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Chef Todd's kitchen marathon Add to ...

I return, after a short sleep, as midnight arrives. Chef Todd is 36 hours deep in a marathon of 40+8 Hours of Food & Flicks at Vancouver's grace-gallery.

You good? I ask.

"You missed the dark hours," says Todd, a controlled mania in his eyes, an unhinged focus on the next dish.

The dark hours - as day turned to dusk and ebbed in to evening on Saturday - had worn on Todd, a one-man cooking spectacle, rubbed raw, ever-more easily irritable, physically drained.

From Friday midday through midnight Saturday, he had already delivered close to 700 plates over 15 seatings. Now, it is three-quarters of the way through a quest to cook for two straight days - no proper sleep, no set menus, seatings unrelenting every two hours, a half-psychotic symphony of performance art.

"I'm an all-in kind of guy," Todd said earlier, after he'd downed a shot of tequila to mark the halfway juncture.

With 12 hours to go, the chef might be a bit threadbare but it doesn't show at all in the food.

"It's phenomenal," says

one of the three in Todd's core support squad of the dark hours, Solana Rompré, volunteer hostess/server/bartender.

"The food quality was still going up, even though his mental state was going down."

A full contingent of 20 guests - paying $20 flat for three courses and a glass of booze, $4.50 for each additional drink - fill seats at three tables on concrete floors in grace-gallery, another midnight seating ready to go.

Back in the searing kitchen, Todd announces that from here to the end, the stereo will pound out nothing but Wu-Tang Clan, and he is back to work. The kitchen belongs to next-door Narrow, a small dark bar that, with grace-gallery, marks a sprout of art and culture on lower Main Street in Vancouver, which is otherwise home to a cluster of autobody shops, brake and muffler outlets and oil-change chains southeast of downtown.

Todd, invigorated by a brief nap, moves fast and precise, solo. Working without menus, each seating is improv. What time is it, what works best, what's in the fridge. Lighter by day, heavier in the evening, breakfast for morning.

At 12:14 a.m., he grabs heirloom tomatoes and marches up the narrow hallway back to the gallery, where in the corner is an adjunct and extreme-open kitchen and, across, short films and music videos play.

Food as art is not in debate, with widespread beauty of work from Ferran Adria to dozens of restaurants across Canada. Similarly, contemporary artists such as Rirkrit Tiravanija have explored food and meals in gallery settings, so tonight there is no pretension to declare anything uniquely special.

The essence of 40+8 Hours (last year it was 40) is a physical test - and public display - of chef as a working artist, work that normally occurs out of sight and beyond the minds of diners, even in open kitchens and sashimi bars. Instead, at grace-gallery, patrons are close enough to touch the chef's arm, examine the spices, peek in the silver fridge.

At the cutting board, Todd slices heirlooms, each move a brushstroke. A spin on a Caprese salad is built, a large thin round slice on one side of the plate, a couple quartered yellow pieces in the middle and two halves of green-red at the other end. Add a single bocconcini ball and he drizzles the plate with pesto oil, slow and deliberate, like paint on canvas.

Back in the kitchen for bison and back out front, Todd pulls another 20 plates from the rack. The bison short ribs are dressed in a blueberry chipotle sauce, complemented by a big purple beet and a mushroom-duck stuffed artichoke heart.

One woman asks how he does it.

"I sort of levitate."

Back again in the kitchen, it comes on 1 a.m., the final stretch in thrall. Todd sketches the idea for the next seating, another 20 expected.

Todd is a wiry 37-year-old, short dark hair, a tattoo sleeve on his left bicep dates to the ancient Chinese Shang Dynasty, symbols to ward off evil spirits from kitchens. He runs a nearby underground restaurant called 12b in his apartment. His lack of official permits is the reason he's shy about giving out his last name. Opened in late 2007, 12b has garnered a following among the hard-core foodie set, bolstered by glowing reviews.

In spring 2008, he found himself in a stage improv show, cooking with a modern dancer. "I was scared shitless."

That's when the idea of endurance cooking as performance art emerged, encouraged by Rachel Zottenberg, who had just opened grace-gallery and was becoming a Main Street centripetal cultural force, busting up what an art gallery can and should do.

"I did this basically as a call-out to every restaurant in town," Todd says. "You can't get a decent meal here after 10 p.m."

At 4:51 a.m., carrot slices simmer in butter, a blob of honey is added. Cut in the shape of the stylized W that is the Wu-Tang Clan's emblem, Todd hustles the dill-drizzled carrots out of the cramped kitchen to the gallery.

A soft blue glow on the North Shore Mountains harkens dawn.

For the latest dozen patrons awaiting their second course, the Wu carrots bookend one side of a plate, the other is bison remixed, this time a pile of it, shorn from bone, again dripped in blueberry chipotle sauce. In the middle, two dozen tiny potato balls carefully scooped like ice cream and slathered in a cheese mornay sauce, a lightness of colour holding a centre between orange and brown.

"This is amazing," one woman whispers.

The final plates, at 11:43 a.m., are sprinkled with edible rose pedals. A bottle of Portuguese sparkling wine is uncorked. The tally is 19 seatings (five short, one scotched by power outage and several 6 a.m.-type overnight slots drew no guests), 293 diners and 879 plates.

It ends on Third Beach in Stanley Park a few hours later, the gallery and kitchen cleaned, the conspirators secluded at the far northwest side, sand and sea (and beer and Belmont Milds) in the afternoon under hot sun. Todd takes a bite of a burger Ms. Zottenberg bought at the concession. His face is beatific, mouth full: "So good."

Follow on Twitter: @davidebner

 

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