Case closed against Michelin-starred restaurant after diner death

Valencia’s Supreme Court of Justice has dismissed a case against a Michelin-starred restaurant in the city, following the death of a woman after dining at the establishment last February.

Riff restaurant in Valencia made headlines last year after a 46-year-old woman died after dining at the eatery with her husband and son. 28 others, who had also been eating at the restaurant between 13 and 16 February, suffered minor symptoms of food poisoning.

As reported by Spanish news agency EFE, a judge dismissed the case last month.

The forensic report concluded that the woman had suffered from acute respiratory failure as well as mild food poisoning which “cleared up without treatment”.

Over 70 diners at the restaurant where subsequently interviewed, with around 30 experiencing mild food poisoning between 13 and 16 February after eating morel mushrooms.

The report concluded that the woman died of natural causes and that she suffered acute respiratory failure as a result of a pre-existing kidney disorder.

The judge has therefore ended the investigation into the head chef and owner of the restaurant Bernd Knöller.

In an emailed statement, Knöller expressed relief following the verdict and praised the support of friends and colleagues following the incident.

Riff, which Knöller temporarily closed following the episode and reopened in March 2019, retained its Michelin star in the 2020 guide, which was published before investigations were concluded.

It was reported at the time that food safety officers visited the restaurant on 18 February and failed to find any obvious explanation for the poisonings.

Knöller explained that the probable cause of the food poisoning was the morel mushrooms he used in a rice-based dish. He said that he knew that morels are mildly toxic when raw, but he said this toxicity is generally believed to be removed when the mushrooms are cooked. He believes the problems could have arisen from the treatment of the morel mushrooms before they arrived in his kitchen.

“We had sourced them [the mushrooms] from our regular mushroom supplier who I have been working with for over 25 years. As I remember, these particular morels were the most beautiful and uniform specimens we had ever seen. The mushrooms apparently had not come from Spain or from Europe but were from China, probably from Sichuan where the Chinese successfully cultivate them.

“Despite repeated requests, the supplier was not willing to confirm in writing the origin of the mushrooms. We were only able to ascertain the mushrooms’ origin from the dealer through oral information.

“Unfortunately, and despite repeated requests, we were not informed about it in writing, and there is nothing in that respect in the report by the judge and the medical examiners. Personally, I would be interested to know what treatment those fresh mushrooms had received in order to withstand such a long, arduous journey in perfect conditions.

“Closing the restaurant temporarily was my own decision. A combination of shock and media pressure made it impossible for me to continue working at the time. However, the Valencian Health Authority publicly reported after their immediate inspection that it found no reason to close the restaurant.

“The case was finally closed last week. So now it is time for me to take a deep breath and continue to do what I most enjoy: cooking.”

While local support has helped the restaurant to stay afloat, Knöller who has been running his restaurant for 26 years, said that overseas customers, which previously accounted for almost half his clientele, were reduced “practically to zero following the incident and worldwide news coverage”.

Knöller is now hoping to move forward following his exoneration.

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