Gastrono-me’s Mike Simmonite has found that chatting to customers reveals some amazing stories and creates lasting friendships
They could be heroes. But not just for one day.
You don’t always know who you are serving at Gastrono-me, and it’s not until you stop and chat to them that you really get a picture of who it is that you’re serving.
We’ve always been blessed to have a great many members of the USAF – and their spouses and girlfriends and boyfriends – dine with us, and we have been lucky enough to be able to call a good many of them friends.
Our first ‘forces friends’ were Jeff and Sophie. They used to visit us when we had a market stall in Bury St Edmunds. Along with their chidren, Maddie and Christian, they used to come to us every Saturday for cupcakes and to share their news of the week. Whenever we saw the kids they’d always give us the biggest hugs.
I readily recall the day that Jeff came running to our stall looking very panicked and with just Christian in tow. “Have you seen Maddie? She’s gone missing, I thought she’d turn up here”. To lose a tiny four-year-old on a busy Saturday market day must have been terrifying.
As Jeff and I ran around town shouting her name, Gem kept Christian busy at the stall. Happily, Maddie had made her way to Early Learning Centre and was quietly playing with the display toys, blissfully unaware of the horror stories running through our minds.
Jeff didn’t get to see our café in St John’s Street, having left for Afganistan a couple of months before, but we’re still in touch.
We first met Doug and Emily in 2013. Doug came in pretty early one morning to ask for a takeaway breakfast. We didn’t do takeaways from our menu, so it was a surprise request. But that morning, Emily had given birth to their first child, Stella. So, when asked if she wanted something to eat, Emily asked if he would go and get her a Fat Rascal, one of the dishes that was on our menu.
Doug raced down to us and a friendship was born.
As Stella grew older, she recognised us more, and as she learned her first words I’m proud to say that ‘Mike’ was one of them.
When she was able to eat solids, one of the first things she ate was scrambled eggs at Gastrono-me. It became known as ‘The Stella’ and remains on our menu today.
Emily was Chief of Public Affairs for 48th Fighter Wing at USAF Lakenheath and is now Media Operations Officer at United States Air Force in Washington. Doug is a Dental Flight Commander.
After returning to the US in 2017, Doug flew back to Lakenheath with his ‘boss’, Major General Roosevelt Allen Jr and invited him for breakfast at Gastrono-me when we were still in St John’s Street.
It’s safe to say that there were nervous glances between Doug and I as the Major General tucked into his Breakfast Hash, all keen to know if he approved.
Doug brought him back last year after we had just opened in Abbeygate Street, along with other colleagues of his. The Major General presented me with a ‘Challenge Coin’.
Challenge coins are presented by unit commanders in recognition of special achievement by a member of the unit or they are exchanged in recognition of visits to an organisation.
It was quite a moment and a great honour. The coin sits on our windowsill in the hallway at home. I look at it every day.
Beautiful couple Jason and Sarah came into our lives at around the same time as Doug and Emily. Sarah was working for a charity shop opposite and served Gemma, who immediately loved her and offered her a job with us. She became one of the most loved members of staff. Jason is a Master Sergeant in the USAF, a (currently very proud) Liverpool FC supporter from Austin, Texas, with Dutch parents.
We all ‘hit it off’ immediately and I have stood with Jason on more than one occasion to watch a football match. His ‘big brother’ friendship with our youngest daughter, Ocean, became the stuff of legend. Do not dare either of them to do something – they will do it and they will dare you back. And you have to accept. That’s the law.
It was Jason who persuaded me it was a good idea to go to the nightclub Flex one evening. That went down really well at home.
In 2014, Jason and Sarah invited us to their house for Thanksgiving dinner. I was thankful I’d met such brilliant friends.
When they both left us to go back to the US in 2016 it was a sad day for everyone at Gastrono-me. We had a party in the Abbey Gardens where Jason was kind enough to knock me unconscious in a game of baseball. Note to the wise – if you are going to charge at a serviceman, try and make sure they aren’t made of granite.
When offered a free pass for his next tour last year, Jason chose to bring Sarah back to Bury St Edmunds, such is their love for our town.
Phillip Bryant is a huge bear of a man with a rich voice of deepest velvet. He is almost singularly the reason we went from having a 20-seater café to a 32-seat café in St John’s Street. He would phone at 8.55 on a Saturday morning to make a reservation.
Phillip: “For 25 people.”
Me: “What time?”
Phillip: “In 10 minutes, please.”
Me: “But we only have 15 seats left.”
Phillip: “Oh, we can sit on each other’s laps. We’ll be fine.”
Phillip would not only become a great friend of ours, he would also introduce me to his husband, Rick.
Rick has gone on to become our General Manager and a friend I do not want to be without.
In light of the recent commemoration of the 75th anniversary of D-Day, this brings me on to our most welcome customer in all of the world, Joe Cattini.
Joe is 96 and from Southampton, and every now and again he used to come to our café with his daughters. The biggest smile on his face, he would grab your arm and ask for a Crocodile Sandwich, Alligator Steak, Ostrich Wings or some other silly dish. I would naturally always offer the apology that we ran out of that particular dish just that morning.
It is always fun meeting him.
And a great, great honour.
Joe is a D-Day Gold Beach veteran. 86th Regiment, Royal Artillery. Driver/Bombardier.
Of D-Day he said: “We didn’t realise it was the real thing. I thought it was another exercise. It was only when we were halfway there on the night of 5th that we knew we were going to invade the following morning.”
Joe was driving an ammunition truck that day. “That concentrates the mind, let me tell you,” he told me.
“We were driving through five foot of water and you had to keep within marked lines. And one silly bee decided to get to the front of the queue, and just blew up because he hit a mine.”
“All the infantry blokes there, waiting to offload into their craft – seventeen-year-olds crying for their mum. . . Sick as dogs. . . So when they eventually got to the beach, all they wanted to do was get off the boat, on to dry land. Poor sods. A lot of them got hit by machine guns and mortars and erm. . .they just wanted to get off the boat.”
By September 8th, Joe had made it through Paris, Antwerp and onto Operation Market Garden, where he would be part of the liberation of the city of Eindhoven.
“I must have had an angel on my shoulder, and it must have taken a lot of effort, otherwise I would never have been here.
“In the Reichswald, a grenade exploded above us. My best friend next to me was hit by splinters that penetrated his heart and lungs. I was trying to stop the bleeding – in the Civil Service I had first aid training – but that did not help. The other two were also injured, but not seriously. I was the only one who did not have a scratch.
“On the edge of the forest was an open field. On the other side, I saw a British soldier waving to me. I walked to him and when I was with him, he said, ‘What a stupid man you are. This field is full of mines’. But I thought he was telling me to come to him. But he wanted to make it clear to me that I had to leave there because it was too dangerous.”
In 2016, Joe was awarded the Legion d’honneur from the French President, the highest distinction that can be awarded to a foreigner in France.
I’d like you all to Google the name Joe Cattini. If you click on videos, you will hear some incredible stories. Click on images and he’s often to be found kissing someone. Usually a pretty girl.
I’ll leave you with one last story about Joe. A couple of years ago, Joe, along with other veterans, had the honour of meeting Kate, The Duchess of Cambridge. Prior to the meeting, it was explained that the protocol was if she offered her hand you were allowed to take it but under NO OTHER CIRCUMSTANCES are you allowed to touch a member of the Royal Family.
Joe took her hand and promptly gave her a kiss on the cheek. She had another 20 servicemen to go and they all took Joe’s lead.
At Gastrono-me we have a great cocktail menu, one of the largest in town. In honour of our friend, from June 6th to September 8th, to mark his arrival on Gold Beach to his help in liberating Eindhoven, our cocktail The Shoeless Joe will be renamed ‘The Shoeless Joe Cattini’. You’ll see it when you ask for your check. For each one bought, we will donate £1 to Help for Heroes.
Our heroes walk among us every day.
We could be heroes.
Some of you already are.
THE SHOELESS JOE CATTINI
10ml Cherry syrup
Coca Cola or Cola beverage of your choice
A splash of Crude Cold Brew (available from us at the restaurant or direct from Frank & Earnest)
Simply add the ingredients in this order to a chilled glass and pour over ice. Give it all a swirl, and finish with a maraschino cherry.
Mike Simmonite is co-creator of Gastrono-me, Abbeygate Street, Bury St Edmunds