Celebrity-spotting in Edmonton? You’re better off turning your gaze to the sky and counting comets, but last summer a few stars were spotted in downtown bars and restaurants. John Malkovich dining at Corso 32, Billy Bob Thornton and Liam Hemsworth socializing at The Common, Hemsworth’s on-again/off-again Miley Cyrus visiting him at the Matrix.
But while it induces giddiness in patrons, it comes with a host of pressures for staff, not just in terms of providing excellent service but protecting them from other customers.
“When you have somebody like that coming in, it’s a great deal of pressure because you want to make sure that you’re shining,” says chef Daniel Costa of Corso 32, whose high-end Italian fare briefly made a regular out of Malkovich while he was here to film Cut Bank with Thornton and Hemsworth. “You have the chance to represent Edmonton or Canada properly, so you should take great care and look at the details very closely.”
It’s a stress that most are honoured to take on, plus the publicity it comes with beats just about any marketing campaign. But the dilemma for restaurant staff doesn’t change: Treat celebrities like regular folks knowing damn well they’re not, or extend the red carpet to their table and risk crumbling their last semblance of normalcy?
To answer such pressing questions, Sabor Divino has its own celebrity-in-resident, maître d’ and owner Christian Mena. Locals recognize him from the once-popular Latin funk band Maracujah, but it was the six years he spent playing one of the leads in Rent – alongside Neil Patrick Harris for two of those years – that gave him a taste of stardom. “I remember Neil and I would go out in between shows and you’d turn around and there were, like, 10 girls laughing,” he says. “We were pampered all the time. I can’t say I never used the old ‘I’m in Rent‘ to get in somewhere.”
Because of the connections he made in music and theatre, artists like Metric, the Jacksons and Metallica have dined at Sabor Divino on the recommendation of others in the business. His advice is to treat them like you want to be treated, which is to say very well. “But, at some point, the ass-kissing has to stop.”
“There are certain celebrities who want to be treated special,” says The Common co-owner Kyla Kazeil. “But they’d make a point of having someone book a table and having you know they’re coming, travelling with an entourage and having all the perks of that fame.” Regardless, says The Common’s chef, Jesse Morrison-Gauthier, it doesn’t change his job. “Everyone gets the top-notch quality that I can do, celebrity or not. It’s really the service that gets kicked up.”
At the Blue Plate Diner, where there was another Malkovich sighting, owners John Williams and Rima Devitt always default on treating them like regular people. “Which sometimes goes well and sometimes doesn’t,” says Williams. “Leave them alone, play cool, don’t be such a nerd, maybe a quick visit from the manager and that’s it – they didn’t come to have dinner with me.” Simple, right? Now imagine Justin Bieber with a bandana pulled up to his nose on a date with tween-idol Selena Gomez.
“That got crazy fast,” recalls Williams, who had to hand control over to Bieber’s security. “He said, ‘They’ll sit here, I’m going to sit here, and if I need to keep customers away, I will.'” Within minutes, the inevitable happened and the entire back section started filling with girls, while the phone blew up with calls from hyperventilating fans. “They kept calling for weeks and weeks. They wanted to sit at the little red table he sat at and get their picture taken there.” Is it staff’s responsibility to protect their celebrity guests from their non-celebrity guests? “We definitely do the most we can to protect them, make sure they’re safe,” says Kazeil. “If they’re getting annoyed and request it, we’ll move them to a different table. But they have to decide what they want. Sometimes they do want to meet people and hang out.”
Sabor Divino restaurant is quite low-key, so Mena doesn’t get that problem often, only when Metallica comes and word leaks out to 20 raging metal-heads banging on the windows of his fine establishment. Luckily, the band members brought their own security and the restaurant was closed for them.
The bigger issue is whether to meet their special requests. “You try to prepare all these things, but the menu goes to hell because they’re asking you for something totally different,” he says. “I tell them, ‘If you want to enjoy your food, this is what we’re good at.’ We can only do what we do. I’m not going to pick out the brown M&Ms for you.”