills in making those meals fresh, because you liked to make them, even when they weren’t being offered officially. It was what interested you and where you could experiment and develop your style, as a chef.
The restaurant opens. You put up a web site and advertise on social media. Your advertising isn’t crass, being rather low key and humble. It’s all you can afford and you don’t want to wear out your welcome by flogging your restaurant to others, all the time. On social media and in real life, you take particular care to engage with anybody interested in what you do, or who is even interested in knowing you and chatting with you, as a human being. Interaction, after all, is lead by interplay between what each person would ideally like to talk about, in turns.
After a few months, you make a disturbing admission to yourself. Nobody is buying anything. Nobody comes. Nobody even reads the menu. Your friends and family don’t eat at your restaurant. Your web site is getting hardly any traffic and most of the web site has never even been clicked on, let alone read. All the food you prepare, daily, is thrown away or given away, depending. Your blog site, where you share your techniques and recipes, has a few visitors, but nobody that comes to your restaurant to eat. While it seems that a lot of people know you have opened your own restaurant and some of them have enjoyed your food before, still the tables are empty.
“Clarify the menu,” they tell you. “What do you specialise in?”
“Well, I specialise in making fine foods, creatively,” you respond. They raise a sceptical eyebrow in your direction, as if being able to cook all kinds of food was a human impossibility. The very idea of coming to a restaurant just to eat fine foods, prepared creatively, seems foreign to them.
“Which industry category do you fit into? Patisserie? Bakery? Italian food?”
You answer, “I do all of those things and I do them very well. Why do I have to deny that I make great cakes and never make another cake again, professionally, just to offer pizzas?”
What is it about too much choice that makes people make no choice? Why can’t they believe that a wide choice is possible and that any one choice is no worse (and often better) than the product of a single offering specialist? Why do they question your commitment instead of marvelling at how much you have successfully committed to? It still mystifies me.
“Perhaps only offer the patisseries you make, as those are the things you love to make most”, they tell you.
You try that. Still, nobody buys anything, not even the things you like to make most and which you are best at making.
Finally, with no other choice, you are forced to close the restaurant and take a job making sausage rolls for the sausage roll factory down the road. You make excellent sausage rolls – the very finest and you love to make them, but the profits go to somebody else. There is no variety in the work and limited scope for your creativity. The opportunity to grow something of your own and to push the boundaries creatively is gone. While you had lots of friends, family and acquaintances and offered your fine foods to complete strangers, what you lacked were supporters. There was nobody that was willing to support your life, as a creative fine food maker. You had no life support.
This happens to artists of all kinds. They set out their stall, offer their wares, knowing that what they offer is at least of merchantable quality and usually a whole lot better than that, but nobody buys. They try different marketing and pricing strategies, do their best to get known, rely on their past reputation for their art, but still nothing happens for them. Eventually, they have to stop. Without support, in this world, you are not permitted to exist in the economy. You have to pay your way, so if nobody is paying you, you have to find a way to get paid, rather than concentrate and double down on what it is you really do best. Your dream dies and with it, a piece of your heart and soul, because nobody will buy a thing from you.
The story doesn’t have a happy ending. People spend their lives making fine things for the financial benefit of other people, because they cannot find the supporters to make their own way. No artist can exist in a vacuum. They rely on their community to encourage them and to sustain them, by buying what they offer.
If nobody, in their community, buys anything from them, it feels very lonely, isolating and devastating. You look people in the eye who you thought you had a good relationship with and you realise the terrible truth that this person has only ever paid lip service to your dreams. You might have asked for their support and been let down, or else the support was never offered, despite the obviousness of your need for it. For all their smiles and friendly chat, the truth is that they never once considered actually lending their support to your enterprise. They left you hanging. Not only have you lost your artistic enterprise, but you now realise that everybody you loved and respected thought too little of what you were doing to actually patronise your establishment or send customers your way. When they told you that your art was good, they weren’t prepared to back that with genuine, tangible support. It wasn’t the truth.
Of course, not everybody is in a position to support you. They have their own challenges and perhaps have little left over to spend, so that you can be sustained by their custom. That’s true. On the other hand, there are an awful lot of people that take no deep interest in what you are trying to accomplish at all. They don’t even sample the free tasters (or taste the free samples). When you realise that nobody else cares about the things you care about most, it’s a horrible feeling – almost debilitating. I don’t think there is a way to feel more worthless, valueless and alone.
I’ve tried hard to support starving artists. I’ve bought what they made, even when I didn’t actually need it or particularly love what they do, as a first choice of what to buy. I supported them so that they could continue to grow and improve, as artists. I wanted them to get better, because I could see a glimmer of greatness in them and could see that they were going to get there, if only they didn’t starve in the meantime. It has been my experience that my support is seldom reciprocated, unfortunately. Sometimes, people don’t reciprocate your support for purely financial reasons – they just aren’t able to do so, but often it’s because they don’t care for what you produce. They don’t see a spark in you or want it to flourish.
I suppose that a true chef can do nothing other than keep cooking his delicious and daring meals, for himself and those closest to him, in his spare time, from time to time, on special occasions, when time permits, even while holding down a job with the sausage roll plant and making excellent sausage rolls every day. It’s just a shame, though, that his community won’t ever taste the very best dishes he is capable of producing or even be able to buy his food, as it won’t be available in his now defunct restaurant.
On the other hand, his community has made it clear that they won’t feel the loss.
Let them eat sausage rolls.