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.
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…
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.