At the Four Seasons, 200 stilettos are being fashioned out of dark chocolate, while at the Windsor Arms, cubes of watermelon are infused with 15-year-old balsamic vinegar.
The Drake's Chef Anthony Rose has placed a special order for organic cranberry beans, and L-Eat Catering is making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with seared foie gras for Burt Reynolds.
Welcome to the kitchens of the Toronto International Film Festival, where whitefish and red wine are given more loving attention than Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt.
For some Toronto chefs, the planning started immediately after last year's festival. Restaurants, hotels and the slingers of high-end hors d'oeuvres must figure out what to serve celebrities who have eaten at the finest restaurants in the world, and what to pour for desperate hangers-on who believe one martini at the right bar might land them a trip to Lake Como as the future Mrs. George Clooney.
"I still don't know to this day how I prepare," said Stephen Ricci, executive chef at the Windsor Arms Hotel. "The sous chefs are probably going to be dead by the end of the week."
Like most Toronto foodies heavily involved in the festival, Mr. Ricci does not see his children for the 10 days the stars are in town. He and other chefs around the city must contend with the hectic demands of private parties, late-night room service and gala dinners, all while keeping their specially created restaurant menus available for daily patrons who arrive to nibble, sip and stare.
Many of the men and women in whites arrive at their kitchen stations at 5 a.m., when some celebrities are just hitting the sheets, and work through breakfasts for 150 and evening cocktail parties for 500.
Food orders arrive at back doors as constantly as the paparazzi show up out front, and organic fruit suppliers are kept on call like A-list plastic surgeons.
The Four Seasons Hotel's grocery bill doubles to $70,000 for the week of the festival, and almost every kitchen in town increases the number of cooks in the kitchen, not to mention dishwashers, expediters and pastry chefs.
"It's a nightmare," Mr. Ricci said. "But it does allow us to show off."
FRESH FISH, BREAKFAST SHOOTERS AND ... CHICKEN POT PIE?
In the coming days, Paul Boehmer, chef at the Rosewater Supper Club, will prepare meals for zombie connoisseur George Romero, Booker Prize-winning author Ian McEwan, Academy Award nominee Keira Knightly and retired general Romeo Dallaire.
The restaurant is one of the official venues of TIFF, although every kitchen in town can claim to be whipping up dishes for some festival attendees.
Tomorrow night, Mr. Boehmer's kitchen will play host to the opening night gala, where 500 people will nibble medallions of monkfish and tuna tartar with Dungeness crab.
Fish is the big trend for this year's festival, so long as it is fresh, farm-raised and politically correct, and Mr. Boehmer plans to offer salmon gravlax - fish cured with salt, sugar, dill and peppercorns - to the 300 guests of the party for Atonement, starring Ms. Knightly.
But while some boldface festival attendees weigh less than the average rib-eye steak, that does not mean Toronto's chefs are limiting their menus this week to wheatgrass shooters and tofu stacks.
For the annual In Style magazine party at the Windsor Arms, Mr. Ricci plans to serve his 500 guests sea salt potato chips with shrimp relish and braised short ribs.
"Everybody's into the ribs again," he said.
An African-themed event in honour of Jane Goodall - who happens to be visiting Toronto during the festival - will feature North African lamb kebabs and an Ethiopian-style salad, while Mr. Ricci said almost every film party at the hotel will feature a vodka and caviar station.
In the morning, as stars and stargazers rouse themselves for another day on the circuit, the Windsor Arms has concocted a menu of breakfast shooters, organic protein meals and a cleansing tonic finished with golden beet juice and mint, a recipe the chef jokes he perfected by regularly getting drunk.
For those with slightly hardier appetites, there is a Wake-Me-Up Benedict with Tabasco hollandaise and beef filet in place of the traditional Canadian back bacon.
"Pork products are a big no-no," Mr. Ricci said.
At the Four Seasons, executive chef Robert Bartley is overseeing the construction of 200 elaborate chocolate installations, which are put in the room of every visiting star but almost never eaten.
This year, the Four Seasons has themed its menus to 1920s Hollywood glamour, and Mr. Bartley has been researching early 20th-century food trends and film titles.
He will serve Moroccan-style Casablanca chicken wings and Sherlock Holmes martinis served on magnifying glass coasters.
But the hotel's main event is the annual George Christy luncheon, an elite party where 140 are invited for cocktails and 80 can stay to eat, meaning that at least 60 people every year attempt to sneak in for the culinary main attraction: chicken pot pie.
The entree's recipe is only slightly modified each year, Mr. Bartley said, when Mr. Christy, a former Hollywood Reporter gossip columnist, calls in his seasonal preference for oregano or thyme.
For this, the 23rd annual luncheon, he has requested phyllo pastry instead of puff and an "Attack of the Heirloom Tomato" appetizer.
"It's George's type of food," Mr. Bartley said. "He dictates. He's so tired of the gourmet food."
RICH RECIPES FOR EXCLUSIVE ENGAGEMENTS
Tony Loschiavo, on the other hand, is a proponent of over-the-top richness in his recipes.
The head of L-Eat Catering, an official partner of TIFF, his catering company is booked solid with private soirees, charity dinners and press conferences. But Mr. Loschiavo said planning what to offer at each venue is a challenge.
"These people are throwing a lot of money around," he said. "And they want stuff people haven't seen before."
With most clients, he is asked to prepare a menu that is vetted and amended by organizers, and for this year's Best Buddies event at The Carlu, a 400-seat charity fundraiser with special guest Burt Reynolds, L-Eat is going with upscale variations of classic fare.
Mr. Loschiavo's seared foie gras sandwiches with peanut butter and jelly will be served on mini Ace Bakery brioche, and popcorn bags handed out before screenings will be filled with Cajun-spiced popcorn shrimp.
Grilled New York steak will be sliced, skewered and served in a cone with French fries tossed in parmesan and truffle oil.
"If you're going to have the calories, you might as well go all out," he said.
At this time of year, Mr. Loschiavo's biggest problem is not what to make, but finding people to serve his creations.
A lot of the actors and actresses in the city work as waiters for catering companies, and during the film festival, Mr. Loschiavo said, many of them attend galas, screenings and parties.
"Half our staff really want to work the events and half really can't," he said. "Some of our key people are actors."
SPECIAL (AND BIZARRE) REQUESTS HONOURED HERE
At the Drake Hotel, a festival hangout for players who consider themselves more boho than Bloor Street, chef Anthony Rose has challenges of his own.
Besides the 15 large-scale private dinner parties he already has booked during the festival and the demands of his regular clientele, his kitchen is routinely informed at the last minute that a big shot is coming in, and they must clear the back door and prepare something special.
"They usually don't show," he said.
But when they do, Mr. Rose said TIFF attendees can bring some unusual food requests along with their entourage.
Last year, one star delivered the kitchen a handwritten note specifying exactly how she wanted her breakfast cooked. Her egg was to be poached hard for five minutes and 45 seconds. One piece of whole grain toast was to be buttered, while a slice of white was to be cut to an exact thickness and left dry.
"It was really weird," he said. "But you gotta do it."
For a dinner in honour of the Dixie Chicks last year, 12 out of 65 guests had strict dietary requirements.
Many celebrities send riders to hotels and restaurants in advance, outlining what they would like and what they can't stand, and many kitchens have dedicated refrigerators stocked with Hollywood orders.
At the Windsor Arms, which attracts some of the big dogs of the entertainment industry, Mr. Ricci said some celebrities actually bring their own chefs, whose abilities he silently judges as they cook in his kitchen.
"You wonder, why the hell is he eating that?" he said.
Many stars are more concerned with staying hydrated than physically sated. Publicists demand rooms stocked with water in bizarre varieties: water with oxygen, water with mint. Mr. Ricci once sent an underling to Buffalo, N.Y., to fetch a brand of specially requested mineral water that is not available in Canada.
Mr. Ricci has been asked for Jell-O late at night, and the hotel is often told to remove all alcohol from the rooms of recently rehabbed stars.
A celebrity once asked for a specially made pasta containing everything on the menu: steak, chicken, seafood and various other bizarre ingredients.
"He had it again the next night," Mr. Ricci said. "I refused to taste it."
And it is not just the biggest stars who are so particular. At the famous George Christy luncheon, there is one Toronto-based film executive who insists on having no peas in his chicken pot pie, requiring the kitchen to make a special dish just for him.
Mr. Bartley, who said every third order at the Four Seasons is customized during the festival, is not bothered by special requests but can often get distracted by special guests.
"I had to cook for Cameron Diaz once and she was joking with me," he said, flushing with embarrassment. "I couldn't handle it."
THE FINICKY, THE FREELOADERS AND THE FOOD BANKS
For all this effort, most chefs agree that the food plays a supporting role to TIFF's big budget flicks and high-wattage stars.
Mr. Boehmer of the Rosewater Supper Club said it can be frustrating cooking for guests who want no oil, no salt, no pork.
"It's like saying no flavour," he said.
Directors and producers are bigger food lovers than actors, most chefs agree, and journalists who cover the festival will gratefully devour whatever food is put on offer.
At the Windsor Arms, Mr. Ricci gives his leftovers to food banks, but most chefs say they plan their amounts according to the fickle tastes of their festival guests.
"I see people that I think aren't going to eat anything, and they gobble," Mr. Bartley said.
But Mr. Loschiavo of L-Eat catering said that for all the preparation, the festival attendees are "not a big eating crowd. ...
"The emphasis is on uniqueness and quality," he said. "And don't run out of Grey Goose."
Good food hunting
Forget about the movie lineups, what festival attendees really want to know is who is serving the best canapés and where they can trade in their popcorn bags for one of those famous chicken pot pies. Here's a few highlights: Avenue Bar and Lounge
at the Four Seasons
Ahi tuna tempura rolls, mini beef foie gras burgers and manchego grilled cheese sandwiches with smoked tomato ketchup.
The George Christy luncheon at the Four Seasons
The famous chicken pot pie
will be served in phyllo pastry this year, along with an "Attack of the Heirloom Tomatoes" appetizer.
In the morning, get your energy levels up with a Wake-Me-Up Benedict with Tabasco hollandaise and choose from an array of fresh fruit smoothies.
Southern-fried chicken, smoked chicken quesadillas and a sushi bar.
Rosewater Supper Club
Salmon gravlax, tuna tartar with Dungeness crab and medallions of monkfish.
At any press conference or party catered by L-Eat, stars will quench their thirst with a coriander mojito made with lemon vodka and garnished with a lemongrass blade. Or nibble Bison burgers on spelt pita with blue cheese mayo; red snapper ceviche with lime jalapeno on baked corn chips; or grilled New York steak served with fries tossed with parmesan and truffle oil.
Can't make the party? Make the food yourself
WINDSOR ARMS WAKE-ME-UP BENEDICT
What you need
4 English muffins
4 (6-ounce) beef filets, cut in half
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 cups of water
½ teaspoon white vinegar
4 egg yolks
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon water
½ pound butter melted
2 tablespoons Louisiana hot sauce
What you do
Preheat a skillet. Brush muffins with butter. Place on hot skillet and pan fry for two minutes on each side. Remove the muffins from skillet. Split filets in half horizontally. Season filets generously with salt and pepper. Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Sear the filets for two minutes on each side for medium-rare. Remove filets from pan and let rest.
In a large skillet combine water and vinegar. Season the water with salt. Bring mixture to a boil. Slide four eggs into water, turn heat to low and simmer until eggs are set, two to three minutes. Watch carefully and remove eggs when yolks are still soft. Drain poached eggs on a paper-lined plate. Return water to boil and repeat.
To make the hollandaise sauce, set a stainless steel bowl over a pot of simmering water and in it whisk the egg yolks with lemon juice and water. Season with salt and pepper. Whisk the mixture until pale yellow and slightly thick. Be careful not to let bowl touch water. Remove bowl from the pot and while whisking vigorously, gradually add butter little by little until all is incorporated, then add Louisiana hot sauce and give one last good whisk.
To assemble, place steak on English muffins, top steaks with poached eggs and spoon hollandaise over eggs. Serves four.
L-EAT CATERING'S CILANTRO MOJITO
What you need
2 sprigs cilantro
1 teaspoon fresh ginger (prechopped)
1 teaspoon simple syrup or sugar
1½ ounces lemon vodka
Splash of soda water
Lemongrass (for garnish)
What you do
Place the cilantro, fresh chopped ginger, simple syrup (or sugar) and your favourite lemon vodka in a martini shaker. Take the muddler and grind the ingredients together for approximately 15 seconds. Pour into a tall glass, over ice, and finish with soda water. Garnish with a blade of lemongrass.
FOUR SEASONS MANCHEGO AND CARAMELIZED ONION GRILLED CHEESE WITH SMOKED TOMATO KETCHUP
What you need
2 thin slices of brioche (preferably cut from a miniature loaf)
1 teaspoon roasted garlic and thyme mayonnaise
1 ounce sliced Manchego cheese
½ ounce caramelized onions (sliced white onions slowly cooked in butter until medium dark brown)
½ ounce butter
1 cup Heinz ketchup
What you do
For the grilled cheese, spread the roasted garlic mayonnaise on two slices of the brioche. On one slice, layer on the caramelized onion and the sliced manchego cheese. Arrange the other slice of the brioche on top and press down. Melt the butter in a non-stick fry pan and place sandwich into melted butter. Brown sandwich on both sides and press down using a spatula until cheese has melted. Keep warm and serve with smoked tomato ketchup.
For the smoked tomato ketchup, put bowl of 1 cup Heinz tomato ketchup into a smoker for 30 minutes.
DRAKE HEIRLOOM TOMATO SALAD WITH L'ÉTOILE BLEUE AND SHERRY VINAIGRETTE
What you need
1½ pounds assorted large and small heirloom tomatoes
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons sherry vinegar
1 large shallot finely diced
1 teaspoon chili flakes
6 ounces L'Étoile Bleue cheese
What you do
Stem and rough cut the tomatoes. Make the vinaigrette by mixing the olive oil, sherry vinegar, shallots, chili flakes together and season with salt and pepper. Divide the tomatoes onto the plates, crumble the blue cheese over the tomatoes and drizzle the vinaigrette over everything. Serve with crusty bread. Feeds four or five.