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Fest feeding

From peanut butter, jelly and foie gras sandwiches, to cilantro mojitos and salmon gravlax, the creations that chefs bring to TIFF deserve a nod for best supporting role. Siri Agrell goes behind the scenes with the players who make it all happen

Globe and Mail Update

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.

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