It’s just after 11 a.m. at Luma, the marquee restaurant of the TIFF Bell Lightbox, and Chef Jason Bangerter is preparing to give his staff a morning pep talk. Servers slip past a glass show-wall to take their seats in front of a marble-top bar, nibbling on greens and potato wedges and sipping water. A bartender slices limes in a corner beside the espresso machine.
With just a week to go before the Toronto International Film Festival opens, staff here are getting ready for a very busy 10 days.
The bartender sits down as Mr. Bangerter slides behind the bar and runs through the restaurant’s festival specials: ready-to-go lunch boxes and a quick-order menu to please guests who are dashing in for a bite between film screenings.
On Thursday night, director Atom Egoyan dined on roasted halibut and poached duck eggs at Luma, sharing a table with TIFF chief executive officer Piers Handling. “This is the beginning of TIFF,” Mr. Bangerter says after addressing his staff. “You’re going to start seeing some big producers and big names coming in.”
He clarifies that TIFF won’t be the first time many of his staff will serve movie stars. But it will bring the biggest concentration of high-profile diners the one-year-old restaurant has ever seen.
In addition to Mr. Egoyan, this year’s festival already promises to draw a star-studded list of special guests. Actors Ryan Gosling, Woody Harrelson, and Glenn Close are all on the bill, as are musician Neil Young and director Sarah Polley.
Many of Toronto’s restaurants and hotels are priming their staff for an intensive two weeks of celebrity service.
Some managers say they’ll keep an extra watchful eye out for a server diving in to collect George Clooney’s autograph or a housekeeper texting a friend with news of Ryan Gosling’s whereabouts. Others take a more relaxed approach. Chef Bangerter Tweeted about Mr. Egoyan’s visit on Thursday night.
“We’ll be dealing with a lot of different stars,” Luma general manager Chris Bennett says. He takes Mr. Bangerter’s place behind the bar and gazes at the row of servers. “How do we treat stars differently from any other guest?”
“We don’t,” a server shouts back gamely.
Whatever the rules, the goal is to keep visiting celebs comfortable and coming back the next time they’re in the city – and that usually means making sure staff know the boundaries.
Staff at the InterContinental Hotel were recently given a 10-page refresher booklet detailing what they can and can’t do at work. Among the verboten items on the list: texting or phoning friends, pestering celebrities for autographs and snapping pictures of a dining starlet.
At some venues, simply gawking at a celebrity or making unwarranted trips to a dining table can be cause for a sharp reprimand. And asking for an autograph or taking a photo while at work could spell the end of a job.
Tim Salmon, general manager of One restaurant, says that when he caught one of his servers asking a dining television star for an autograph, he fired the person. One is owned by celebrity chef Mark McEwan and is a frequent stop for international TIFF guests.
“I can’t say [who the star was]because they come back and they might be a little upset to know that someone was let go,” Mr. Salmon says.
He says he apologized to the actor after the incident. “I said it’s not acceptable for our guests; they shouldn’t be harassed. We’re very lucky that the clientele here doesn’t harass celebs, and for the staff to do it is unacceptable.”
George Friedmann, owner of the Windsor Arms Hotel, says he thinks anyone can be tempted by a celebrity interaction – no matter how professional they’re trained to be. He arranges the hotel shifts so employees never end up alone with a guest.
“In order to wipe out that temptation, I’m going to have to neuter a staff, which is impossible,” he says. “Of course, you know, they’re human. I get excited when [celebrities]show up.”
“It’s like a construction worker walking a high beam 500 feet in the air. He’s pretty darn good to walk it, but you know what? He still wears a safety harness. This is no different. We hire staff that can walk that high beam, but it doesn’t mean we don’t put a safety harness on.”
Mr. Bangerter says he likes his servers to take their cues from their guests, whether it means engaging in an in-depth conversation about how to break into the film industry or simply offering a guest a bottle of wine.
When Bette Midler visited the restaurant recently, he says she got into a conversation with a server, who happened to be an aspiring singer. Ms. Midler asked the server to sing something for her and the young woman obliged, belting out a few lines of an Alanis Morissette song.
“She wasn’t pushing herself on Bette,” Mr. Bangerter says. “They were having a great time.”
Like Mr. Bangerter, publicist Debra Goldblatt says figuring out where to draw the line when approaching celebrities is often a matter of trusting your instincts.
“I think it depends on the vibe you’re getting from that person. If they seem like a really good-spirited, happy person and they’re in a boisterous group, you take that cue. I think if they’re sitting and having a very serious business meeting, then you certainly shouldn’t jump in,” says Ms. Goldblatt, who is president of rock-it promotions.
She adds that she can often tell within the first few minutes of an interview whether a potential employee will be able to handle a high-profile client. “If you’re freaked out by meeting me, it’s a good sign that you’re not going to be able to keep your shit together when you meet Brad Pitt,” she says.
That doesn’t necessarily mean she wouldn’t hire the person, she says, but if a potential employee is visibly nervous just meeting her, she won’t put them anywhere near a red carpet with one of her clients.
One hotelier who’s mastered the art of staying cool around celebrities is Liloo Alim, head concierge at Toronto’s Four Seasons Hotel.
“I just talk to them as though they are just normal people, and they like that,” says Ms. Alim, who has been at the hotel for nearly 30 years. “They like that they can have a conversation with somebody who sees them as a person, and not everything that goes with their name.”
It wasn’t always that way, Ms. Alim, who is from Mumbai, admits. About a decade ago, she attended a TIFF screening of a Mira Nair film and was seated just a few rows away from a major Bollywood star. “I’m like quaking!” she says, recalling the moment she realized who he was. “But of course, outwardly you wouldn’t even know that I was such a mess of delight. I kept pinching myself, is this really happening?”
Ms. Alim says she reminds new staffers that, even if they get excited about a guest, they have to keep that to themselves. “You learn to mask your true turmoil, so to speak,” she says. “It becomes second-nature to you. There’s no other way.”