It's the Tuesday before TIFF. A policeman is leaning on his bike while writing up a yellow ticket for a flatbed truck heaped with metal crowd-control barriers. It stands in a no-parking, no-stopping zone, in front of a driveway and beside a fire hydrant. But there isn't a single spot available today. Roy Thomson Hall, David Pecaut Square and the TIFF Bell Lightbox are all within metres of each other, and Wellington Street is a cyclone of activity. Workers are unpacking outsized tents, window washers are wiping down glass and men in cherry pickers are changing light bulbs at the entrance of the Ritz-Carlton. It's T minus two days to the Toronto International Film Festival.
Franck Arnold, the charismatic European general manager of the Ritz-Carlton Toronto, wants me to experience an A-lister entrance. He signals for a prearranged limo to collect us from the front semi-circle, freshly planted with fall's mums. "A guest's arrival is a crucial time for us," he explains, as I slide my ripped jeans and Converse into the modified Audi A8 stretch. "We don't make a big fuss, pretty much on the contrary. One of our most critical services is confidentiality."
I'm whisked to the lower depths of the underground garage, relaxing into the leather as classical music tinkles away. We arrive 27 seconds later. My door is opened and I step out onto the welcoming blue carpet at the undisclosed underground entrance (normally there'd be security, too). I step inside. There's a sign painted on the whitewashed cinder block that says, Entrée des Artistes.
"This is the time of year Toronto is transformed. It's a metamorphosis," Arnold says. We're now on the 20th-floor club lounge, sipping Pilot Coffee cappuccinos. "There's a certain atmosphere, a certain vibe," he explains. "It draws the attention of something that isn't necessarily about finances. You see it in Paris and London, too. The restaurants and bars are full, and traffic is blocked in certain areas during festivals. It's about art."
The planning for the next 10 days started during last year's TIFF. Arnold says they could sell out the hotel years in advance, but for the festival, they take a more nuanced approach. "It's quite a tricky thing. We have to try to understand what's going on in the film industry, who's going to have the opening nights, the closing, the galas. All of this information is compiled. The final [room and event space] attribution takes place after the movies are announced." He says the hotel has an important role to play because it is at the centre of TIFF – its de facto host. "It requires a lot of careful planning and timely decision-making."
So, once the guests are booked, what about all of those famous special requests? "There are not as many as everyone thinks," he says. "Most A-listers really are just like you and me and would be happy with the services offered to all guests, though, some do have more specific needs." Such as the celebrity at last year's TIFF who had an 18-wheeler outfitted as a private gym, and parked next to the Ritz. (The hotel happens to have a lovely fitness centre.)
Today is the first day back from summer holidays for most. There's a worrying autumnal chill in the air. The patio at DEQ is almost empty, and the Ritz Bar is equally slow. But on Wednesday, things will amp up and stay that way for 10 days straight.
"We started planning two months ago," says Daniel Craig, the surprisingly calm executive chef at the Ritz-Carlton.
"On a typical weekend, DEQ and Ritz Bar will be doing 200 or 250 covers per night, but during TIFF, we'll do well over 1,000."
There are DJs and bouncers, Cristal Champagne and standing room only. Brian Morrison, manager of bar and lounge operations, says on an average TIFF weekend, they'll make five times the drinks sales they would normally do, from Frosé (a deliciously icy blend of sparkling rosé wine, a little St-Germain, some lemon juice, a strawberry simple syrup and Grey Goose vodka) to that old festival standby: "We've bought tens of thousands of dollars in additional Champagne."
The kitchen for the Ritz Bar and DEQ is a wee stainless-steel galley off of the back patio, smaller than most home kitchens. "We'll usually have a couple of cooks back here," says chef Craig, giving me the two-metre tour. "But during TIFF, there will be five and I'll be expediting like crazy." Their menu isn't contracted for ease during TIFF. It includes their famous fancy fish and chips (Nova Scotia lobster deep fried in a Mill Street batter), local charcuterie and cheese boards, tuna tartare, ancient-grain bowls and mac 'n' cheese (the yin-yang that is dining in Toronto today). They're also bringing in thousands of dollars worth of wild sustainable Acadian sturgeon caviar and extra oysters too. (Normally, they'd shuck 100 a day but during TIFF they'll do 1,000.) Meanwhile, TOCA restaurant will roll out more than 3,500 pieces of fresh ravioli a week (as opposed to the regular 500), and the pastry chefs and chocolate specialists will create and erect an five-metre chocolate showpiece in the lobby – an edible film camera and reel made from more than 50 kilograms of Cacao Barry chocolate.
Back at DEQ, they're expecting 2,000 guests for Thursday's opening night, with a lineup starting at 7 p.m. "I come from nightclubs in New York City," bar manager Morrison says.
"So we'll treat it like that. Click in, click out." It's not a spot to quietly sip and contemplate The Breadwinner. "It's going to be all hands on deck, all bartenders, DJs, all staff and everyone in a great mood," he says. "It's going to be a very busy few days."