Eating at Michelin-starred restaurants doesn't normally involve being violently ill afterwards. So ever since 400 diners at British chef Heston Blumenthal's famed Fat Duck restaurant reported symptoms like nausea and diarrhea in mid-February, food connoisseurs have been keen to know what or who to blame. On Thursday, Blumenthal revealed the likely culprit: the highly contagious Norwalk virus, commonly known as norovirus.
"It is categorically not food poisoning," the celebrity chef told Australia's Hospitality magazine after arriving in Melbourne for a food and wine festival on Thursday. Extensive testing by public health authorities of the Berkshire, England, restaurant including more than 200 tests on food preparation, 80 swabs of the kitchen, and tests on all 45 chefs ruled out any hygiene concerns. However, Blumenthal said that three staff and five customers have tested positive for norovirus. (See pictures from the 2009 Bocuse d'Or cooking competition.)
Also known as "winter vomiting disease," the illness caused by norovirus comes on suddenly, with symptoms that include nausea, diarrhea and stomach cramping, and sometimes low-grade fevers, chills and muscle ache, all of which normally resolve within three days. People contract the virus by eating contaminated food, touching contaminated surfaces and then placing their hands in their mouths, or through casual contact with an infected person, suggesting the illness could have been brought to the restaurant by a customer carrying the virus. Regardless of who triggered the health scare, "it's affected the restaurant big time because we had to cancel on 800 people," Blumenthal said. (Vote for the 2009 TIME 100 Finalists.)
Blumenthal had voluntarily closed down The Fat Duck for two weeks losing an estimated $145,000 as a result while testing was carried out. After getting the all-clear from authorities, he reopened it on March 12, but kept seafood off the menu, just in case it would prove to be the culprit. The three-star restaurant is known for its inventive menu that includes scrambled egg and bacon ice cream, and snail porridge. Its 17-course set menu costs $180 and can take three hours to complete. (See pictures of the perfect steak.)
Britain's Health Protection Agency said that the investigation into the case remains ongoing. "Results of some tests are still awaited and the detailed questioning of people who reported illness is likely to continue for some weeks in order to build a more complete picture," it said in a statement.
Considering how much they spent for a meal they couldn't keep down, stricken customers have been asking if they can expect compensation any time soon. But the restaurant is taking a wait-and-see approach. "The discussion regarding any need for some sort of compensation will only happen when the investigation is complete," says Jo Livingston, a spokeswoman for The Fat Duck.
Despite the restaurant's now infamous association with stomach cramps and vomiting, Blumenthal stands by its standards of cleanliness and its methods of preparation. "For the last five years we've been sending food off every month for sampling, and I don't know any other restaurant in the country that does that," he told Hospitality. Apparently his customers believe him: a week after reopening, The Fat Duck is once again fully booked.