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Cheese Boutique: for Afrim Pristine, cheese puts life into perspective

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I say, with confidence, that most Canadian chefs know of Maître Fromager Afrim Pristine. But Pristine rejects this view. In fact, he immediately sets me straight stating that he is just one person and “nothing without his family, his employees and his customers.” He also says that were it not for cheese, he probably wouldn’t be here at all. For someone who works so hard, who is continually educating himself and evolving his business (and himself), Pristine wants nothing to do with talking about Afrim Pristine. This community-forward approach to business is integral to his success. Pristine is humble yet opinionated, serious yet dismissive of the notion that the work he does is anything but fun.

Pristine’s office is situated in a loft that overlooks the bustling interior of Toronto’s beloved Cheese Boutique. He runs the family business today with his brother. His office is furnished with shelves filled with books and paperwork; piles of business stuff. The walls are decorated with framed photographs that imbue the room with a sense of history; portraits of family members, inspiring acquaintances (an autographed photo of the late Anthony Bourdain), university degrees earned by Pristine’s parents (his mother studied Latin, his father political science). The frames contain reminders of where he and the family business came from.

Cheese Boutique (CB) in Toronto’s west end turned 48 this year. Pristine’s grandfather and father started the business. CB spent 30 years in a smaller shop from 1970 to 2000, when the shop moved to a 10,000-square-foot location and started growing their operations into aging cheese, aging beef, baking and preparing food, offsite catering and wholesale purchasing. Cheese Boutique, today, boasts 500 hotel/restaurant deliveries per week in addition to running the shop, etc. But it’s still a family business through and through. “My brother and I are the third generation. My niece and nephew are on the floor and in deliveries, so they are the fourth generations. We also have families within our families, people who have worked with us for decades like Celina, Marta and Sedata, three women who have each worked 30 years plus, helped raise my brother and I and have been integral in our growth of the shop. That’s very special to us. I think to our customers as well,” says Pristine. He is eager to talk about the contributions of others to the business. Says Pristine, “Mat Sutherland is our executive chef for the last year, but I’ve known him for 20 years. Mat has really ramped up our prepared food program.”

Of CB’s success, Pristine says their strength is treating each customer individually to cater to their exact needs. No matter the scale, Pristine says they are very good at delivering what every single customer wants. ‘ So, what is it like being a master purveyor of cheese? The affable affineur says that running his business is interesting because “not much is predictable.” It’s a challenge to make sure they can do what everyone needs, despite ever-changing variables. “Cheese is easy but making sure the customer has a great experience is very important to us. So is providing a good working environment for staff. I can’t do this without my staff.”

Pristine likes to have fun. He enjoys honouring his friends when they open a new restaurant. His friends-list of chefs across the globe is impressive. Says Pristine, “We’re all in this together, me and the chefs. We are all trying to do the same thing…make people happy with food. You’re not in this industry to be a millionaire. You’re in this industry ‘cause you love it. And because you want to take care of people. So, I surround myself with those kinds of people.”

Why is cheese a fixture across eras and cultures?

In some places in the world with ancient peoples, cheese has been part of the diet since humans started using milk from animals. Cheesemaking was one of the earliest culinary practices. Cheesemaking in North America is much younger but booming nevertheless. This is in no small part to the work of dairy farmers and the marketing boards like Dairy Farmers of Ontario who proudly tell the stories of their producers, processors and purveyors. This support enables direct connections between farmers and purveyors, farmers and chefs or purveyors and chefs. These meaningful, informative and symbiotic connections are the lifeblood of the booming Canadian dairy industry.

Operators like Pristine are invaluable builders of bridges as cheese has become more important and more prominent in our diets. There’s a huge demand for cheese and interest in its origins. What makes a cheese special? Pristine says that he has 500 kinds of cheese in his counter, all made from the same ingredients—milk, a little salt and a bit of bacteria. But why is this Gouda different from that Gouda? As simple as cheese is, it’s also complicated. The terroir, the flavour influences, the aging process. “Cheese is a living thing, a living organism. Our job as affineurs, cheesemakers or dairy farmers is to figure out what the best recipe is and how it’s going to change when it ages. And all of it is for one reason; to make that customer happy and give that customer a great cheese experience.” Pristine’s energy fills the room. He talks about his passion for the stories behind the cheeses he sells. “Canada is represented in my counter more than any other country. More than Italy and France combined. Not because we’re Canadian, but because Canada has damn good cheese. We take an incredible product from the cheesemaker and give it love and maintenance and space and the room for it to evolve into something spectacular.”

To evolve is Pristine’s reason for being. He credits his upbringing and his heritage for everything he knows and all that he possesses. He speaks with care and an evident sense of responsibility to the legacy he represents. He emphasizes the gratitude he feels for the gifts bestowed on him by his parents—whom he describes as remarkable, intelligent and loving people. Their story is the stuff of novels. Immigrants who recognized a need in their new community. They brought cosmopolitan cheeses to Toronto and influenced a new generation of chefs and consumers. They saved, sacrificed and built a small empire for the sake of their children. “We always had to work for what they gave us. If I wanted something, I had to earn it,” says Pristine. That lesson hit home when he was in university studying history and needed money for textbooks. His mother sent him half the amount he’d requested, and it was then he realized that his parents had to stretch every dollar to make ends meet for their family.

Pristine then tells me that he doesn’t like one of the questions I asked. I had requested that he tell me about a “cheese emergency” that he has experienced. He says this question bothered him. “There is no cheese emergency; there is no cheese disaster. Unless a wheel of cheese has fallen on someone and broken their skull…You ran out of buffalo mozzarella; it’s alright. There’s bigger problems in the world.”

Pristine continues by saying that 10 years ago running out of something would have been an emergency for him too. But life experience, travel, seeing people living through real disaster like the hurricane in Puerto Rico, where he has taken part in an annual food festival and seen firsthand the impact of a natural disasters on people—these experiences have changed him. “We all need to grow up or become a little more professional or maybe just be a little more realistic. You see what’s happening in the world today. You have to put things in perspective. When a client comes into Cheese Boutique, I am going to do my part in making people happy, putting a smile on their face. That’s my job. We are suppliers of happiness.”

Pristine says there is enough for everybody. “We’re all trying to do the same thing. We need to work more together. Every one of those cheeses out there, we deal with the man or woman making that cheese and have a dialogue. I am taking what I learned and giving it to the customer. We are all on the same team. It’s not a competition. No one is winning an award. We’re doing this, selling cheese because we love it, we want to honour it and let’s make people happy,” Pristine finishes.

TALK ABOUT CHEESE ON THE MENU

Canadian restaurants need to learn from and work directly with local purveyors of cheese, which is why the partnership between Restaurants Canada and Dairy Farmers of Ontario is so important. In an age where consumers want to know the how, where, what and why of food; cultivating relationships with the makers and sellers of cheese should be part of building an evocative menu. Watch for Afrim Pristine’s book release in October 2018. For the Love of Cheese: Recipes and Wisdom from the Cheese Boutique is filled with Pristine’s stories and recipes celebrating cheese and honouring the history of Cheese Boutique.

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