Jim Rosenthal had a table at one of the best restaurants in the world.
It was 2009, and the British sportscaster joined his wife, Chrissy, and a few friends for dinner at the Fat Duck, a triple-Michelin-starred restaurant in Berkshire, England. The establishment shone with credentials. It ranked second that year in Restaurant magazine's list of the World's 50 Best Restaurants. A few years earlier, the Fat Duck sat at No. 1 on the list.
Dinner was excellent. Rosenthal's bill came to around £1,300 (close to $2,000 at the time). Two days later, everyone at the table that night was sick as dogs. More than 500 other diners at the Fat Duck around the same time shared their fate. The diagnosis: food poisoning.
A new study published in the journal PLOS ONE sheds some light on how something like this might have happened. Chefs and culinary students aren't as food safe as you might assume, the study suggests, and back-of-the-house staff at fine dining restaurants are more likely to make a few common hygiene errors.
Here's the bad news about what might go on in the kitchen of your favorite downtown eatery.
1. Chefs don't always wash their hands after handling raw meat.
Researchers in the PLOS ONE study surveyed 238 UK chefs and culinary school students. Of that number, 7.4 percent reported handling raw poultry, red meat, or fish without washing their hands afterward. That's not so bad—until you discover that the staff who worked in fine dining were 18 percent more likely to skip the sink after wrangling raw meat.
This habit might have played into the Great Fat Duck Poisoning of 2009. A Health Protection Agency (HPA) investigation of the incident found that "direct infection from shellfish could have produced this outbreak."
"However, there is also some evidence to support other possible routes of transmission through food. The complex nature of food preparation in this restaurant, with extensive handling of foods, would require excellent food management systems to assure safety... Alcohol gel, which is not fully effective against norovirus, was widely used."
In other words, lack of hand washing could have spread an infection from one batch of bad oysters to every item on the menu. This might be a good time to find out if your favorite spot serves raw shellfish.
2. Your steak might not be the freshest thing in the kitchen.
A full third of the kitchen staff who responded to the survey admitted that their workplaces served meat that was actively going bad. The scientific term for this, apparently, is "meat on the turn"—or at least that's how the British chefs described it.
An article on the website for UK cooking show Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares quotes one chef as saying:
"The first task we gave someone who came to us looking for a cheffing job was to make a meal with the chicken that was on the turn... That's important to a kitchen because it means you can get another day or two days out of your meat. If a chef could do this, I knew he was experienced in restaurant kitchens."
If that's how you spot a good chef, we're eating PB&J from here on out. We'll handle our own food prep, thanks.
3. Kitchen staff might not take sick days when they really, really should.
Restaurants are high-pressure, fast-paced workplaces. Workers bond like soldiers in the trenches, and when one of them misses a shift, they know their friends and colleagues will have to work even harder to make up for the absence.
Maybe that's why nearly a third of the kitchen staff in the survey said they'd been to work within 48 hours of vomiting and/or having diarrhea, which the study adorably shortens to "D&V."
D&V are the exact sorts of symptoms you'd expect from a norovirus infection. In fact, HPA investigators did track the 2009 Fat Duck outbreak directly to norovirus communities thriving on raw oysters. But even diners who didn't order the oysters went home sick.
"Several staff members were infected with norovirus and may have been infectious while at work," says the HPA report, offering a possible explanation for probable cross-contamination.
That wouldn't surprise the authors of the PLOS ONE study. When restaurants win awards and accolades, they suggest, workers refuse to stay away—even when they're sick. Kitchen staff at these decorated eateries were 28 percent more likely than others to work a shift within 48 hours of D&V.
But let's get back to Jim Rosenthal and his wife's disastrous birthday party.
No one would have predicted a food-borne illness when the diners sat down at their swanky table on that dark day in 2009. They happily celebrated Chrissy's 58th birthday with culinary masterpieces.
Boxing promoter Frank Warren was among the guests. He later described the outing to Sky News, saying that "everything was fabulous about the evening."
"The food, the setting, the service, it was unbelievably good," Warren said. "But unfortunately, afterwards, all of us were ill."
Let's be clear: The HPA investigation blamed the Fat Duck's downfall on raw oysters that spent their afternoons filtering sewage water and growing great blooms of norovirus. No one faulted restaurant staff, at least not officially.
"No breaches of hygiene standards were identified in the preparation processes as described by staff," the investigators wrote in their report.
But authors of the PLOS ONE study tie the extent of the outbreak to some of the risky behaviors discussed above. So does the HPA report. It's enough to make you think twice about your own city's foodie Mecca.
In the end, the Fat Duck closed for two weeks of intensive cleaning and, presumably, soul-searching. It was the single worst outbreak of norovirus at a restaurant in history. The Fat Duck reopened after receiving a "clean bill of health," a spokesperson for the restaurant told The Guardian in 2011. They would not be serving oysters this time, the spokesperson said.
The point is, if it can happen at one of the top restaurants in the world, it can happen anywhere. Just ask Jim Rosenthal.