Inside the kitchen of Afrim Pristine, the co-owner of Cheese Boutique

Inside the kitchen of Afrim Pristine, the co-owner of Cheese Boutique

Stocked with Philadelphia dips, candy and—you guessed it—a ton of cheese

Afrim with his wife and son, standing in their home kitchen

Afrim Pristine, the co-owner of the GTA’s premier cheese emporium, Cheese Boutique, has never worked another job in his life. “My dad, Fatos, and his dad, Hysen, opened the store in 1970, after they emigrated from Europe,” he says. Pristine was born 10 years later, and by the time he was eight years old, he was arranging freshly baked buns at Cheese Boutique’s original Bloor West Village location. “My grandfather would always say that, if a bun faces down, you have to sell the bun; if a bun faces up, it sells itself.”

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Pristine was 18 years old and studying at Wilfrid Laurier University when he was asked to run the store alone for the first time. “My dad called me while I was at a house party,” he says. “My older brother Agim’s wife was giving birth to his daughter, and they needed me to come home and run the shop.” He realized then that not only did he enjoy the work, he was capable of handling the responsibility. “Before that day, I didn’t think I’d be doing this for the rest of my life. When I closed the store that evening, I knew.”

A peak at Afrim's kitchen

Pristine immediately started working in the shop full time while finishing his degree from home. He wanted to learn every aspect of the cheese business, so with his father’s guidance, he began to travel. He studied under cheese masters all over the world, visiting France, Spain, England, Holland and the US. He built relationships that led to apprenticeships at Michelin-star kitchens in Switzerland and Italy. He even befriended culinary bigwigs like Daniel Boulud and Alain Ducasse.

Cheese Boutique eventually moved from its original location to its current home in Swansea, just south of Bloor West Village. The operation, which was originally run by four members of Pristine’s family, now has 125 people on staff. Until recently, Pristine worked 330 days a year, dawn till dusk—but the birth of his son, Leonardo, has given him reason to stay home more often. “A lot has changed,” Pristine says. “I’ve even learned to love shopping at No Frills.”

A look inside Afrim's fridge

There’s evidence of some very un–Cheese Boutique dairy in his refrigerator. “My wife, Courtney Bull, is from Niagara. She grew up on Philadelphia dips, Renee’s salad dressings, nacho cheese sauce and Ruffles,” he says. “My southern Italian mother would be very unimpressed, but I’ve got to admit, the stuff definitely has a place in my heart now.”

A stack of Philadelphia dips

There’s a good amount of higher-end items in here too. “I do a lot of my shopping at Cheese Boutique, obviously, but I also go to SanRemo Bakery once a week for sweets and some of their breads. And I always have pâtés, cured meats and sausages from Sanagan’s.”

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Some of the many meats in Afrim's fridge

A baguette from San Remo

Of course, there’s a full crisper drawer dedicated to cheese. “It’s like how a shoemaker would wear fancy shoes. We love this stuff,” says Pristine. “I have at least 20 or 25 cheeses in my fridge at all times. Last night, we crushed a charcuterie board while binge-watching Suits. It was heaven.”

Afrim's impressively full cheese drawer

Grated cheese is a must for nachos, tacos and lasagna, and the couple always stocks big hunks of Parmigiano Reggiano. Some varieties are more controversial, though. “I love goat cheese, but I’m not even allowed to bring it into the house—Courtney hates it that much,” Pristine says. “She prefers triple-cream varieties and hard cheeses, like Manchegos or cave-aged Gruyères. I like dirty, funky blues.”

A better look at the different kinds of cheese that Afrim keeps at home

Though Pristine maintains that he could live on baguette, pâté and blue cheese, he’s half Italian and loves fresh pasta. “I never have time to make my own pasta, so I buy it at Eataly. We have some of theirs in the freezer. We often have Courtney’s killer bolognese to throw on it, but when we don’t, the pre-made sauces from Eataly are also fantastic. I’ll also use the Cheese Boutique Parmigiano stock to make an excellent cacio e pepe.”

The inside of Afrim's freezer, which had pasta from Eataly and croissants

The rest of Afrim's pasta collection

Pristine avoids mayonnaise, mustard and ketchup like the plague, but he loves barbecue sauce. “Matty Matheson’s line of products are incredible. His barbecue sauce is magic. I made hot dogs from Woof Dawgs the other day with Ducky’s Dill pickles. Then I poured a little of Matty’s sauce on them—it was perfection.”

Afrim's pickle collection

A package of Woof Dawg hot dogs

For now, Pristine does the family’s cooking while Bull, herself an accomplished cook, has her hands full with the newborn. “We always have a steak in the fridge, which I rub with olive oil, salt and pepper before searing on cast iron,” he says. Wagyu, however, is not on the menu. “You will never catch a piece of Wagyu beef or truffle steak in my house—the value just isn’t there. Ontario AAA is about a quarter of the price and just as good.” Some of their other go-to meals are quite simple. “Since Courtney’s pregnancy, she craves minimalist stuff. We often eat the shop’s marinated chicken breasts with steamed rice and broccoli.”

A look at Afrim's steak of choice

Bull maintains a collection of Asian sauces, including gochujang and sambal oelek. “My best friend is Korean, and she used to live with us. Her mom sent us all kinds of Korean foods, like mandu, garden-grown perilla leaves and homemade kimchi.” She’s also got a basement freezer full of prepped soups, stews and beautiful jars of giardiniera that she made in advance of the baby’s arrival. “The giardiniera recipe is from the New York Times app,” says Bull.

In the pantry, Pristine maintains a rotating collection of oils, vinegars, dried beans and lentils. “The shopkeeper in me needs a cabinet stocked with vinegar and oil at all times. I have a couple of fancy ones, but I make lots of salads and veggie stews with standard stuff. I’m deglazing all the time, so I always keep sherry vinegar. I save my higher-end oils for finishings and bread.”

Afrim's shelves, which are full of oils and sherry vinegar

When he’s old enough to eat it, Leonardo will have access to his mom and dad’s impressive candy drawer. “I’m very proud of this stash,” says Pristine.

Afrim and his wife's candy drawer

The kitchen houses a number of cookbooks by modern authors, including Molly Baz, Marcella Hazan, Gabrielle Hamilton, Alison Roman and Toronto’s own Eden Grinshpan. “Most of the cookbooks are Courtney’s,” says Pristine. “I never cook using a cookbook, but I’ve learned a lot by reading books written by big chefs like Thomas Keller, Alain Ducasse and Daniel Boulud.”

Afrim's cookbook collection

The couple doesn’t get a lot of time to wind down these days, but Bull loves champagne. For Pristine, a glass of Two Sisters from Niagara or an Italian red will often do the trick. “We’re not big drinkers,” he says, “but we’re addicted to Frasier, and because of that show, I’ve become obsessed with sherry. Courtney bought me vintage sherry glasses to sip from while we watch.”

A look at the couple's bar cart