By Margarette Driscoll
Wealthy widow FLORA MASCOLO found herself falling for a charming celebrity chef. But what began as a delicious romance soon turned sour, as she tells Margarette Driscoll.
There is no easy way to find out the man you love has been unfaithful, let alone that he is a liar and, possibly, a con-artist. When Flora Mascolo met a handsome chef after the death of her husband Guy – co-founder of the Toni & Guy hairdressing empire – she believed that, at 48, her life was starting over. Michael Riemenschneider was 15 years younger, but that did not seem to matter as they fell in love and made plans to open a restaurant.
Swiss-born Michael had worked with some of the world’s greatest chefs – including Heston Blumenthal and Gordon Ramsay – and seemed destined for similar success. Tatler described Canvas, his Chelsea restaurant, as ‘thrilling’ and the man himself as ‘a scientist and artist rolled into one’. Energised by his talent and dynamism, Flora agreed to bankroll his new venture just weeks after they met in September 2014.
Her new boyfriend told her a restaurant had come up for sale in Frankfurt, Germany. It would need renovation, but he was sure he could turn it into a world-class establishment. Flora, who was involved in a fashion business and property development, was thrilled at this fresh opportunity – and touched that Michael wanted to call the restaurant Atelier Wilma, after his grandmother.
But, from the moment he boarded the plane for Frankfurt just before Christmas (having resigned from Canvas), she felt uneasy. At first, it was because she feared that being so far apart might spoil their relationship. But over the next year or so, as the cost of kitting out the restaurant escalated to more than £2.27 million – way beyond the £300,000 investment she had first envisaged – alarm bells rang for other reasons.
Michael had still not signed their business agreement, but continued to ask for large amounts of money. Flora, suddenly suspicious, hired a private investigator and, in a visit to his office, her dreams turned to dust. ‘I sat for three-and-a-half hours, watching videos and hearing the truth. I couldn’t even cry,’ she says.
It turned out that her boyfriend of 18 months had a string of failed restaurants behind him, yet had somehow acquired a fleet of luxury cars. More woundingly, he had been engaged to four different women over the previous few years and while he was seeing Flora he was living part of the time with another woman.
In the conventional script for this drama, the deceived, older woman nurses her broken heart and tries to hide her shame at being a fool. Not Flora. ‘Here, in front of me, was this coward of a man,’ she says. ‘I took 37 pages of notes [as the detective revealed what he had learned] and I knew from that moment on that this was going to be my story.’
In a delicious reversal of fortune, she transcribed hundreds of texts that had passed between them, combed through her bank statements and compiled a dossier of evidence that enabled her to ask the High Court in London to freeze Michael’s assets last summer. In December, after he failed to file a defence, the court ruled in her favour and ordered she be paid more than £2 million. She pursued the action for herself – and for every other woman who has been duped out of money by a man she believes she loves.
‘Whether you are 25 or 80 and left with a fortune, someone will try to take advantage,’ says Flora, now 51, who was born in Paris to Portuguese parents. ‘There is a French expression: “The one who will get caught is the one who thinks he is going to catch.” It is pure justice.’
We are sitting in Flora’s Chelsea townhouse, which is full of beautiful paintings and quirky furniture. Having spent most of her married life in America, she could not bear to stay after Guy died in 2009 and returned to live in London with her daughter Zara, now 15. Her elder daughter, Emanuella, 25, stayed to study in the US.
Flora and Guy were together for 25 years after meeting when she was hired, aged 18, as an au pair to look after his sons Guy Jnr, then 16, and Zac, 12, in London, while she was studying English. ‘The Sound of Music, that’s our story! I was Guy’s little governess; I went to school, did all the household chores, did the cooking and walked the dog. After two years, we had developed a very close friendship and more, and Guy asked me to move with him to America. I was just settled into my English life, but you do everything for love…’
They set up home near Guy’s brother in Dallas, Texas, in 1987 and married there two years later, as the Toni & Guy brand spread its salons across the States. ‘I was still young but Guy [who was 23 years older] was my mentor,’ she says. ‘In Dallas we opened a restaurant called La Dolce Vita. I was eager, I was young and I was thrown into a challenging world – there was an ex-wife and two children – but we had such a happy life.’
When Guy died suddenly in 2009, from a heart attack, Flora was stunned: ‘It was as if I was frozen; life was just moving around me. For two years or more I hardly had the strength to brush my teeth or wash my hair.’
Guy died leaving a fortune estimated to be more than £250 million. In the months after his death, Flora oversaw the completion of a 20,000sq ft house they had intended to be a family home in Dallas, then left it behind and flew to London, where she sought out a therapist and a life coach to help get herself on track. ‘There was an immense fortune. I thought, “You’ve left me with a big task, Guy – you’ve created this empire, now let’s see what I can do in miniature. Watch me.”’
Fast-forward five years to September 2014 and Flora had moved into property development. She had also recently set up ElleSD, a luxury leather fashion line, with her friend Meriem Semlali-Broby. Her businesses were up and running, she had regained her equilibrium and was thinking it might be nice to meet someone special: ‘It’s so difficult when you’ve had the love of your life to think about “dating”, but I have a lot of love to give and my children would want me to be happy. I never could have imagined the story that was about to begin.’
She had met Meriem for dinner at one of London’s most talked-about new restaurants, Canvas. They had a glass of champagne at the bar and began talking to the maître d’, who mistakenly thought Flora was a friend of the chef. ‘Before I know it, I’m escorted to the kitchen and there I see this towering, tall man, blue eyes, with a chef’s hat and Japanese knives in his hands. He’s looking at me like “How dare you march into my space?” so I smiled and said, “I don’t want to disturb any of your beautiful cooking” and excused myself.
‘About an hour later, who comes along and sits at our table with champagne? It’s Michael, his demeanour completely different. We talked business. I was thinking Canvas might be a good place to entertain clients.’ Michael gave Flora his card and she texted to thank him for his hospitality. He responded immediately, inviting her for lunch the next day. She said no but was intrigued. She met him the next evening for a glass of champagne.
‘Looking back, it seems almost too lovely, too perfect,’ she says. Michael could be arrogant – what else would you expect from a celebrity chef? – but ‘he could not have been more charming, considerate and committed’. Outside a jewellery shop he said, ‘It would be lovely to see a ring on your finger.’ On holiday in the Seychelles, he suggested they elope. He ‘dropped various hints that he intended to propose to me,’ Flora later told the court, ‘and, although I was initially cautious, I would have accepted.’ However, she says now, ‘Little did I know that I was giving my time to somebody who was a lie, from the beginning.’
The chef told her his backers had put around £1 million into Canvas (which has now closed), but he was not happy about their behaviour: he claimed that some were using Canvas as a ‘personal bar’, running up huge bills and expecting hefty discounts. ‘Need different business partner so we can actually survive,’ he said in one plaintive text. He was also stressed about cash flow; staff were unpaid, rent due: ‘I been [sic] truly done over nicely this time… I’ve never felt this negative before or betrayed,’ said another of his texts.
Flora, who at that point had known him for about two months, gave him £20,000 as a loan to tide him over (it has never been repaid). She was even more sympathetic when she learned about his background. He told her he had given up entitlement to a substantial inheritance because he did not want to get involved in a family squabble and had been estranged from his mother for ten years because she had wanted him to be a lawyer or a doctor. His success so far had been due only to hard work. When they went on holiday or out to dinner, Flora paid. She did not feel uncomfortable about this, nor about being so involved in his business arrangements at Canvas because ‘we were very close and we had discussed a long-term future together’. Then the Frankfurt restaurant came up. It would be a great investment opportunity, he told Flora. She agreed.
Both her daughters had doubts about Michael, but she put that down to loyalty to their father’s memory. Emanuella, who studied psychology, was especially mistrustful, and furious when Michael arranged to visit and then cancelled. ‘She was so angry for me,’ says Flora, ‘but I told her “Mummy’s a grown-up, just give me some space.”’
In December 2014, Michael moved to Frankfurt, reassuring Flora that the distance would not lessen their love for one another. ‘I am in this for the long run,’ he told her, and she believed him.
Renovations got underway. After she had paid out more than £250,000, Flora asked what else was outstanding: ‘Kitchen build I think 45,000… The bar 11,000… Kitchen equipment maybe 15,000-20,000…’ he replied. In addition to the restaurant costs, he persuaded her to buy a Range Rover (around £65,000) for business purposes and a Mercedes GTS as an investment. They did not discuss terms, she says, but it was not a gift.
Flora, at that point, was less worried about the money than the fact that she could not seem to get Michael to sign the draft business contract she had drawn up recognising her investment and promising 50 per cent of the profits when the restaurant got going. There was always an excuse – he was travelling, he had been burgled. She didn’t push it because she was afraid of spoiling their relationship and she was running two perfectly good businesses, ElleSD and a property development company: why not a third?
She then learned Michael had taken a lease on a second restaurant, Zum Tischlerwirt, in Austria, which also needed work. ‘I was really angry he had gone ahead without my involvement or consent. He apologised and promised to work very hard to make me proud,’ she recalls.
At the start of December 2015, they had a wonderful holiday in Dallas, which helped dispel her doubts. In the run-up to Christmas, she reminded him that he hadn’t signed their business agreement and asked for a full account of what had been spent so far on the restaurants. Three days before Christmas, with her in London and him in Frankfurt, he told her he had been burgled (again) and that all the presents he had bought for Flora and her daughters had been taken. On Christmas morning, he cancelled his trip to London at the last minute, saying he had to look after his sous-chef, who had a ski injury.
Flora was bitterly disappointed. This time, she didn’t believe his story – and her reluctance to admit to anyone else that she might have been taken for a fool told her all that she needed to know. ‘When the true instinct begins to kick in, you think, “Oh my God, did I really do that?”’ she says. In January she engaged the services of Quest Global, a private investigations agency, and strung Michael along as it looked into his background.
Meanwhile, in February 2016, she made a visit to Atelier Wilma. The chef had always discouraged her from coming – which, in hindsight, she says should have been a ‘red flag’ – on the basis that he wanted her to see it ‘when it’s all finished and sparkles… It’s my gift to you and my surprise’. It certainly was a surprise. Atelier Wilma was small and less sophisticated than Canvas. It was hard to see where all the money had been spent. By April, she received Quest’s findings and Memery Crystal, a specialist international law firm, helped her apply for an order to freeze Michael’s assets in Britain and Germany.
In a preliminary hearing, Michael’s lawyer told the court – ‘Allegations being made are absurd and incredible. It is not right that he is a complete rogue dissipating his assets. Money which had been taken out had gone back into the restaurant. Monies are being used for the restaurant’ – but, when given the opportunity to defend himself against Flora’s claims, the chef failed to do so.
Justice has been swift. Flora’s lawyers understand that luxury cars have been seized; Atelier Wilma – which, ironically, was awarded a Michelin star in December 2016 under Michael’s direction, and is where he still works – is in administration and the chef has declared himself bankrupt. The Austrian restaurant Zum Tischlerwirt is now in new hands.
Flora has recovered some of her money but achieved her major objective: to make sure that no one else is taken in. ‘It’s not just women – businessmen also fell into this spider’s web,’ she says. ‘Giving love and support as I did, that’s my nature. But if you wrong me, you will remember my name. He didn’t know who he was messing with.’
She says the experience has taught her life lessons and shown her daughters that women can be strong. And it hasn’t put her off looking for love: ‘In the end, it was just a business deal that went wrong.’
The author and YOU have contacted Michael Riemenschneider but he offered no response to the questions put to him by the time the magazine went to press
Hair and make-up: Alexa Riva Ravina