TOP chef Stephen Terry was left “gobsmacked” by a judge’s decision on Monday not to lock up a husband and wife who stole £150,000 from his Hardwick Restaurant between Raglan and Abergavenny.

Outside Cardiff Crown Court, the BBC Great British Menu winner labelled the suspended jail terms for swindling couple Nicola and Simon Nightingale an “absolute joke”.

Judge Barry Clarke said giving the couple an immediate prison sentence would result in a “lasting, negative impact” on their children, despite the stolen cash funding a luxury lifestyle, including a holiday at Disney in Florida.

Mr Terry, who attended the hearing with his wife Joanne, said in a statement in court: ““The impact of being defrauded of such a significant amount of money and having large outstanding payments to my suppliers is potentially devastating.”

But outside after the couple escaped jail time, the close friend and best man of Gordon Ramsay wasn’t mincing his words, saying: “To be here today and to get that news that they would both be given suspended sentences, it’s an absolute joke.

“They’ve had £150,000 from a small business. We don’t make a lot of money. It’s a labour of love, it’s a passion.”

The couple, now of Deal in Kent, were both given suspended two-year sentences along with 100 hours of unpaid work.

Mr Terry has run Michelin-starred restaurants, and was chef for the Nato summit banquet at Celtic Manor in 2014, attended by 60 of the world’s leaders, including then US president Barack Obama.

His restaurant was named top gastro-pub in Wales last year in the Estrella Damm awards, and has won numerous other plaudits.

But it came as a masive shock to him and his wife when they discovered that Nicola Nightingale, 47, had been cooking the books to the tune of thousands of pounds while working as his bookeeper.

She admitted defrauding £150,000 when the case came to court, while chef husband Simon Nightingale, 50, was found guilty of receiving £46,000 of the defrauded cash after a trial.

Mother-of-five Nightingale, who lived with her husband in Church Road, Gilwern, at the time of the fraud, paid herself an “inflated” salary, took out loans in the name of the Hardwick and created fake invoices for companies such as Sage and Flying Fish when she worked there between 2018 and 2020.

She paid £46,741 of the cash into her husband’s account, which he later claimed he thought were wages from working part-time at the Hardwick.

The duo enjoyed a lavish lifestyle off the proceeds, with some of the transfers to the husband’s account made while they were enjoying a luxury family holiday at Disney in Florida, the court heard.

Mr Terry, a regular on Saturday Morning Kitchen, told Simon Nightingale’s trial he had struggled to keep his restaurant going as a result of the scam, which ended at the start of the Covid lockdown when Nicola Nightingale resigned.

He told the court he trusted her ‘absolutely’ but she could be “aloof and entitled”.

Mr Terry said an expected £38,000 rate rebate turned into a £6,000 bill and he became “suspicious” when Nicola Nightingale told him she needed to take out a loan to keep the restaurant going.

“It was hard for us. I was working 15 hours a day, seven days a week. We were not taking a wage and in dire straits financially,” he said.

“She said she had gambled with the cash flow and instead of paying £4,000 a month in rates, she was only paying £1,000.

“I was shocked, it was quite a big deal so I said I’ll go home and speak to my wife because she will go bonkers. I went home and she did go bonkers.”

Prosecutor Thomas Stanway told the trial Nicola Nightingale “fraudulently took money from the restaurant and she paid it into a number of bank accounts in her name and… paid money into her husband’s bank account.

“She created fake invoices… took out loans in the name of the company and she inflated the pay that she received.”

Mr Terry later found that two loans had been fraudulently taken out in his name for £40,000 each.

As well as owing business rates, he also learnt that money was owed on PAYE and VAT, while there was a £10,000 shortfall in the pension pot.

On Simon Nightingale, Mr Terry said: “He would come in to help with service for maximum four hours tops.

“We thought Simon was coming in to help us out and doing us a favour.”

But he had a “that’s odd moment” when he spotted the company’s bank account on an app on Mrs Nightingale’s phone.

“I thought that’s strange… I was surprised she would check out my business account on her own personal account.”