Double helping of chefs in trouble

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Blumenthal losing £10,000 a day as Fat Duck investigation goes on

By Martin Hickman

Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck restaurant could be closed for weeks while scientists try to trace the source of an outbreak which has struck down diners.

An environmentalofficial said tests for the source could take weeks or months as every line of inquiry is exhausted, placing a financial and personal strain on the chef.

He closed the restaurant – one of only three in the UK with three Michelin stars – a week ago after dozens of diners rang in ill. The number of potential cases has leapt to 400, massively increasing the scale and complexity of the outbreak.

"It's still early in the investigation. It could take several weeks to reach a conclusion," Tay Potier, a policy officer at the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health said. "It's difficult to say [when it will finish]. They could come up with the answer tomorrow, or not. These things aren't time limited."

The closure of the restaurant, whose average tariff is £130 a head, has already cost Blumenthal at least £100,000. He is probably losing £10,000 in takings each day.

For a proud man who has shunned commercial opportunities grasped by others, the financial loss will deepen the pain of having his reputation placed under the microscope. He was said to be distressed that the investigation was taking so long.

The Health Protection Agency (HPA) disclosed on Thursday that it was looking into 400 "possible cases" of illness between the end of January and 24 February. Some of the new cases, which emerged after media coverage, are expected to be unconnected to the main investigation.

The outbreak has been described as "very complex". Working with two environmental health officers from Windsor and Maidenhead Council, 20 HPA officers are conducting three sets of tests: one on 60 staff, another on up to 400 diners and, potentially, another on thousands of ingredients.

"Further studies" are to be done on everyone who ate at the Fat Duck since the first diner suffered vomiting and diarrhoea in January.

The restaurant – which seats 40 per service – was fully booked last month, meaning it would have served about 1,600 diners. Attempts will be made to trace other diners to find out what they ate and whether they fell ill. They may be asked for samples.

Sensitive checks for viruses are being carried out at the HPA's Centre for Infections in Colindale, north London. A virus or food poisoning are the most likely explanations.

Yesterday, the HPA and Windsor & Maidenhead could not give a completion date to the inquiry. "I can certainly say we don't have a date in mind," said a spokeswoman. "We are working very hard. It's in nobody's business for this business to close."

It is certainly not in Blumenthal's. The closure shakes the foundation of his career and moderate wealth. He opened the Fat Duck in 1995 and until eight days ago, his reputation was as spotless as diners describe his kitchen. The Fat Duck was voted best restaurant in the world in 2005 and has been voted second best restaurant for three years running, behind El Bulli in Spain, run by Blumenthal's friend Ferran Adrià. Blumenthal has built a budding television career off the back of the restaurant, most recently signing a two-year deal with Channel 4.

Until recently, though, he has shied away from becoming a brand. Unlike Gary Rhodes or Marco Pierre White, he does not endorse pots and pans, nor branded food products as Ainsley Harriot and Jamie Oliver do, nor does he have an international concern like Gordon Ramsay.

He has the Hinds Head pub, round the corner from the Fat Duck in Bray and has begun to dip into commercial projects, for instance judging a Walker's crisps flavour contest.

This refusal to be spread too thin – and a self-effacing pleasantness – has created a substantial stock of goodwill and credibility among foodies, critics and journalists.

Elizabeth Carter, the editor of the Good food Guide, who gave the restaurant 10 out of 10 in the latest tome – the only establishment to receive the score – was on the phone yesterday trying to make a booking at the Fat Duck for May.

"I took my 16-year-old son and there were two or three other tables with children. They were all knocked out by the whole thing. And you don't get this in other restaurants; you don't get wowed teenagers at Gordon Ramsay or Marcus Wareing."

So how good is Blumenthal? "I have been to El Bulli twice and I have been to Noma in Copenhagen which is where all the chefs are going at the moment and Heston's up there with them ... The way he thinks about food is extraordinary. Everybody is puzzled [about the outbreak]. I have spoken to some chefs and they're of the opinion that this could happen to anyone."

Banking nightmares leave Ramsay with lack of appetite for expansion

By Cahal Milmo

For Britain's most insatiable and hyperactive celebrity chef it was a moment to savour. A year after opening his first restaurant in Paris and seeing it branded "boring, pompous and very expensive" by France's most acerbic food critic, Gordon Ramsay proclaimed the award this week of two Michelin stars for the eatery as a "real career high for me".

But if the addition of two more gongs to Ramsay's global haul of 10 Michelin stars amounted to a "triumph" of his ephemeral talents with blackberry foams and carpaccios of octopus, it came with a solid side-serving of humble pie. While the accolades continue to roll in, the 41-year-old masterchef is having to retrench his empire after suffering a series of financial and reputational setbacks.

In the week that Ramsay had to admit to "inaccuracies" in his claims to have played for the Glasgow Rangers first team, The Independent understands he has surrendered control of his "stunning" restaurant in Prague. Ramsay has also admitted to breaking banking covenants and been slapped with a £1,500 fine for filing his accounts six months late.

Amid revelations that Ramsay has had to provide £1.6m of his own money to reassure bankers, The Independent has been told that the breakneck pace of expansion by Gordon Ramsay Holdings (GRH) – the UK-based private company that runs his restaurant operations – will slow dramatically and plans for a flotation next year have been put on hold.

A spokesman for the chef denied there were imminent moves to go to the stock market but a source with knowledge of the plans said: "The recession has come at precisely the wrong time – the masterplan has come off the rails. Any flotation is now a very, very long way off."

The chef has long grown used to batting off critics of his lack of kitchen time by pointing out that no one expects Giorgio Armani to stitch every one of the suits that bears his name. But away from his eateries in Versailles (where he picked up his two most recent Michelin stars) or New York, he gave no answer yesterday to the questions raised in Companies House, Cardiff, where a 36-page document was deposited by GRH last Friday.

The arrival of the company's accounts for 2007 six months after the final deadline generated a £1,500 fine for late filing. The papers showed GRH had breached its banking covenants in 2007 – promises made to its lenders providing its £6.13m overdraft – and that Ramsay has had to give a £1.6m personal guarantee to ensure it can pay its debts.

GRH declined to comment on whether the breaches had continued in 2008 beyond confirming that it now has a £10.5m facility with the troubled Royal Bank of Scotland. The restaurant group said: "The current economic conditions create uncertainty over the availability of bank finance in the foreseeable future."

The declarations were not the only evidence that the chef is having to work hard to put his finances on as robust a footing as some of the language he uses to lambast the beneficiaries of his expertise on his Kitchen Nightmares and Hell's Kitchen shows.

His company is no longer in day-to-day charge of its Maze restaurant, opened in Prague 15 months ago, and has returned control to the Hilton hotel in the Czech capital. GRH insisted the decision was "mutual" with Ramsay continuing to "offer support with regard to menu planning". The company declined to comment on suggestions that a similar move is being contemplated for some of Ramsay's other non-UK operations.

With 2007 profits of £3.05m, turnover increasing at a rate of nine per cent a year, a rash of launches such as Angela Hartnett's Murano and an estimated income of £2m a year from his television shows, supporters of Ramsay say he is far from having to hand over the keys to his restaurants to his bankers.

But there is little doubt that the Ramsay publicity machine has hit a rough patch. Earlier this year he parted company with his PR trouble-shooter, Gary Farrow, credited with steering him through the storm of publicity generated last year by tabloid allegations of a seven-year affair with "professional mistress" Sarah Symonds. Friends of Ramsay have said that questions from his wife, Tana, about why he needed an adept tabloid fireman such as Farrow after the chef assured her no such allegations would surface again may have prompted the decision to dispense with the PR man's services.

Long-term observers of Ramsay's culinary exploits say he needs to refocus on what he does best. Richard Harden, co-editor of the Harden's Restaurant Guide, said: "I would like to see a little humility in the Ramsay camp. He can have the television career and he can have the world-beating restaurants but really, can he have both?"

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