Toronto 2012: Celebrity Chefs Rate TIFF's Star-Driven Party Scene

Luma's Michael Bonacini and Mistura's Massimo Capra discuss how the city's dining destinations have embraced and served Hollywood royalty over the years.

TORONTO - Decisions, decisions: Michael Bonacini and Massimo Capra know what to wear for the glitz and glamor of the Toronto International Film Festival this week.

Their chef’s coats.

As Toronto’s biggest celebrity chefs, Bonacini and Capra sum up TIFF’s meteoric rise during the last decade by what has happened to its parties.

“We had some beautiful parties,” Capra, who runs Mistura and Sopra, and before that the kitchen at Prego della Piazza, recalled.

That includes one visit by Justin Timberlake and a young woman, who ate quietly in a booth until a disloyal waiter alerted the paparazzi to his presence.

“My manager had to bundle Timberlake and his guest out the back door and into a van,” Capra added.

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But the 1980s and 1990s at TIFF, when the Hollywood stars and their entourages converged at Yorkville hotspots like Prego or Bistro 990 to bond over decadent pre- or post-premiere dinners, and then party late into the night, are well past.

Now, with the major studios’ dream machine seizing the media attention in Toronto, A-list actors and their layers of handlers move at double speed from hotels to red carpet movie launches and then to post-premiere parties in restaurants and night clubs as if on a conveyor belt.

"They come in and say hello and leave to another event,” Capra laments.

What’s more, party central at TIFF has shifted downtown from Yorkville as the festival glitterati falls for Bell Lightbox, the festival’s year-round home on King Street.

All of which has Bonacini, who followed up running uptown and upscale Toronto eateries like Auberge du Pommier and Centro by becoming ringleader at the Luma and Canteen restaurants in Bell Lightbox, in the festival’s sweet spot.

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“Our biggest spike in business comes during the festival,” Bonacini insists, as Toronto each September becomes an adman’s dream, with the best way to sell anything from Canadian beer, banks and Blackberries becomes linking it to Hollywood pleasure and partying.

As for feeding the stars themselves, Bonacini usually does that in the Bell Lightbox green rooms as Hollywood stars make press conference and movie premiere appearances.

He recalls Tim Burton making a surprise appearance in Luma after Bonacini created a “Creature Comforts” menu inspired by the famed director, which included Alice’s Magical Mushroom Lasagna and Mrs Lovett’s Meat Pie.

And after finishing a lemon tart for dessert, Burton drew a fish wearing a chef’s hat on a napkin for the pastry chef, and signed his creation.

Of course, Torontonians do a lot of rubber-necking during TIFF to see whether Hollywood stars are coming through the front doors of restaurants and hotel lobbies.

But for the most part, Capra and Bonacini insist locals remains civil when confronted by Hollywood actors, and generally leave them alone during their stay at the festival.

“I don’t think that’s part of our DNA,” Bonacini said of the fan frenzy typical of Los Angeles or London.

For restaurant staff, on the other hand, there's another story.

A sous chef who never walks through a dining room will don a clean white jacket and venture among diners when word gets back to the kitchen that a Hollywood starlet is in the house.

“There’s a buzz, there’s an energy that runs through the staff,” Bonacini says of A-list actors coming through his restaurants, especially now that TIFF has become an Oscar gateway during each awards season.

Capra recalls in 2008 when the cast of Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire dined at Mistura during TIFF, ahead of that title taking the audience award in Toronto on its way to Oscar glory.

“Suddenly, all our Indian busboys were puffed up and buzzing by their table to see Freida Pinto and the other actresses,” he added.

The Toronto International Film Festival continues to Sept. 16.