When the World’s Top Restaurant Serves Up a Bug

The disturbingly common and discomfiting norovirus hits Noma in Copenhagen — and the culinary world is almost unappetizingly gleeful

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Fabian Bimmer / REUTERS

Cooks prepare some dishes in a preparation kitchen of the Noma restaurant in Copenhagen, Oct. 25, 2012.

Correction appended: March 12, 2013

The headline was too good to resist. When Noma, the Copenhagen restaurant that for the past three years has held the top spot on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, was discovered to have suffered a norovirus outbreak, the media response — both mainstream and social — was vast, immediate and nearly gleeful. “Poisoning at ‘World’s Best Restaurant,’” reported France’s Le Point. “World’s Best Restaurant Hit by Vomiting Bug,” said Huffington Post. “Restaurant Leaves Bad Taste with Guests,” giggled the Financial Times.

Norovirus is a global epidemic, an easily transmissible disease that is rarely fatal but that causes millions of cases of severe gastroenteritis each year. Yet what mattered in this case was not the virus’ ubiquity but its particularity: it had struck the restaurant that, at the moment, is perhaps the most acclaimed in the world, a restaurant that — not incidentally — is expensive, hard to get into and known for its unusual, innovative cuisine. As a result, its much heralded chef, René Redzepi — who was among TIME’s 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2012 — got a quick, brutal lesson in the flipside of being a media darling. Call it Top Chef: The Schadenfreude Edition.

(MORE: A Danish Chef Revolutionizes European Cuisine)

The facts are these: during the week of Feb. 12–16, 63 of the 435 people who dined at Noma became ill. First word of the problem came on the night of Feb. 14, when a Danish couple e-mailed the restaurant to inform them that they had become sick after eating there. The e-mail was opened by an office staff member the following morning, but because she did not speak Danish, she forwarded the message to a floor manager, who in turn did not read it until returning on Feb. 18 from his day off. That same morning, the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration, which had also received notification of the problem, contacted the restaurant. Laboratory results confirmed the norovirus diagnosis. “It was our worst nightmare,” says Redzepi. “We’re in this business to make people happy, so when we first found out about it and announced it at the staff meeting, the entire team — all 80 people — just went white.”

The news was especially hard for a restaurant that takes health so seriously that it annually brings in a doctor to administer flu shots to staff who want them. But norovirus is a tough rival, both notoriously easy to transmit and notoriously difficult to kill. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the bug causes about 20 million cases each year in the U.S. alone, and this year looks to be especially bad thanks to the introduction of a new strain called GII 4 Sydney. Already, the U.K. has reported a 63% increase in the number of cases this season (norovirus is more prevalent from November to April) over last, for a total thus far of 1.2 million affected. In 2012, Denmark had 22 restaurant-based outbreaks, sickening 800 people. Although thorough hand washing is the most frequently prescribed preventative measure, tests have shown that norovirus can survive both soap and hot and cold temperatures. A study published in December 2012 in the scientific journal PLOS One found that even professional dishwashing — using detergent and machines set to 49ºC — failed to eradicate the virus.

In Noma’s case, health authorities believe the virus was likely introduced by a staff member who had perhaps consumed infected shellfish. One staff member reported feeling sick after he got home from service on the night of Feb. 15 and was told not to go to work the following day, but it wasn’t until the following Tuesday that food he had touched was thrown out. Two other staff members also fell ill.

(MORE: The World’s 100 Most Influential People: René Redzepi)

On Feb. 28, the health authority reduced Noma’s previously perfect rating (the “big smiley face” in inspection symbology got cut to a less broad smile), and as required by law, Noma posted its latest inspection report on both its website and at the restaurant door, on March 1. “They made some mistakes at the time of the outbreak,” says Danish Veterinary and Food Administration outbreak investigator Morten Lisby, who led the inspection. “But from the moment we got in touch with them, they have collaborated fully with us and done everything properly. We could not have conducted this investigation had it not been for their collaboration.”

It wasn’t until a week later that Danish paper Politiken got word of the incident, but once it did, the news raced around the world. “By lunch service on Friday, there were two television crews outside, and someone else was trying to sneak in a hidden camera,” says Redzepi.

The media coverage was frenzied — with predictable results. In several reports, the 40 seats in the restaurant’s main dining room shrank to 12; the 35-year-old Redzepi grew younger by three years. More seriously, the inspector’s finding that one of the four sinks that staff use to wash their hands lacked water of a high enough temperature morphed into widely repeated reports from Food Safety News that the entire restaurant lacked hot water.

Innovation is one of the hallmarks of fine dining today, and Noma’s willingness to use unusual, locally foraged ingredients in its quest to develop an authentically Nordic cuisine is one of the reasons that its reservation book fills months in advance with diners more than willing to pay $260 for the chance to try its tasting menu. But in a culture that has only recently begun to think of food as both art and entertainment, the same elements can also inspire mistrust and even mockery. Witness Gawker’s headline: “‘Best Restaurant in the World’ Offers Ants, Roe, and Horrible Diarrhea Illness.”

Redzepi says he understands the edge he walks. “We’re a restaurant that’s known for perfection, and suddenly there’s a stain on us. It’s like a prize fighter who only has knockouts to his name suddenly finding himself on the floor. I know that it’s news.” And yet, if according to the CDC, restaurants are the second most common location for norovirus outbreaks, most never make the news. One notable exception was the Fat Duck, in Bray, England, where in 2009, 240 diners fell ill after eating oysters that had been contaminated at their source. At the time, the restaurant was No. 2 in the 50 Best ranking (it had been No. 1 in 2005), and the numerous articles that came out around the world — the news made the front page of major papers in Spain, France, Japan, the U.S. and the U.K. — tended to highlight both that status and chef Heston Blumenthal’s avant garde style of cooking.

“What people have to realize is that this could happen to any restaurant in the world,” says Ferran Adrià. “But the more well known you are, the more you become a target.” He should know. During the five years when his restaurant el Bulli was ranked best in the world, he received outsize attention after another prominent Spanish chef accused him, without substantiation, of “poisoning” his diners with some of the additives that the restaurant used to achieve dramatic effects on the plate. “It’s crazy that this kind of thing gets more attention than when you win a major prize or have a significant accomplishment,” Adrià says. “But that’s the way things work these days. That’s the price of fame.”

On Saturday night, Noma’s website was besieged with hits, slowing it to a crawl. Concerned, Redzepi logged into Twitter to see if there was some new twist in the saga. “I immediately saw that I had 50 new followers in the last hour and I thought, Oh no, what are they saying now?” But this time, norovirus had nothing to do with it. Noticing that his new followers had names like Smile Justin and Team Biebs, Redzepi kept reading backward in his timeline until he found the culprit: a tweet from Dan Kanter, guitarist for Justin Bieber. Noting that he was going to Denmark, Kanter had written, “I really hope I get to experience the world-renowned cooking of @ReneRedzepiNoma!” to his 822,000 eager followers. And just like that, Noma moved on to its next big thing.

Correction: The original version of this story quoted an NPR report as saying that Noma was packed with “exotic equipment like Pacojets.” The actual quote should have been “exotic equipment like a Pacojet.”

MORE: Noma Takes Top Spot, but U.S. Dominates World’s 50 Best Restaurants