Acclaimed British chef Heston Blumenthal took the preemptive step of closing his Dinner by Heston restaurant in London over the weekend after receiving reports that a handful of diners had fallen ill with symptoms of norovirus, a common, food-borne pathogen that causes symptoms such as vomiting, fever, diarrhea, pain, and more. “We are in a unique position of having an insight into the behaviour of this bug,” the chef tells the Mail on Sunday, “and I will always err on the side of extreme caution. As The Who sang, ‘I won’t get fooled again.’” The paper initially reported that as many as ten people who ate at the restaurant had gotten sick. Today, that number has risen to include 24 diners and 21 employees.
A norovirus outbreak at the chef’s famed Fat Duck in Bray in 2009 is thought to have sickened more than 240 people, and as many as 500. At the time, Blumenthal was faulted for his slow response to reports from patrons. By the time it was revealed that contaminated oysters were the source of the virus, the outbreak had been termed the “single worst” food poisoning episode of its kind.
Last year, a norovirus outbreak was reported at Noma, which the U.K.’s Restaurant magazine named the second-best dining room in the world. (Dinner by Heston, coincidentally, ranked seventh in 2013.) In all, some 63 diners reported symptoms, and the restaurant was quick to respond that it was working with the health authorities in Copenhagen.
These outbreaks are in no way specific to fine-dining restaurants; it’s just that the higher-profile chefs get more media attention as soon as anything goes wrong. Noroviruses, which have a 24- to 48-hour incubation time, have in recent time affected everyone from Japanese primary-school children to elite French military parachuting units. The pathogen has been linked to workers who handle everything from sliced bread to raw carrots. The exceedingly common bug is thought to cause 23 million cases of gastroenteritis per year. Compounding the problem is that food handlers may be asymptomatic at the time of transmission, either because they may be getting sick or recovering from illness. Diligent hand-washing and use of rubber gloves may reduce the chances of spreading infection.
Blumenthal’s Dinner by Heston, which is typically booked out a year in advance, is expected to remain closed for a week.