March 6, 2009— -- Celebrity Chef Heston Blumenthal, whose Berkshire, England, restaurant The Fat Duck has been called the best in the world, is facing a sickness scandal that could seriously damage his stellar reputation, as some 400 customers have fallen ill after eating there in the past two months.
The multiple award-winning Fat Duck, recipient of three Michelin stars and named Restaurant magazine's "World's Best Restaurant" in 2005, is helmed by master chef Blumenthal, who is famous from various TV shows in Britain.
On his latest show, "Heston's Victorian Feast," Blumenthal introduces himself as the chef of "one of the best restaurants in the world." But the chef known for creating eccentric dishes like Snails Porridge and Nitro-Scrambled Egg and Bacon Ice Cream has stayed mum since closing the restaurant nine days ago.
One customer who spoke to Sky News complained that the The Fat Duck had treated customers with "a lack of care and consideration" because they had not heard from Blumenthal after they became ill.
"We are entitled to an apology," boxing promoter Frank Warren told Sky.
While Blumenthal may not lose any Michelin stars over this incident, it is unlikely that it will be good for business. "Some people may not want to go back after this experience," Warren said.
A spokesperson for The Fat Duck told ABC News, "Currently we have no reason to believe that the illness amongst customers is caused by the food. It could very well be something else."
Local health authorities have been called in to to find the source of the illness and to ensure that any further risk is reduced.
"All restaurants receive calls at one point from customers who don't feel well after dining there. But usually that is one or two customers," said the restaurant spokesperson. "When the number started going up, chef Heston Blumenthal decided to close down the restaurant voluntarily, he wasn't obligated to. But his priority is customer experience after all."
Unable to Pinpoint Cause
The local health authority is examining samples of the restaurant's food, and a risk assessment is being made of all food storage, preparation and cooking processes. Samples have also been taken from all members of staff because contamination of food can occur at any time from the suppliers to the diners at the restaurant.
The Fat Duck has tested its menu but has not found anything that could cause food poisoning.
Authorities have thus far not been able to find the source of the illnesses.
"This is a very complex outbreak," Health authority director Graham Bickler said. "We are working closely with the restaurant."
There are different theories about what could have caused the massive number of customer illnesses. First there is the possibility of food poisoning from bad ingredients, but this has not been proven yet. And one suggestion is that a member of the staff has passed on a stomach bug, or "gastro virus," when preparing or serving food.
Another theory says it has nothing to do with the restaurant and the customers are just suffering from the flu, which is a very common illness for the season. And a local newspaper came up with the perhaps the most interesting possibility: the sicknesses could be the result of sabotage by unhappy locals who want to force the restaurant to close.
Derrick Bulmer, the Michelin Guide editor for the U.K. and Ireland, said The Fat Duck's Michelin stars will not be taken away, but he couldn't say whether they would be awarded to the restaurant again next year.
"We hope this situation will be solved until our next guide comes out in January . We will visit The Fat Duck as soon as it re-opens and will rank it based on the quality of the food alone and nothing else," Bulmer said. "Frankly, we don't have any rules for situations like this, but we do feel responsible for the customers who have gone to the restaurant because of our advice."