Fifty seven years ago – on 5th March 1962 to be precise – La Gaffe opened its doors for the first time.  As the oldest business currently running on Heath Street, Hampstead, I thought it apt to catch up with its c0-founder, Bernardo Stella, whose idea it was to open the business.  Moreover, as someone who’s been coming to La Gaffe for years, I couldn’t help but find his story fascinating.  More stories to follow in the months and years to come, I promise!

Sarah:  Hi Bernardo, and thank you for joining us this month.  Why don’t you tell me how it all began?

Bernardo: I grew up in a small Italian village called Gessopalana, in Abbruzo.  I was one of many siblings and my family was quite poor.

Unemployment was high back then and after studying at a catering college in Bellagio (in the north of the country) I was due to be drafted.  I made a decision to evade military service and so joined a programme the catering school was running, so that I could travel abroad.   In 1957, I arrived in Kent, to be precise  Everyone else wanted to go to the capital but I had some kind of yearning for green fields – the English ‘Garden of Eden.’

Sarah:   And what did you do there?

Bernardo:  I worked in a restaurant as a waiter and improved my English  I was happy, but after two and a half years it was clear to me that I could not progress further, so I decided to move to London.  I found a job at a top-notch French restaurant in Marylebone called ‘Le Petit Montmartre’ – that served dinner to lots of celebrities of the 60’s – and started saving!  I took a room in Paddington and walked back and forth between my shifts.  Every year, I had to renew my resident’s permit and after 4 years I was able to apply for resident status.

Sarah:  Was that the point you realised you weren’t going back to Italy?

Bernardo:  Oh yes, I knew by that point that I wanted to open my own business.  And I was lucky, because my boss in Marylebone was very understanding – actually, he helped and advised me quite a bit.  He suggested a few areas and I started hunting – I found the advert for the property at Heath Street in the London Evening News.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6hjAgd35-k0

Sarah: A restaurant?

Bernardo:  Well, more of a worker’s cafe called the Oasis.  On one side of the building was an antiques store and the other side was an estate agents.

It was about my price range and I thought I could make it look decent with a lick of paint.  I persuaded a friend of mine, who was a chef, to come and work with me.  We put together a menu of items you’d find in any traditional bistro in France – scampi provencale in a white wine sauce, chicken casserole, fillets mignons, escalope with sherry – and decided to bring in drinks from the pub down the road, as we didn’t have a licence at the time!

Sarah:  And what happened on opening night?

Bernardo: Well. I’d thought of everything but the PR!  I’d imagined that many people would show up but, as it was, we only had 3 diners all night.  And they ordered omelettes!  (Laughing).

Sarah:  And so La Gaffe was born!  But the restaurant menu was nothing like today’s…

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Bernardo:   Exactly.  Actually, it was still called the Oasis at that time, because the people renting it to me wanted me to keep the name.

Sarah: So when did it take on its new identity?

Bernardo: A bit later on…but that’s another story!

Sarah: Bernardo, Happy 57th birthday to La Gaffe and thank you so much for sharing this story.