Afrim Pristine: The Cheese Master

With a true love of all things cheesy, Afrim Pristine mixes playfulness with a passionate dedication to his craft.

If smell is the most powerful and acute of the senses, then walking into the Cheese Boutique at 45 Ripley Ave. in the South Kingsway is the ultimate sensory workout.

Prosciutto hangs from the ceiling, truffles are available in season, there are olive oils from 80 different terroirs, beef is dry-aged a minimum of 40 days and approximately 500 different cheeses line the shop. It even has a cold locker and a cheese vault, where you can see (and smell) some of the world’s longest-aged wheels.

The 47-year-old shop is the universe of maître fromager (cheese master) Afrim Pristine, who now owns and operates the family business, the Cheese Boutique, with his older brother, Agim, continuing a longstanding family practice of making, and selling, cheese and meats the traditional way.

“My main role is as a supplier of happiness,” says the affable Pristine. “This is all I’ve done all of my life and I do what I do for the love of cheese. I just love the happiness it can bring people. I’m humbled by any accolades and honours that may come our way, but I really just want to showcase amazing cheese, as it has given me so much in life.”

The Cheese Boutique started out in a humble storefront in Bloor West Village, opened by his grandfather in 1970, before moving to Ripley Avenue in 2000. Today the Cheese Boutique sells roughly 2,500 pounds of cheese per week.

“I am so thankful to my father and grandfather, who were such incredible mentors.”

When he speaks of his parents, who met while studying at university in Naples, Pristine is quick to mention their work ethic. “My father didn’t take a week off for 20 years,” says Pristine proudly. “We had nothing back in Italy, but if you worked hard, you would be rewarded. We never got an allowance. We always worked during March and Christmas breaks, for $2 per hour. I learned very early to appreciate even the smallest things.”

“This is all I’ve done all of my life and I do what I do for the love of cheese. I just love cheese and the happiness it can bring people”

As a child Pristine wanted to be a teacher or an astronaut, and he laughs when he recalls a lightbulb going off in his head when he was older, realizing that he was working in a shop surrounded by some of the world’s finest foods.

“My father never pushed me, but I told him when I was 21 that I wanted to follow in his footsteps, that I loved the food, the business and appreciated the hard work [required] to make it happen,” says Pristine. “So he sent me to Europe to learn cheese-making — to France, Italy and Switzerland. My dad wanted me to really see and experience the craft. Today there are schools for that, even at George Brown, but not 20 years ago. I was so blessed. Because of my father’s reputation I was brought inside the best of the best within Europe to learn the craft.”

Now, Pristine considers it his job to continually improve the Cheese Boutique. “To run a successful business in Toronto, you have to adapt to the times,” says Pristine, who is at work by 6 a.m. seven days a week. “With big multinationals now getting into the cheese business you constantly need to reinvent yourself, yet stay true to your roots. We’re always looking at elevating our game to get better and better. If you sit on your hands, nothing is going to happen. We feel like our dad gave us the keys to a Ferrari; we’ve just got to keep driving it hard.”

It seems the Pristine brothers are doing just that. The Cheese Boutique has about $1.5 million invested in cheese, which is currently aging in the shop’s aging rooms.

“We’ve never sold more cheese than we are now and awareness has never been higher,” says Pristine. “I think we’ve got the strongest team of staff we’ve ever had. We’re in a very good spot, making world-class products and continuing to push, thrive and set our marks here in Toronto, and to honour what my father has given us. We’re very European with old-school training but we’ve got a new-school attitude. That’s the secret of our success.”

So is a strong desire to share is passion for the craft. Pristine’s forthcoming cheese-focused cookbook is being published by Penguin Random House.

“With so much craziness in the world, let’s just sit back, open some wine, enjoy some good bread and some fantastic cheese”

“My goal is, when you open the book, it’s like walking into the shop,” he says. “It’s about me, my personality, my stories, but most importantly, it’s going to be fun and aims to take the intimidation and pretension away from cheese, because I feel that’s a misconception.”

That’s hardly a surprising statement from a man who even has a favourite joke about the foodstuff: “In queso emergency,” he grins, “I pray to Cheesus.”

After all, he says, cheese is about pleasure. “It’s so gratifying going home and putting that cheese on your board, with maybe some bread, olives, some wine or a beer, and that taste, it’s such a win for people,” says Pristine. “I believe cheese is in the DNA of most North Americans, and I don’t care if you grew up with processed cheese slices.” According to Pristine, it just proves you’re a cheese fan.

photo by mike ford

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