Steffen Duckhorn still remembers well the day Laura Bush thought she might die. He was feeling a bit worked up because he had heard that President George W. Bush, who was attending the G-8 summit in June 2007 in Heiligendamm, Germany, wasn't feeling well. Duckhorn had cooked for the president, and Bush was now complaining he had a stomach ache.
"We immediately contacted the German Federal Office of Criminal Investigation to find out if there was anything to it," Duckhorn told SPIEGEL. "There was nothing." During the summit, he said, toxicologists had been constantly present in the kitchen of the five-star hotel collecting samples in test tubes of every bit of food which had been prepared. "Before the meal, during the meal and after the meal," he said.
Almost three years later, Bush's stomach ache has somehow been recast as a possible murder attempt against close to a dozen US delegation members. In her memoir, which will land in bookstores this week, Laura Bush writes of a possible poisoning.
"In the past," she writes, "there had been several high-profile poisonings, including one with suspected nuclear material, in and around Europe. The overriding fear was that terrorists had gotten control of a dangerous substance and planted it at the resort."
The former first lady writes that she suddenly felt deathly ill one afternoon. She writes that other delegation members experienced the same.
'Every Chef Has His Honor'
Duckhorn, 34, who has now become head chef at the Grand Hotel Heiligendamm, is irritated. "Every chef has his honor," he says. Together with the hotel's former head chef, who is now working in nearby Rostock, he has reconstructed the events of the summit.
He said that samples taken by toxicologists were tested in a laboratory set up directly at the site, and that there was never even the slightest reason for any suspicion. The cooks also claim that the kitchen only prepared meals for the presidents and prime ministers, as well as their spouses and close employees, but not for the rest of the delegations. "They brought their stuff with them," Duckhorn said, adding that the Americans, for example, brought their own cola and M&Ms with the White House logo on them.
The chefs had arranged each course of the official meals together with Germany's Foreign Ministry. They served upscale German cuisine, including dishes such as herring tartar, pike-perch with braised cucumbers, veal schnitzel with fresh asparagus and guinea fowl fricassee. The fresh ingredients all came from the area, and background checks had been carried out on suppliers and kitchen workers before the summit. Each delivery and worker was inspected on site by bomb-sniffing dogs and with metal detectors. Officers with Germany's Federal Office of Criminal Investigation (BKA) were always present at the doors to the kitchen. And even if something had happened, "then we would have been the first to drop," Duckhorn said. "We do taste our things."
'No One Was Running Around'
Laura Bush writes in her memoir that the Secret Service went on full alert, combing the entire hotel for potential poisons. But Duckhorn disputes this. "No one was running around the courtyard anxiously," he said. The Americans simply ordered a chicken broth from him for the president.
Sources at the BKA say they are unaware of any poisoning scare at the G-8 summit. Officials at the US Embassy in Berlin are also unaware of any such incident.
Bush writes that she doesn't even know herself if any poison was discovered. She writes that the most concrete conclusion any doctors could reach is that "we contracted a virus that attacks a nerve near the inner ear and is prevalent in Heiligendamm." She claims that one White House staffer lost all hearing in one ear and that another had trouble walking. The military aide's "gait has never returned to normal," she writes, "nor has our senior staffer regained hearing in that ear."
"No, no, no," Stefan Hummel says, trying to catch his breath after an outburst of laughter. Hummel, 59, is the chief pulmonary doctor at the Median Clinic, a medical facility located just behind the Grand Hotel. He finds it strange that one person had a gastro-intestinal problem while another supposedly had an ear problem and a third a walking problem. A highly infectious virus wouldn't have remained contained within the delegation, he knows that much. And if many people had fallen ill, he says, he would have heard about it. He also said the climate at the resort was a "hostile one" to viruses.
And on the day after George W. Bush had his chicken broth, he was apparently already feeling much better. Steffen Duckhorn met the president, who was in what Duckhorn describes as good spirits, in the courtyard. Bush shook his hand and praised the cook for his meals. "Hey man, good food," Duckhorn recalls him saying.