Afrim Pristine is a super cheesy guy, and that’s cool. The Maître Fromager (Cheese Master) and owner of Toronto’s Cheese Boutique delivers years of experience in affinage, a practice handed down through the almost 50-year-old family business.
Pristine is the only Canadian to receive the distinction of “Chevalier” from the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Taste Fromage de France (March 2007); he’s studied with Switzerland Cheese to learn the process from one of the oldest and most renowned cheesemakers in the world; and in 2013, Pristine’s distinctions and accolades hit their highest point when the then 32-year-old the cheesemonger was inducted as the world’s youngest “Maître Fromager” (Cheese Master) by the France-based Guilde Internationale des Fromagers, an exclusive association representing more than 5,000 cheese wonks around the world.
Pristine’s unique connection with Canadians who have come to know and love the Toronto-based Chevalier as a bit of a culinary superstar and celeb is something very special. He’s been featured in magazines, on TV and he has a healthy following on social media.
When he’s not busy working hard at the family business he can be found taking part in collaboration dinners with the world’s finest chefs, regularly appearing on national television and co-writing culinary courses such as the Cheese Certification program at George Brown Culinary College.
We caught up with Pristine to pick his brain about the family business, studying to become one of the world’s greatest cheese masters and, of course, why he loves Switzerland Cheeses.
EatSwitzCheese: You make cheese cool, dude! How do you do that? What’s your secret to connecting with and inspiring young people to get passionate about food/cheese?
Answer: I think that the younger generation really appreciates great cheese, more than ever in Canada. I think I bring old-world mentality with a new-school attitude. What I mean is, I was trained by the best cheese people in the world, but you also have to adapt to the times. You need to listen to what people want, and then you put your own spin on it. I try and take the pretentious aspects of cheese away, and really bring it back to the basics and I try and simplify it. I feel that I have made cheese fun, and cool, because It really is. Cheese is such a social food.
Q: To say you “embraced” the family business would be the understatement of the century. What is it about cheese and food that drew you in and made you want to be an integral part of the family biz?
A: I’ve never really known anything else other than Cheese Boutique. It’s been my only job and I pride myself on that. My parents and Cheese Boutique gave me everything in life. It’s given me every opportunity to succeed and to get ahead in life. I felt as a kid, that I owed it to my family and I owed it to Cheese Boutique to give it my all. My work ethic and openness to continue the traditions are me expressing to my family and the businesses legacy, “Thank you for everything you’ve done for me.”
Q: How much did you learn from your family, the original Cheese Boutique visionaries? What do you feel was handed down to you in terms of knowledge vs. what did you learn through other experiences (studies, courses, working with other chefs etc.)?
A: The business was originally started by my father and grandfather in 1970. My mother has always been very heavily involved as well. My love for food and my passion for the business came directly from my parents. Eating well, taking care of others, and hospitality are things instilled in me from mom and dad. During my travels—to Switzerland, France, Italy, Spain, and England—is where I really fell in love with cheese. Those travels gave me a better understanding of how great cheese can be and how versatile it is.
Q: Are there many people in Canada with experience in affinage? What goes into learning this skill and mastering it?
A: I honestly and humbly don’t believe there are many people in North America doing what Cheese Boutique is doing. The monetary investment it takes, the dedication, the time, the love. It’s a passion that we feel we have really brought to the forefront. Cheese is amazing, but when you treat it with respect and give it time, it becomes even better. Patience is the most important thing when learning how to age cheese. I did learn these techniques from my father and my travels to Switzerland and France in particular.
Q: You have been inducted as the only Canadian “Maître Fromager” (Cheese Master) by the France-based Guilde Internationale des Fromagers. Tell us a little bit about what this distinction means to you personally.
A: It was and is a big honour for me, my family, and my staff when I received this award. I honestly believe that it helped put Toronto and Canada on the international cheese map. But at the end of the day, I look at it most as a duty. After receiving the distinction it is now my job to be better at my craft; to talk about cheese and to honour what I feel is the best food in the world.
Q: How long have you been working with and supplying Switzerland Cheeses through the Cheese Boutique?
A: Since day one, 1970, we are proud to be selling great Swiss cheeses. Today, we stock about 25 different Swiss cheeses!
Q: Why is Switzerland Cheeses a trusted supplier and what makes the relationship special?
A: I’ve always enjoyed dealing with Switzerland cheeses because they are as meticulous as I am. Seeing first hand how they operate their business—it really blew me away. The love and passion they put into their craft. I was first in Switzerland when I was 22-years-old. So I personally have a 15-year relationship with them. I can’t do my job properly unless I have great suppliers, and they have been doing an amazing job since day one.
Q: What are the most common questions you get from the public, be it customers social media fans etc. regarding Switzerland cheeses?
A: My customers are very well-travelled and cultured with great palates. The people coming into my shop see the value in good Swiss cheese. They understand the difference between real Emmentaler and the stuff made locally. Because we’ve been working with the real stuff all these years, I feel Cheese Boutique customers are a little ahead of the game.
Q: What are the most interesting tidbits about Switzerland cheeses that you think might be interesting or intriguing to the public?
A: I think the cave in the Kaltbach mountain should be a place everyone should one day visit. To me, it’s the 8th wonder of the world. The dedication that the Swiss put into the production of cheese and aging of cheese is insanely impressive, considering that Switzerland is such a small country. It blew me away walking into that cave. I’ve never really seen anything else like it, and I’ve traveled the world looking for better.
Q: What are your favourite types of Switzerland Cheeses and why?
A: I love them all. And that’s not a diplomatic answer—it’s the truth. Do you have a favourite child? Same thing in my opinion. Emmentaler and Gruyere I believe are two of the most important cheeses ever created. They are such staples in cuisine and great to eat on their own as well.
Q: What types of cheeses do you like to use at home or for friends?
A: Cheese fondue and melted raclette on potatoes are two of the best cheese dishes in the world. They are fun, it’s tasty, it’s social and everyone loves them. Who doesn’t love melted cheese? Appenzeller, Le Marechal, Tilsit I feel are very underrated Swiss cheeses, everyone should try them.