A Conversation with Afrim Pristine of Cheese Boutique

Afrim Pristine is the world’s youngest Maitre Fromager, practicing affinage, or the art of making cheese, ever since he was born into it. He owns the Cheese Boutique in Toronto, a cheese museum in itself that houses 450 kinds of cheeses, along with meats, local fruits and veg, savoury snacks and pastries among many other things.

Lexus — the Japanese suave on four wheels — sought out Afrim to participate in the Lexus Master class as he reflected the Lexus brand pillar of Takumi Craftsmanship. Takumi Craftsmanship is the ancient Japanese concept that holds the essence of absolute mastery of an art or a craft. Takumi craftspeople at Lexus distill years of training into a single goal: perfectibility. Similarly, Afrim has spent years mastering cheese. Like Lexus Takumis (Masters), Afrim applies high quality craftsmanship when making cheeses and stocking Cheese Boutique with the very best.

Afrim Pristine in his Cheese Cave, stocked with a million dollars worth of cheese. Photo Credit: Ivan Otis Photography

Helen Jacob: Do you run the whole place by yourself?

Afrim Pristine: A business owner has to do everything. I have my brothers (my business partners,) and I have my staff but you know, a business owner does everything. When they’re needed, they do it. I’ll sweep the floors if I have to.

HJ: How long has the business been in your family?

AP: Since 1970. So we opened up in the heart of Bloor West Village in 1970. Of course we were much, much smaller than this.

HJ: Is your whole family involved?

AP: Most of the family, the ones that want to be involved are involved. My eldest brother and I, we’ve been involved since we were kids. Literally [since] 8-9 years old, we were first working. And now this is our store. And now my niece and nephew, [his kids] are working. They’re the fourth generation. I grew up surrounded by all this stuff.

HJ: What kind of stuff did you do when you were 8 or 9?

AP: I had two jobs. I remember because we still have them. I’m 37 now, so this is 30 years ago. We have 2 employees that have been with us for 30 years each, one of which is Celina. So Celina used to make me go around the store with a damp rag and go and wipe all the bottles. This is all stuff that could sit for a long time but it wasn’t a good sign to the customer. Then there was the other job. We used to have all these wicker baskets with buns and bakery products. This was when we weren’t really making a lot of our bread and we used to bring it in, so the bakers used to come and literally throw everything in there. My job was to face up all the breads and all the buns and all the baguettes. My grandfather always said, “a bun face up, the bun sells itself. A bun face down, you have to sell the bun.” So it’s kind of the simple little things like that you never forget but that’s what Cheese Boutique is built on — on things like that, and ideas like that.

HJ: Are you interested in cheese because you’re interested in it or because your family is interested in cheese?

AP: Well it started with my family because that was our background and cheese was always on the dining room table and it was always the talk at the dining room table. Getting older, I started understanding what it is and started appreciating it for what it is. Then I understood what cheese gave to me and my family as well so I ended up loving it. It’s what I know and it’s what I know well. I don’t know many things in life but what I do know is really good cheese and that’s kind of my job — to really glorify it and to tell people hey this is a simple ingredient but it’s a really good ingredient. As you can see we’re not just cheese anymore, we’re everything (referring to the Cheese Boutique).

HJ: You’re the youngest Maître Fromager in the world. What does that feel like?

AP: As silly as it sounds, it feels like..uhh.. are you a superhero fan?

HJ: I appreciate it.

AP: You know spiderman?

HJ: Yes.

AP: Ok well the whole story of Spiderman was that this kid got bit by a spider and had all these superpowers. So Spiderman, when he was a kid, was just kind of a punk and his superpowers he used for fun. Then his uncle came along, and he says “With great power comes great responsibility” and he has all these super powers, he can use it for something good, save people’s lives, whatever it is. So getting back to this, “With great power comes great responsibility,” it’s a duty for me. Yes, I’m very honoured, it’s a big deal for me, my family, and the store. But for me, all this means is that I need to work harder. I need to be better at my craft, I need to understand cheese better. Someone bestowed that honour on me. Now, I need to honour it and give it back to all the people that love cheese. I have to work harder and I have to spread the love of cheese more and more and more.

HJ:Take me through the process of creating a cheese

AP: I make very little cheese here. As much as making cheese is important, the maintenance of the cheese is important as well. It’s how you store it, it’s how you age it. That’s really our focus. So we have 3 different aging rooms dedicated with different environments and with different climates, dedicated to aging different styles of cheese. That’s very important. Can I make cheese? Of course, but really a lot of my training from my father and my training in Europe is to age and keep the maintenance of cheese up. It’s like wine. You can have great wine, but it needs to age. It needs time to evolve. And that’s really our focus here — it’s to age as opposed to make.

HJ: Can you tell me a little bit about your training?

AP: I learned from the best, I learned from my father. Since I was a kid, I learned about business and about cheese from him. When I graduated from Wilfrid Laurier University, I studied history, and that kind of helped me actually understand the importance of food throughout history. In Italy and France, food and wine and cheese is part of the tradition, the culture, and the religion right? So when I graduated and I got back, my father literally said ‘go learn.‘ This is almost 20 years ago, so you couldn’t go to a classroom setting and learn about cheese. Now it’s starting to come up at a collegiate level but back then, I lived on a farm in Switzerland for 6 months. I lived on a farm in Tuscany for 3 months, milking goat and sheep and pressing the milk and making cheese and kind of understanding cheese. I learned trial by fire, I learned right on the farm. I was fortunate enough, from the time I was 20-25, I had spent probably 2 and a half years of that time in Europe. In different parts of France, different parts of Switzerland, in Tuscany, in Spain and in England mainly. And in different parts of Canada of course.

Afrim with the Lexus Master class program. Photo Credit: Evan Bergstra/Ryan Emberley Photography

HJ: Tell me about the cheese cave.

AP: So we have three different aging rooms. One is open to the public, which is the cheese cave. It’s climate controlled, so anywhere between 4 to 8 degrees and roughly about 80 to 85 percent humidity. This is something we manufacture whereas in Switzerland, in the mountains, this climate is natural. It’s cold, it’s dark, it’s damp and humid. Here we have to recreate that. So that’s really what that room is doing but it’s open to the public. There’s probably a million dollars worth of cheese in there. Some we age for 2 weeks, some we age for 12 years. Everything is tagged and dated. You have to be meticulous with a room like that because aging cheese isn’t as easy as leaving it there, walking away and it becoming magically delicious. It’s not that easy. You have to watch for it, you have to care for it, you have to keep in mind the youngest product is in the back and the oldest is in the front. I do that and I have 3 staff and that’s all they do is maintenance in the cheese cave. It’s a 24/7 job. We’re always trying to work on that, and keeping it updated and keeping it clean and organized. It’s like a living museum. These wheels of cheese are living, they’re evolving. But it’s a museum so it’s hands off, don’t touch. It’s a fun interesting room.

HJ:How much cheese do you sell in a day?

AP: So retail and wholesale, I’d say maybe a thousand pounds a day, maybe more. We’re cutting a wheel of reggiano a day. That’s a hundred pounds right there and that’s one of 450 cheeses. 1200 pounds maybe? Hey we’re not just cutting cheese here. We’re suppliers of happiness. Cheese just happens to be that tool or vessel to make people happy.

HJ: Are you against Kraft Singles?

AP: No! I’m going to give you an example. You just got your license. Are you going to go buy a Ferrari when you’re 16? You’re going to buy a Mazda or Hyundai or whatever it is. It’s not better or worse than a Ferrari, it’s different. So when you’re a kid, Kraft Singles is everywhere. It’s one of the first pieces of dairy you every put in your mouth. There’s milk and then theres Kraft Singles right behind it. So am I against Kraft Single? No, I don’t balk at it. Every once in a while you gotta throw it on a burger. For me, my job is then to expose you to other cool cheeses. You liking Kraft Singles tells me you like cheese- that’s the most important thing. I’m against people who don’t like cheese though.

The Cheese Cave at the Cheese Boutique Photo Credit: Ivan Otis Photography

HJ: What are your essentials for a cheeseboard?

AP: Five different cheese, not complementing each other but contrasting each other. One blue, one firm, one goat, one sheep, and one semi firm. You want kind of a good cross section of products, flavours, and textures. Cheese is milk salt, that’s it. So you want to really differentiate it from each other so you get a good balance of flavours, a good balance of textures. With 450 cheeses, it’s easy to do. A fun cracker with fruit or nut, a crusty baquette for the creamy cheeses, some sort of sweet component (fig spread, honeycomb, honey,) and some sort of water based fruit-grapes or apples to cleanse the palette as you’re traveling through the cheeses. I also don’t like telling people which cheeses. My palette is no better than yours. Mine may be a little bit more trained, because this is what I do but I think if you have those guidelines, you go to your trusty cheese mogul and you tell them, “I want a goat what do you have or I want a sheep what do you have?” You try and you try and you see what you like and what you don’t like. I think that’s the best way but the formula I gave you, I think that’s the best for making a cheese board. Less is more too and let the cheese be the star of the show.

HJ: Do you have any tips for beginners when picking cheeses?

AP: You’re never wrong. What you like is what you like. Nobody can tell you a cheese tastes like something because you have to be the judge of that. If I give you a cheese and you say it tastes like candied apples, and I disagree, well that’s not right for me to say that it doesn’t. If that’s how your palette takes it in, then wonderful. I don’t like when someone is told that they’re wrong. You’re never wrong with food, it’s a personal preference. So when buying cheese, select ones you like. Maybe you don’t like blue because the one you tried was too sharp. Then maybe try a milder blue. If you don’t like that, then move on. Forget about blues. So there’s no wrong in my opinion.

HJ: What’s your favourite cheese?

AP: Parmigiano Reggiano. It’s the king. If there’s one cheese in your fridge, it’s that. I love the versatility of it: just to have on its own, to grate on a pasta, to shave into a salad. I’m going to piss off a lot of other cheeses but just the science behind making it, the history of it, I think it’s the most important cheese.

HJ: Is that your death row cheese?

AP: If you’re tying my hands to one, then yes.

HJ: What’s the most interesting cheese you’ve made?

AP: Something that’s called Sunset Sarsaparilla. We took a gouda-style big sharp nutty cheese from Holland, and then we make our own root beer from scratch, and then we reduce that root beer so it’s like a paste and we brush it onto the beemster (the cheese) and let it age. I love root beer, and that plus the complexities of the cheese work really well together. It’s awesome! It’s thinking outside the box, but it works really well too.

HJ: What lengths have you gone to for cheese?

AP: This is what I’m doing right now. There’s a big music food festival called the Feastival. I was asked to make for Canada 150 an inukshuk out of cheese wheels. There’s about 30 wheels of cheese that’s about 10 kilos each so it’ll be about 300 kilos of cheese — 800 pounds and 6 feet tall. I like to do stuff like that. Last November, I was the headliner for the Ottawa Food and Wine Show so me and six of my staff set up a five thousand square foot cheese vault at the show. That was two months of planning for a four day show. That took years off my life doing that, but it went very very well.And it was a huge ordeal, we brought about 1500 pounds of cheese to the show. We set up four stations, it was crazy. My goal is to one day, build a cheese cellar moon. I don’t know how. I need some time and some help from NASA, so we’ll see.

Lexus Master class with Afrim Pristine. Photo Credit: Evan Bergstra/Ryan Emberley Photography

HJ: Do you get a lot of chefs and vendors that come through here?

AP: The best in the world. Literally the best chefs in the city. I mean we’ve had Alain Ducasse from France, Massimo Bottura from Italy, Albert Adria, David Chang. These are literally the best chefs in the world. And then the chefs in the city are good colleagues. We are suppliers to a lot of those chefs and we do about 400 deliveries a week.

HJ: What was your favourite cheese experience so far in your career?

AP: Probably learning from my father. He’s the cheese pioneer of Toronto. He was the first one selling real French brie, real English cheddar, and yes he’s my father and we’ve had a very good relationship so far but he’s also my mentor. So we’re learning from the best who happens to be my father as well. Without that, the rest of this interview doesn’t exist. So for me, that was the best experience, learning what works, learning what doesn’t.

HJ: Where do you see yourself in the future?

AP: I’d like to teach a little bit more. I was teaching the cheese certification program at George Brown college, which is one of three in north America at a collegiate level. That’s a full time job and I already have a few full time jobs here, but I’d really like to get back into teaching. I think my job is to raise the awareness for cheese across the country and for people to love it as much as I do. I think I’m good at my job so for me, I want to spread the love of cheese more and more. I love it and I think it’s needed and I think I glorify cheesemakers, and I glorify my shop and I glorify my family and what my father’s been trying to do.

The Cheese Boutique, located at 45 Ripley Avenue, is open 360 days a year. You can see what they are up to on their Instagram page and on their website here. Continue following our arts & culture coverage on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

Healthy Interiors: A Conversation with Jessica Helps of Wolfe ID

Wolfe ID founder and leader Jessica Helps has been designing for over 14 years and has a unique take on health that incorporates interior design as a way to improve your daily living/wellness. She is inspired by neurobiological, sociocultural, and humanistic perspectives, and designs spaces based on three principles; art, science, and design. She takes into account nature, sound, light, air, water, and, of course, colour. Integrating science into room design can have an impact on your daily mood, productivity, and overall experiences within the space. We had a conversation with Jessica about designing with health and wellness in mind.

Helen Jacob: How long have you been doing interior design?

Jessica Helps: I think this is my 14th year!

HJ: Where did you go to school?

JH: OCAD U. I took environmental design, so it’s more like architecture, or, to dumb it down, how to come up with great concepts for design. The little technicalities and some of the lighter interior design stuff, they expect you to already know. It’s probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, getting through that program alive, but it was great!

HJ: When did you first start integrating health and wellness into your designs?

JH: I guess I started researching it about a year and a half ago. I had a couple of clients whose decisions I didn’t agree with. I didn’t know how to tell them, other than giving them my opinion. I knew they were going to be making a mistake and the space wasn’t going to feel that great. They were doing an office layout and they wanted a lot of desks in the space but I knew the way the office would function wasn’t superior. I tried to direct them but I had really no way of telling them why I was right other than saying it was just my opinion. It wasn’t really sinking in with the client so I was kind of upset and afterwards, I thought well how can I prove this? There must be some science behind what I’m saying because I somewhat know it to be true. So I started researching it and I realized there was this whole field of environmental psychology (how people feel within a space and why, and the science behind why people interpret space and light and colour and volumes and also proximity and layout of furniture). So when I realized that, I got into biophilic design and then I realized there was a complete line of science behind interiors that we tend to avoid or not really understand. We don’t really direct our designs based on the science around them. So it’s pretty interesting.

HJ: Is it a new concept?

JH: It’s relatively new…well yes and no. Sometimes I think the colour theory — like how colours affect people — that’s not new. But research based design is pretty new. Let me give you an example. If you were designing a corridor for maybe an old folks home for the elderly, as an interior designer how would you design that space? I was thinking I’d pick light calm colours, tone on tone, just something really relaxing and simple and clean. Well, I learned that’s actually a really stressful environment for somebody who’s 75, because a 75-year-old has 1/8th of the contrast vision that a 25-year-old has. So if everything is the same colour, it might be all nice and light but they can’t distinguish the floor from the walls or see handrails or see doors. So it’s actually very stressful for them. They need the contrast to be able to properly navigate themselves through a space, you realize that (the science) should direct the design, not the fact that I want to do tone on tone grey.

HJ: What is biophilic design?

JH: Biophilic design is centered on the relationship humans have with nature. They say there is an innate relationship between nature and humans. We feel good around natural settings. What we’ve done is built these urban cities that are really hard. They’re concrete, glass, and metal. They’re very man-made, very hard. And they’ve actually created a separation from nature which actually leaves people feeling cold or distant or disconnected. So biophilic design focuses on bringing natural elements back into the environment.  Light greenery such as green walls or hanging plants, cactuses, and things of that nature are good. Natural finishes like woods or tiles or things that you can touch that have a natural texture are also good. Also focus on light as well, like getting natural light into a space. Those three things I find in biophilic design, really give back that connection with nature that makes us feel better.

HJ: What do you think about the minimalist interior trend?

JH: I think right now there is a Scandinavian trend so its really popular to be clean. You know there’s that documentary on Netflix called Minimalist. I fully like what they’re doing. It’s a very healthy design, it’s natural materials and simple design. It’s reducing visual complexity and simplifying everything and I think that really does make humans feel better and happier in spaces. So whether or not people are focused on what is the healthiest design, I think the trend is good.

HJ: What do you take into consideration when incorporating wellness and health?

JH: Well it depends on the function of the space. What I always do is go into a space and what I ask the client is how do you want to feel in the space? So if it’s an office or it’s a home, or a specific room, start with the feeling: How do you want to feel in here? Do they want to feel really relaxed or do they want a cozy room or do they want their living room to be a place where they can entertain their family and curl up and read a book? We would start with that feeling and then build out from there. The furniture and colours and textures that would give them that feeling. You might see a pretty picture on Pinterest and you just want that and then when you get it, it doesn’t make you feel quite the way you wanted. So I always start with the feeling first and the function.

HJ: Sound, light, air water, and colour. Could you speak to each of those?

JH: Well for sound, there’s lots of issues with acoustics. It causes hypertension in people and it’s one of those things that creeps up on you. You don’t realize it’s causing you unwanted stress. So if you have thins walls- maybe you live in a warehouse conversion so neighbours or people above you can be really disturbing. Also if you’re designing a restaurant and you have a lot of hard finishes, you get a lot of clash of noise that bounces around and it’s hard to hear the person you’re having dinner with. So you can do ceiling panels, or white noise machines. You can also add fabric underneath tables and chairs- you just want softer finishes to absorb the noise rather than have it bounce. Also be aware of mechanical systems or appliances or photocopiers that are generally really noisy because they can also lead you to feel really stressed out if they’re going off all the time. Put them in a closed space or arrange the furniture to be further away.

HJ: What about light?

JH: You just want to maximize the amount of natural light you’re getting. There’s some crazy statistic that a lot of offices don’t have natural light- like no windows. I guess you’re tucked away in a basement or something. It actually causes productivity to plummet when you don’t have natural light or plants or have an environment that’s inspiring you to even be there. Its important to control light. In the evenings, dim your lights one hour before going to bed. Everybody has circadium rhythm. That’s the body’s way of regulating sleep and alertness. Everyone has one and it’s usually timed with the sunset and sunrise. And so the most natural way to wake up is with the sunrise and go to bed with the sunset. Obviously we don’t do that living in the city because everything is rather artificial and our schedules do not follow that. So dimming your lights in the evening gets your body to release melatonin and melatonin helps you regulate sleep. Try to block out all the light when you’re sleeping. You want a perfectly dark cave to sleep in.

HJ: Air and water?

JH: Those are the two functional items in a space. We have standards and we have building code and that’s great, but it is a minimal. Air quality is actually better outdoors than it is indoors in the city. Our indoor air quality is terrible. So you can up the filter on your H-vac system. If you live in a condo, you have what’s called a fan coil, (a vertical mechanical unit and with a filter on it). If you live at home you have a furnace that will also have an air filter in it where the intake of the air is going through. So you can up the quality of that- (from 10-15 is optimal). MERV is the rating. Or HEPA filter is the best, you’ll find them in Tesla cars and some vacuums have them. Those will really help your air quality. For water quality, if you have the ability to add a filter right into your system, that’s great. Or you can add a reverse osmosis. You can also just get an on counter water filter that makes the water alkaline and also reduces the toxins in it as well.

HJ: How would you work with colour?

JH: Colour is interesting because I don’t think there’s an unhealthy colour. There’s unhealthy uses of colour or just ways to maximize your health using colour. So say I was designing a spa bathroom and I want it to be relaxing, the three things I would not do is paint it red, put super bright lights in it, or play the music super loud. Those are all things that are very invigorating and make you excitable. So you want lower lighting, have softer and more comfortable furniture, more warmer and natural colours so the body is relaxing on a biological level. Green, greys and white are more relaxing and restorative.

HJ: Do you have any tips to integrate this into a cubicle setting?

JH: Umm yeah, maybe get rid of your cubicle? It’s an interesting question. The Google office kind of set the precedent for how to blow the typical corporate office out. They got rid of board rooms and cubicles and did the complete opposite. They did ballpits for adults and beanbag chairs and a lounge. It was almost like a playground for adults. This caught on because it was fun and employees were happier. They’re excited to come to work and productivity goes up. And that’s true- for Google. Google is generally a bunch of creative people doing stuff on computers so that works really well. But what they’re starting to notice now is within every office, there are certain people that work really well in private spaces, semi private spaces, or communal spaces. Some people who are forced to work in a communal space who would rather work in a private space, suffer and their productivity goes down. So you really have to look at your office and decide which departments need what kind of space. If you do have a cubicle, and you do like the private space I would at least pick a fun cubicle. They have some really great systems right now. A lot of them have acoustic paneling within them so you get really good acoustics. Some of them have little benches that pull out so you can still invite people to come hang out at your desk and you still get that human connection for people who don’t like being isolated. Some offices will have little plants or cactuses so you have that biophilic element. Also, employees who get taken care of tend to be the most productive.

HJ: Is there a way to organize your space that’s good for you?

JH: Yes, reducing visual complexity is huge. If you have open shelves jammed with junk, and you’re looking at it all the time, it’s visually overpowering. Hiding your visual clutter creates a freeness. If it’s already clean, then you can do what you need to do in that space without worrying about cleaning up the mess. You don’t want anything see through, like acrylic boxes.

HJ: What are the main elements to consider when revamping your space in terms of health and wellness?

JH: I think its all about creating a space that feels good. I think you really have to touch on the biophilic design. Like what’s natural about the space? What makes you want to work there? Light quality is huge. If you have no natural light, it’s essentially a storage room. I think people need to stop worrying about specific fixtures or details and think how does this space make me feel? Then you look at ways to maximize the space.

A Conversation With Jake Rosenberg

Based in New York and originally from Toronto, Jake Rosenberg spends most of his time everywhere else. As Co-Founder and Creative Director of global media brand Coveteur, Jake Rosenberg is making quite the name for himself. 

It was while working under photographer Chris Nicholls that Rosenberg met his now business partner, Stephanie Mark. In 2011 they launched Coveteur as a passion project and the site crashed on day 1. It has since grown to be the leading destination for a luxurious, behind the scenes look at all things fashion, lifestyle, and culture: “He’s one half of the duo shaking up lifestyle media by producing lucrative native advertising campaigns for luxury brands including Chanel and Dior.” We had a conversation with Rosenberg himself about how Coveteur came about and what it’s like traveling 25 days out of the month.

Helen: So are you a photographer first?

Rosenberg: Overall, I would say I’m a cofounder of Coveteur first, and then I split the creative director and photographer role.

H: How did you start?

R: It really was a passion project right from the beginning. I was 23 years old, living in Toronto, and assisting photographers in the industry here. I had just graduated from Industrial design at the Ontario College of Art and Design so I was extremely excited about branding and experience design and just creating something new and innovative. And that’s when I met my business partner Stephanie Mark. We worked together on a project and the next day, this kind of just happened. We got together, we decided to start something new and we built a brand, created some content and we published it. The first day the site was live, it crashed and we like “omg, whats going on?!” Shortly after that we decided that this is what we’re going to do full time. Six months after we started the site, we started to get new clients and then pretty much right from there we just kept on going. Six years later, we have an office in Toronto and in New York, great staff, a lot of great clientele, and we published a book in October.

The book is Coveteur: Private Spaces, Personal Style. It features 43 people from around the world in their homes covering their styles, their interiors, etc. It’s a very iconic imagery of Coveteur.

H: What kind of content do you create?

R: We offer luxury lifestyle content across the board, predominantly women’s focused. And it covers fashion, beauty, health and wellness, travel.

H: When did your career start taking off?

R: I like to think that I’m still building my career and this is the first amazing project that I’m getting to build and work on but creating Coveteur has definitely led me to work with so many inspiring people and brands that I never expected to work with. So being able to spend time with people like Oprah and Cindy Crawford and having them allow me to photograph them and work with them in such close proximity, I would say has definitely helped my career.

H: What kind of projects do you do? Lifestyle media seems like a huge umbrella.

R: Predominantly as a company, I oversee the creative direction of the company so the full vision of the company, kind of making sure that everything stays in line with our creative vision and then I spend most of my time working on the native content for the site. So working in collaboration with brands like Chanel or Gucci or Saks to put together a piece of content in a series that really speak to our audience. And help serve their brand and their product

H: What is your favourite project that you’ve worked on?

R: Any project with Chanel has been spectacular but I think in terms of the company as a whole, I think working on the book. The book I really took time. Being able to publish and work on, so intimately, a coffee table book, published by one of my favourite art publishers I think was a very big moment for me and spending time with all the people that worked on the book. The book has 703 images, about 241 pages. It’s beautiful, it’s exactly how I wanted it to turn out. That project for me was very exciting and I’m very proud of how it turned out.

H: Where do you draw inspiration from for your projects?

R: From all over. Because I did study industrial design, I do pull a lot of inspiration from brands or designers or product that I interact with on a daily basis- and also Instagram. I mean Instagram is such a great tool for finding new and exciting people and things.

H: It says here that you travel 25 days out of the month. What’s that like?

R: It’s exciting and challenging at the same time. I get opportunities to go places and see people and have experiences that most people in the world don’t get to do so I would say I’m always excited about my next trip. But at the same time, it is a very big challenge to be on multiple time zones a month, sometimes a week. Generally I live out of a suitcase. I’ve gotten really good at doing that, I’ve done that for a long time so it’s fine. I think it’s also a really big challenge to work with the staff in the office when I’m on the road for so long. It just means that everyone has to work a little bit harder or stay a little more connected because sometimes I’ll be on a 12 hour difference time zone shooting in Thailand. So ill be done my day there and then they’d just be getting up. So that means we all just have to get in that extra time whenever I can but fore the most part, its amazing. I’ve literally spent countess hours, miles traveling the world and I love it.

H: So you don’t have a typical day?

R: I don’t have a typical day no. I have a typical day in the office and then I have a non-typical day when I’m on the road.

H: Are you doing work most of the time or do you kind of get to explore where you are?

R: Generally it’s work. I mean any kind of free day when I’m abroad is usually a resting day. Travelling that much is hard on you mentally and physically so when I do happen to have a free day, I try to rest. And because of the nature of my job I like to think that it’s kind of all mixed together. So depending on the project, I was just in Thailand or Aston or wherever, they all kind of overlap in terms of work and exploring kind of thing. And I think because of what we do at Coveteur,  a lot of the time we go to a new city and meet local people and they always kind of end up showing us their little world which is think is such a great insight into that city from a local’s perspective

H: Where have you been so far?

R: The furthest I’ve been is China, and Russia probably. I was in Dubai twice in 10 days. For the book alone, we went to London, paris , LA, Moscow, Antwerp, Dubai, New York- a lot of places. And then Thailand.

H: What was your favourite place to travel?

R: I think Barcelona has been one of my favourite places to travel. I spent about a week or almost 10 days in Barcelona. I just had an amazing time. I loved the city, the culture, the people, the energy. So that’s probably one of my favourite places to travel. Also I think Toronto. I don’t get to come here so much anymore but Toronto’s where I’m from. I love coming home. I love visiting Canada. I think Toronto is still one of my favourite cities, out of every place I’ve ever been. And then I think St. Barth’s. I was recently there and it just reminded me how special it really is. It’s such a small unique island that I’ve grown to love. I feel like it has such a unique community there that has a very exclusive aspect to it but it’s just beautiful and I love it there

H: Do you have any destination hotspot recommendations? (restaurants, places to go)

R: Actually you know what, Brazil is one of my favourite places in the world. I went to Rio. I would recommend everyone to go to Rio at least one time. I mean it’s like an urban centre built into the jungle on the coast, and it is just so lively and energetic and it is fun every single day. Once you’re in Rio, if you just take a little trip down to Florianapolis- or people call it Floripa. That’s probably my all time favourite island on the planet so far. I think I was there over Christmas and New Year’s so it was more of a vacation. Half the island is posh and I think it has like 42 beaches on the island. It is a spectacular place to visit and just relax and have fun.

H: What’s one place that surprised you?

R: I think Dubai surprised me. I had no preexisting expectations for Dubai but I had a great time. I was there twice, once for the Chanel cruise show and then I went back ten days later and I was a guest of one of the royal families. I had a great time. It was definitely different from anywhere else I’ve been. The people I met there and the experiences I had were all great.

H: Do you find it tiring ever?

R: It’s challenging. If you’re changing time zones as much as I do, it becomes tiring.

H: Is it hard to balance work and time off or just time for yourself?

R: I think as as a co-founder, I think that’s the biggest challenge to have that work life balance. I’m just so passionate and dedicated to what I do. I get to have fun with it, although it does get to be a challenge when it comes to taking time off for myself. I think anytime I do, it’s when I really need to. That only allows me to recharge and come back even stronger. But I’m always excited for it.

H: Do you have any favourite spots in Toronto?

R: My backyard with my family haha. A good friend of mine, Janet Zuccarini has a couple restaurants here- she’s got Gusto 101, Cafe Nervosa, and Pai- all of those restaurants I would recommend. I would always recommend just going down to the waterfront, going to Trinity Bellwoods in the summer, just hang out and listen to music and all that kind of stuff is really fun. Go to a baseball game, go to the islands, check that out. But usually when I come home, it’s family time.

H: Where would you like to be in 10 years? Do you still want to be traveling?

R: I think I’d always like to be traveling. There’s so many places in the world I’d like to see that I have yet to see. I am excited for the next five to ten years of Coveteur and the growth and opportunity that lays ahead. I think we’ll keep growing and exploring new opportunities and new avenues for business that will bring our brand to the next level.

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A Conversation with Harjit Bhandal and Jaz Saini of YouTwoTV

International YouTube sensations Harjit Bhandal and Jaz Saini of the hit YouTwoTV channel recently won the 2017 iHeartRadio MMVAs “FAN FAVE MUCH CREATOR” award. Born February 8th, 2016, their channel has garnered over 120 million views and 550,000 subscribers from all around the world. Using a camera and their own creativity, they’ve managed to build consistent viewership in India, Canada, the U.S., and the U.K. They also finish each others’ sentences. We sat down with them to discuss their success on the Youtube scene.

Helen Jacob: How did you get into YouTube?

Harjit: We both had channels before this. She made skits and so did I, here and there.

Jaz: He made short films but more like music videos.

H: I felt like I had the equipment now so might as well use it and take advantage. And I also felt like I wanted to be a Youtuber when all these Youtubers came out. You know, I think I’m kind of funny sometimes.

HJ: Take me through the process of making a video.

J:  First it’s scripting.

H: I sit in my room hours upon hours just writing. Usually we write like 10 scripts and end up throwing them all away. Then, right before we film we come up with a new idea and we pull from that instead. It happens every time.

J: Yeah, scripting takes us the longest. Then it takes us 8 hours to film and 3 hours to edit.

H: Then when we put it together, we split the work in half. So she comes in at the beginning and puts all the clips together and in order. Then I come in and colour correct and put in the sounds and music and all that stuff.

HJ: Whats your favourite part?

J: I think the acting part.

H: Yeah, the acting.

J: Because we get to do whatever we want and make the characters whoever we want that day. They can be really stupid or really silly. In the last video, I played the mom and he played the dad and that was really out of our comfort zone.

HJ: Were you afraid of putting yourself out there?

J: I think I was at first.

H: I wasn’t at all.

J: At the end of our vlogs we say stay true to you and stop caring. I think that’s drilled into my brain now and I just stopped caring what other people thought.

HJ: How do you explain YouTube to your parents (as a career)?

H: You don’t haha. They’re starting to understand now though, now that more opportunities are coming. At the end of the day your parents want you to be successful and if you tell them, I’m going to do this thing on the internet and make Youtube videos, they’re not going to understand because they don’t know what that is. I feel like at this point though, they’re starting to see us becoming successful on that platform. So now they understand. Whereas before they were saying, “go back to school.”

J: Yeah before, his mom would sometimes tell him to get a full time job and we’re like.. this is our full time job. We’re actually making more than what we would make at a “full time job”.

HJ: Did you ever think you were going to get here?

J: Oh man no way, if you told us last year we were going to be nominated for an MMVA, I would have no idea

HJ: You only started last year, too.

J: Yeah we started last year. It’s been a year and a couple months.

HJ: How did you guys grow your channel?

H: I think the main thing was just putting ourselves out there; being consistent and not skipping days. Right from the get go, we said we were going to release a video every week, and we did that. We haven’t skipped a single week since. I feel like that was the main thing and then obviously promoting it, Tweeting it, Instagramming it, all that stuff is important too.

J: I feel like a lot of it was a fluke too.

H: –No we worked hard!

J: Yeah we worked really hard but in the sense that I guess people saw our videos and started sharing it. I think our content is shareable. I think that helps a lot- having shareable content.

HJ: Who was your main support system?

H: I feel like the biggest support system was us.

J: Yeah, each other. At one point, my cousins were telling me to get a full time job, saying that this was not a dream for us. Our friends were supportive but at the end of the day, we supported each other. We had each other to say we can do this or we got this.

HJ: What’s the best and worst part of working together?

J: I think the best part is that we’re both workaholics- we’re both working  24/7. So if I was doing this by myself, it would really hard to balance a boyfriend and a career. I think that’s the best part, we  get to spend every day together even when we’re working.

H: Yeah we know other people on Youtube that do music and stuff like that and they can’t find the time for their significant other. But we’re together all the time. Although, me and Jaz- there’s two versions of us. There’s Harjit and Jaz: YouTwoTV, and there’s Harjit and Jaz: boyfriend and girlfriend. So it’s two different things, but we’ll try to make time for both.

HJ: What’s the Canadian youtube community like?

H: Not that big

J: Yeah there’s  handful of Youtubers in Canada…but I think our community’s the best community.

H: Always. Canada, always. But I feel like it’s getting bigger with upcoming Youtubers.

HJ: Do you think being in Canada was an obstacle, seeing as the big YouTube scene is in Los Angeles?

J: Not really. I mean it does limit our opportunities. I find that when we go to LA, we have a lot more opportunities.

H:…But to come up, I feel like it hasn’t stopped us in any way. Although, to grow I think it’s holding us back. The goal is LA. Hopefully we’re moving there next year.

HJ: What other Youtubers inspire you?

J: A bunch of people.

H: Hotdamnirock

J: –who doesn’t do youtube anymore

H: He stopped making videos, he used to make them back in the day. I felt like his content was really out of the box, but really relatable at the same time and I feel like we’re inspired by that.

J: Then Casey Neistat, and  Liza Koshy.

HJ: Have you collaborated with other Youtubers?

J: Yeah we’ve collaborated with a couple- Matt sentoro who is also Canadian, micky singh, Dannie riel, the Brampton boys, a bunch of people. That’s the best part as creators, its not a competition. Everyone’s super friendly with each other.

HJ: How do you deal with hate?

J: Harjit’s so good at it, I’m still learning. I get so frustrated when I get comments and I always want to reply! But Harjit’s like, ‘No.’ So now whenever we see a hate comment, what we do is we’ll reply to 10 nice comments.

HJ: What is your goal for the future?

H: We want to grow in other areas. We want to have our own tv show that we script and act in, and we want to go on a worldwide tour. But I think we’ll always stay creating content on Youtube as well. Because that’s where our fans are, that’s where our platform is.

J: Everything would be based off Youtube. So our tour would consist of comedy skits on stage and we envision our tv show to be like a sitcom tv show based on the content and characters on YouTwoTV.

HJ: Is there anything else you want to say to everyone reading this?

H: Watch our videos, like and subscribe. Be good and kind to people.

J: Stay true to you. That’s what we tell everyone if they’re having a bad day or not doing well. I just tell them to stay true to you, and stop caring about what other people think.

Check out their Facebook, and Harjit Bhandal,  Jaz Saini‘s Instagram and continue following our arts & culture coverage on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

Toben Food’s Take on Family Style Catering

Brother and sister duo Toben and Elana Kochman are co-owners of Toben Food by Design, an international culinary experience. Executive chef Toben Kochman graduated from Cordon Bleu School of Culinary Arts in Paris and stayed to work at Apicius, a two star Michelin restaurant. He came back to Toronto and worked under Susur Lee as his sous chef at Lee. Then he and his sister Elana combined efforts and Toben Food by Design was born over ten years ago.

“It’s kind of a global cuisine inspired by parts of Asia, to more classical French to Italian to right here within our landscape in Ontario,” says Elana. “It’s really kind of this fusion of international cuisine coupled with the freshest, most seasonal available ingredients that we can get our hands on.”

The team finds itself often asked about its family style wedding catering. Essentially a shared meal, it evokes the nostalgia of Sunday night family dinners or holiday meals spent passing around the mashed potatoes and roast chicken. Except in this case, everyone’s passing around Grilled Whole Sicilian Branzino (recipe at the end of this post) and Fingering Potato Salad, which include lobster, grilled corn, bacon lardons, scallions, and chives.

At the moment, their most popular dish is the Southern Barbecue Braised Beef Brisket smothered in a Memphis style red wine molasses barbecue sauce. Elana recalls her favourite dish, the Watermelon Salad , which combines ingredients like sheep’s milk feta, black beans, corn, and mint. “It’s the most refreshing thing ever!”

The most interesting dish? A house made apple chip, first poached and marinated in star anise and allspice, then oven dried and topped with smoked chicken sausage, red wine braised cabbage, and mustard, all house made. Hours of process and assembly packed into a bite sized hors d’oeuvre.

To keep it fresh and local, family style menus depend on the season. If a client is interested in this style, Toben will pull out their short list of salads, mains, and sides to choose from. Clients are usually asked to choose two salads to start, two mains (protein, usually a meat and a fish, although there are vegetarian options available), and two or three sides. Dessert can also be served family style on the table but after sitting for so long, more people choose to have a dessert table.

Guests are essentially sampling double what they would in a family style setting as opposed to a plated meal. “Even though you’re not doing the sides and mains for 100 percent of the guest count each, you still need to prepare 75 percent of each dish.”  While guests are eating a 4oz portions of the brisket rather than an 8oz portions, and a smaller 3.5oz piece of fish, everyone will still want to try everything.

Kids also have their own menu of flatbreads, chicken fingers, little cones with french fries, and mini crudité cups, all served family style as well. This way, everyone can join in on the fun!


Makes 4 servings


  • 4 whole Branzino fish (sometimes referred to as European Sea Bass), scales and innards removed
  • 4 cups fennel, shaved on a mandolin
  • ½ cup fennel fronds, rough chopped
  • 1 whole lemon, zested and juiced
  • 2 whole lemons, sliced into ½ cm thick rounds
  • ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1½ tbsp salt
  • ½ tsp black pepper
  • 3 whole oranges, peeled and sliced into segments
  • 3 whole grapefruit, peeled and sliced into segments


  • In a small mixing bowl combine the lemon juice, half of the olive oil, a pinch of salt and pepper and mix with a fork and set aside.
  • Preheat a clean grill to medium-high. Combine the remainder of the olive oil, lemon zest, salt and pepper and rub generously all over the interior and exterior of the cleaned fish.
  • Assemble the sliced lemon rounds on the interior of the fish.
  • Gently lay the seasoned fish on the preheated grill and cook for 5-7 minutes per side with the lid closed if using a BBQ. Gently flip the fish over and continue to cook on the other side.
  • While the fish is cooking combine the shaved fennel, orange segments, grapefruit segments, lemon juice and olive oil mixture from step 1 and gently toss to combine.

To serve, carefully remove the whole fish from the grill and transfer to a platter and assemble the shaved fennel and citrus segment salad alongside. Garnish with a sprinkling of the rough chopped fennel fronds and serve immediately.

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