Several recent incidents at Michelin-starred restaurants have illustrated the perils of food service, regardless of the price level.
At Fukuji in Tokyo, a two-star specializing in blowfish, a customer was hospitalized after consuming toxic blowfish liver. The fish is dangerous to start with, and sushi bars that serve it have to be licensed by the state after the proprietor undergoes specialized training. In violation of all the rules, the chef/owner served the potentially deadly liver to a customer who requested it. Apparently, consuming blowfish liver has become an underground thrill in the Japanese capital. The restaurant’s license to serve the exotic fish has been suspended, and the owner faces possible jail time.
A more disturbing situation occurred in Bray, England, home of The Fat Duck—one of only four restaurants in the U.K. to have earned the ultimate accolade of three Michelin stars. The kitchen is under the direction of Heston Blumental, a revolutionary chef of the molecular persuasion who has a cult following around the world.
In February and March of 2009, over 500 customers became ill with norovirus after dining at The Fat Duck. The outbreak (the largest in history in a restaurant setting) was ultimately traced to raw oysters, one of the items on Blumenthal’s multi-course menu at the time. The place closed voluntarily for three weeks, and Blumenthal reportedly compensated the victims.
Last week a report was released by Epidemiology and Infection, a journal published by the Cambridge University Press. It’s far from pretty. According to the article, Blumenthal dragged his feet on reporting the norovirus to the authorities, thus increasing the risk of ongoing infection, and only did so after closing the restaurant and subjecting the kitchen to a deep cleaning—a procedure that made it more difficult to trace the source of the problem.
To make matters worse, the report states that six kitchen employees were allowed to work while ill, although it stops short of saying that this practice was responsible for the outbreak. Blumenthal denies this charge.
What’s a gourmet to do? While many people would avoid eating raw oysters, most of us might feel safe doing so at a Michelin three-star. As far as blowfish liver goes, that’s the equivalent of culinary Russian Roulette, and the odds of winning are far longer than six to one.