Heston still don’t know noro

Celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal’s latest attempt at PR salvation in this morning’s Daily Mail is another crass and superficial effort to blame others for the March 2009 norovirus outbreak that sickened 529 at The Fat Duck restaurant. Heston has a memory of convenience in yet another quest for salvation and, sympathy while pushing a new fancy restaurant and cookbook. Here’s a reminder.

“I thought my world was caving in.”

So did the 529 people barfing and confirmed as having norovirus from your Fat Duck.

“I’m just a chef who likes asking lots of questions.”

Not enough questions – like where those oysters came from, and if I’m going to use them in dishes such as jelly oyster with passion fruit and lavender, should they be cooked so people don’t barf?

“Blumenthal is still seething about the report into the incident published 12 months ago by the Health Protection Agency (HPA), which he believes maligns his £150-a-head establishment and his business methods. ‘The report insinuated things that I found very frustrating. For example, that staff were back at work while they were physically ill. Our staff training manual very clearly lays out a 48-hour return-to-work policy – you don’t come back until 48 hours after you feel better.’”

At the time of the outbreak, Blumethal reported conducting his own testing of staff and customers, and stated “so far it is categorically not food poisoning." Wrong.

Blumenthal also tried out the but-our-training-manual-says defense last year. The quotes are eerily similar to what he said in 2009. Maybe they were just lifted.

The HPA report did state ongoing transmission at the restaurant—leading to illnesses from January 6 to February 22—was thought to have occurred through continuous contamination of foods prepared in the restaurant or by person-to-person spread between staff and diners or a mixture of both. Investigators identified several weaknesses in procedures at the restaurant may have contributed to ongoing transmission including: delayed response to the incident, the use of inappropriate environmental cleaning products, and staff working when ill. Up to 16 of the restaurant’s food handlers were reportedly working with norovirus symptoms before it was voluntarily closed.

“I took the decision to close the restaurant within 24 hours, as a precautionary measure. It was a financial blow but I couldn’t consider money at the time. … I felt desperately sorry for all the people who suffered. My instincts were to contact everyone personally and apologise but I was advised against this by my lawyers, insurers and official bodies conducting investigations. It was extremely frustrating, but my hands were tied.”

Blumenthal is arguing he took a financial blow, but wouldn’t risk a financial blow and say I’m sorry, which was the decent human thing to do instead of hiding behind barristers and bureaucrats.

When Blumenthal did finally issue an apology on September 25, 2009—seven months after the outbreak was discovered and more than two weeks after the Health Protection Agency report was released—it suggested that he viewed an empathetic apology as an admission of guilt.

"I am relieved to be able to finally offer my fullest apologies to all those who were affected by the outbreak at the Fat Duck,” said Blumenthal, “It was extremely frustrating to not be allowed to personally apologise (sic) to my guests until now. It was devastating to me and my whole team, as it was to many of our guests and I wish to invite them all to return to the Fat Duck at their convenience [for a free meal]." The apology was too late and again failed to accept responsibility for the aspects of the outbreak that were under the chef’s control—namely, acquiring seafood from unsafe sources and allowing sick employees to handle food.

Television presenter Jim Rosenthal, who was sickened, called Blumenthal’s response, “pathetic.”??

“He has basically attempted to re-write the HPA report and its conclusions in his favour. It is pathetic and a complete PR disaster. There isn’t even a hint of apology.??“ At first I was extremely sympathetic to Heston Blumenthal, but the way this has been mishandled beggars belief. I could not believe what I was reading in this email – it was like we had been sent different reports. I am taking them to court and a lot of other people are too. A simple apology might have ended all this a long time ago.”

Another diner blogged, “I’m appalled because I was so entranced by Heston Blumenthal and he comes across as being very decent and clever. We had been so ill and, at the very least, we expected some kind of acknowledgment. We really thought they would be interested in what had happened to us.”

Boxing promoter Frank Warren commented, "Everything was fabulous about the evening – the food, the setting, the service, it was unbelievably good but unfortunately, afterwards, all of us were ill. … Since then we have not heard anything from the restaurant at all. I am very disappointed and I know that the people I went with are very disappointed with the feedback"

Blumenthal is now gearing up for the opening of a lavish new restaurant, Dinner, at London’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel in December. He is also working on a new, simpler cookbook, Heston At Home, which will be out in a year’s time.

Heston, you need to get a lot better at this PR thing if you expect either to sell.

My “mind went to dark places.”

We’ve all been to dark places; grow a pair and admit what went wrong rather than incessantly whining while promoting. Then maybe you’ll get some sympathy.