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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

What North American TV Can Learn From European TV

In our ever-more connected global pop culture landscape, it’s easy enough to forget that most regions and countries still have their own unique styles of storytelling and media, and the TV scene is no exception. Most of us have, at some point, enjoyed some international programming from time to time. Certainly, American and Canadian TV can be so intertwined that it’s easy to be a little unsure which country it’s from. However, most of us have yet to sample most European programming.

While I would caution against assuming that everything European is more refined and classy than everything in North America (as it turns out, game shows, sports, competitions, and reality TV are popular around the whole world), it is worth noting that European TV has more than a few lessons to offer this continent. Mainly, the format of storytelling found in European programming is much better and cleaner, and provides a better watching experience. Here are a few such lessons:

Sidse Babett Knudsen in Borgen

Don’t be afraid to quit while you’re ahead:

During an interview recently with Stephen Colbert, Broadchurch (the British crime drama) actor David Tennant was asked why the successful show is ending after only three seasons. Tennant responded, “It’s a peculiarly British thing. I think we see something that works, and we run from it…if it works and it’s solid…abandon it immediately.” While he was joking, it’s not bad advice. Except for some anthology shows which have ever-changing settings and stories, or shows like Doctor Who where the leads change every few years, many British and European shows end during their height, or at least don’t continue on past their prime.

While Broadchurch fans may be disappointed the show will end, at least they don’t have to worry about the show being milked out of all possible storylines or suffering through needless filler episodes or terrible spinoffs. This way, the story can be told in full without excess. This is also the case with shows like Borgen, a political drama from Denmark. Critics noted that the show’s third and final season wrapped up the storylines in a satisfying manner. Now, contrast that with North American shows that drag on for years and years, burning through plot lines until nothing good is left.

David Tennant and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch

Crime dramas should pay attention to the crime

There is no shortage of crime dramas or police procedurals in North American TV, but many of them spend all too much time on the investigators and not enough on the circumstances of the crimes, and thereby lose a sense of mystery that is meant to be part and parcel of crime shows. While character work and story development are great, gripping crime dramas and police procedurals need to have some mystery to them. Broadchurch, particularly its first season, was full of intense mystery and intrigue and a plot twist nobody saw coming. The Irish-British series The Fall spends most of its time on one specific case; the Danish drama The Killing spends a good chunk of each episode with the families of victims or discussing the consequences of the crime. It’s worth noting that both shows have spawned successful American remakes.

Michaela Coel in Chewing Gum

Don’t make filler episodes

American TV shows in particular are notorious for having absurdly long seasons, going on for dozens upon dozens of episodes, most of them having nothing to do with the main plot points or adding nothing to character development. However, most Europeans shows restrict themselves to fewer episodes per season, focusing on the important, meaty bits of the show and less on the humdrum. Even for sitcoms without seasonal arcs or serious character development, this equation works out quite well. For example, each season of the brilliantly funny British series Chewing Gum (written by and starring Michaela Coel) has only six episodes, each one packed with hilarity; every scene in an episode feeds the central storyline.

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Reflecting on Masculinity and the Body: A Conversation with Jordan Browne

Jordan Browne: ‘Sweet Dreams, Francis’ (installation view), 2017 © James Morley, Ryerson Image Centre

Jordan Browne’s latest works, Sweet Dreams, Francis, was recently on view at the Ryerson Image Centre Student Gallery. His photography explores the relationships between our cultures and our bodies through the contours of the nude genre. We recently had a chance to throw a few questions at the emerging artist about his work and his latest exhibition.

Novella: Tell us a little bit about yourself.

JB: I’m a 28-year-old emerging photo based artist. I graduated from Ryerson’s Photography studies program in 2016 and also hold a BFA from York University. In addition to my interest in photography, I also have a passion for independent and foreign cinema.

N: Did you grow up in an artistic household?

JB: I wouldn’t say I grew up in an artistic household but I would say my interest in the arts came from my father who at one point pursued art in his early 20’s. He has really great technical skills, which he taught me when I was a kid. My parents have always encouraged my artistic endeavors as a child from drawing to my interest in theatre.

N: You studied both visual arts and photography. What made you decide to focus on the latter?

JB: My interest in photography solidified after taking a Black & White photography course in high school. With words of encouragement from my teachers, I started to think about pursuing it after graduating. This became even clearer to me when I started my studies at York University.

One of the requirements of the program was that we had to take courses that explored different mediums. Photography is the only medium that really resonated with me. I never felt that sort of enthusiasm with painting or drawing — nor was I very good.

Jordan Browne: ‘Sweet Dreams, Francis’ (installation view), 2017 © James Morley, Ryerson Image Centre

N: Describe your latest series, ‘Sweet Dreams, Francis’

JB: ‘Sweet Dreams, Francis’ explores themes of masculinity in relation to the body and its portrayal in the nude genre. The photographs of various gay and queer men evoke a sense of calm and quiet — a proposition that contrasts with depictions of male bodies in photography and visual media in general. Fabrics are employed throughout as a means of softening the imagery, thereby gently disrupting traditional notions of masculinity.

N:What would you say has changed in visual representation of masculinity over the decades?

JB: It’s hard to say definitively as this series is born out of my own experiences as a gay/queer individual who has felt pressures to conform to masculine ideals from a young age. I feel that there are still a lot of external messages we are getting that suggest that to be a man you have to behave a certain way. My hope is that people are becoming more accepting of those who do not conform to these ideals and that men are becoming more comfortable exhibiting a range of emotions.

N: In your description of the series, you write that it’s not explicitly a critique of depictions of male bodies. What did you mean by that?

JB: I mean to say that I am not making a direct statement criticizing notions of masculinity. I’m more interested in reflecting on these ideals and interpreting through my own experience. I’m not making a political statement that signifies change as the series is meant to be more personal than that.

N: How do you begin new works?

JB: It starts with curiosity. I then begin to do a lot of research on the subject matter I am exploring and pull various visual references, both historical and contemporary. I also do a lot of reading of both academic and non-academic texts to give more context to the project. I think it’s important to really understand the subject matter from a historical point of view and to understand how it has previously been explored.

N: How did you go about selecting the vintage photos?

JB: I have long been interested in archival/found imagery. I also like the idea of collecting. It was really as simple as browsing through these snapshots on eBay and selecting the ones that resonated with me most. Whether through body language or composition, I picked images that I felt had homoerotic undertones that could be brought forth when displayed alongside my own images. I found images where I could mimic the poses of the men in my own photographs. This aided in developing a dialogue between the two types of imagery being displayed.

N: Tell us about the actual process of photographing the series, ‘Sweet Dreams, Francis’.

JB: Before shooting my models I do test shots of the space to get a sense of the light. I pull several references in preparation for shoots so that I have an idea of what I want to achieve.

I think it’s important to have conversations with the models prior to shooting so that you’re on the same page and have a mutual understanding of what we’re trying to achieve. I also think it’s important to establish a dialogue with models as it really is a collaboration. Without them these photos would not be what they are. My direction is very laid back — I go with the flow. If I like a pose I may have a model hold position as I navigate the body within the frame of my camera.

Jordan Browne: ‘Sweet Dreams, Francis’ (installation view), 2017 © James Morley, Ryerson Image Centre

N: How did your series ‘Anonymous (2012 – 2016) come about?

JB: This series is really a precursor to my main body of work. It is on going and also functions as an extension to ‘Sweet Dreams, Francis’ in the aesthetic qualities I am exploring. I started out photographing predominantly women as I’ve always felt much more comfortable with them. As time went on, I really became interested in creating a body of work that related to my own identity, which led to photographing more men. This ultimately progressed to ‘Sweet Dreams, Francis’.

N: Are there other ideas or themes you’d like to explore in the future?

JB: I’d like to give voice to being both queer and a person of colour. I think I could speak to the ways in which those identities intersect and how they have shaped my experiences in my formative years. While sexuality is a major theme explored in my current body of work, I think it would be interesting to add another layer to that as an individual who is also of mixed race.

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A Letter from Your Server

Art work by Michelle Cheung for Novella Magazine

I work in the service industry. I know, shocker, right? An almost 25-year-old former journalism student needs additional income from a source outside of her field of study to support herself after 5 years in school and a workplace internship? Who woulda thunk it. I graduated from Western and Sheridan, and, after all that, I serve tables full time for a living, and not one bit of me is ashamed of that.

Yes, in all honesty, it truly makes you hate people. But ironically, you have to love working with people to do the job. If you don’t like to talk to people, you can’t be a server, and if you are serving and can’t talk to people, you’re probably not a very good server. Despite the negative connotation the industry has around it, I actually really enjoy it. On the flip side, you really don’t know how demeaning and selfish people are until you’ve worked in the service industry. I’ve learned how it feels to have complete and utter strangers think less of you, look down on you, and think you’re stupid with no motivation or aspirations in life. Let me make this perfectly clear for those who are unaware. Being a server does not mean that I am dumb or that I’m uneducated or unmotivated. It means that I literally make more money a year serving tables than I would with a starting salary in my field of study. It means that I get to socialize and interact with people from all over the world and from various walks of life. It also means that I have a flexible schedule, and, at the end of the day, I don’t have to bring my work home with me. It also means that it’s actually none of your business why people like myself serve tables, but it does not mean we are any less smart, educated, or capable.

I once had someone very close to me say that my job wasn’t really considered “working,” that it wasn’t a “real job.” Hearing this really pissed me off, to be honest.

In my opinion, some of the best people have worked in the service industry. You really don’t know what working is until you’re doing a job that is the very definition of a “job.” The amount of physical labour and stamina it takes to wait on people’s every need is astounding. It is a job that requires a great deal of physical and mental activity. You are always thinking and always moving. There is nothing I consider more of a “real job”.

I truly witness some of the greatest stupidity known to mankind. However, I do admit there are times that I have to ask myself, “would this request really be that inconvenient if I wasn’t a server?” The simplest things start to become a nuisance. But there are also times where my mind is blown by some people’s complete lack of common sense. Here are a few helpful tips to keep in mind next time you’re ordering.

  1. READ THE GODDAMN MENU! Don’t ask what kind of salads we have when they are literally listed right. in. front. of. you.
  2. Also, don’t say you’re ready to order when you’re clearly not. I have things to do while you decide what kind of wrap you want.
  3. Servers are not psychics. If you want or need something, ask politely.
  4. The menu is not a drawing board for your creativity.
  5. Don’t blame servers for the kitchen’s mistakes. I am not the one cooking your food, I am the one literally catering to you. So do not yell at me.
  6. Do not snap your fingers at me. Ever.

I’m going to tell you a story to finish this off. One morning, a customer with a very important business conference snapped his fingers at me and pointed to his coffee cup to get my attention for a refill. Instead of refilling his coffee with the fresh pot I had in my hand, I pretended it was empty, went to the kitchen, filled his cup with decaf, and proceeded to refill his cup with decaf that day and for the entire rest of the week. It’s the little things that mean the most. Being polite to your server will get you far and will guarantee you fresh regular strength coffee. Because, contrary to popular belief, we are people too.

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