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?
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 Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.