Cheese Boutique's annual Festival of Chefs is back this year with a lineup of some of Toronto's hottest chefs. I had the chance to chat with Afrim Pristine about the month-long festival.
Afrim Pristine, Cheese Boutique's co-owner, has a reputation for being the 'go to' guy when any restaurateur, cook, or chef is in search of special ingredients. If they want something, Afrim either has it or can get it within a reasonable time. I was recently in the kitchen at Langdon Hall for some filming, and during a break I spotted Afrim's name written numerous times next to an order list on a white board. When head butcher David Sider caught me staring at it he said "Yeah, he's saved our ass a number of times, that's for sure. If we want something in a hurry, chances are he has it, and he's always willing to go the extra mile to get it to us quickly."
Forty years after opening on Bloor Street, today the Cheese Boutique is the supplier for over a 100 restaurants in Toronto, and Afrim and is team strive to maintain personal relationships with each client. These relationships form the backbone of the Festival of Chefs program. In its ninth year, the festival brings some of the city's top cooking talent into the Etobicoke store for a celebration that will include nine chefs over nine days in May.
They have been busy working on a new ice cream shop next to the boutique. The 400 square-foot shop is set to open in early May, and will offer housemade ice cream. "We've got the Ferrari of ice cream makers, and access to all this fresh fruit and incredible ingredients. We're going to make everything in house, I really wanna make some goat's milk ice cream," he said.
I tracked down Afrim and chatted with about this year's program.
So this is the 9th year for Festival of Chefs?
We've done it for nine years yeah, my brother and I. We do business with a lot of these chefs, they're friends of ours, clients, they come here, we go there. Originally we said, 'why not have this little month long festival of chefs to celebrate our relationship with these guys?' We've always done it in May. May is traditionally not a huge busy month. So we said let's bring the chefs in to do what they do best. It's a great promo for them, for us, and we love it.
It's a very different kind of event from your usual grazing, station-to-station events?
Yeah, how often do you get to meet and hang out with Rob Gentile (Buca)? I love Buca, that guy is an awesome chef. He's going to be on hand, mingling and answering questions. The winemakers are wandering around talking to people, it's really nice.
This event is also a fundraiser, yes?
Two years ago, we added a charity element to it. This year our charity is Famous PEOPLE Players. Diane Dupuy knows my dad really well, she gave him an award for his work in the community. Their shows are very inspiring, their whole concept was created by her, Paul Newman and Liberace in the 70s. She gets kids and adults who have disabilities to do something they want to do in the theatre industry. You see one of these shows and it's really inspiring. You know there's more to life than just cheese and cooking, and to a lot of these people, they wouldn't have this opportunity if it wasn't for her. We're really happy to be supporting this charity again this year. Last year we raised over $20,000 for them. Our customers are awesome, they're very generous.
So I have to know, how do you select the chefs? Can't be an easy task.
It's really hard. Really hard. We have these brainstorming meetings. My two brothers, my dad, two sisters-in-law, we all sit down and everyone has their roles, and I'm the guy that has to select the chefs. I have more of a relationship with the chefs so it falls on my lap. It's really hard. I've pissed off chefs in the past by not picking them. I have nine spots, and we have a lot of mentors and colleagues and peers, we really try and change it up every year. We try to have four to five new chefs every year. So what we do is we get a hat, we put our top 25 in the hat and I pick. Then I make sure there's some new blood in there. We want a good cross-section of restaurants as well.
Who are the new kids on the block, can you tell me a bit about them?
Rupert Martin, we really started to do a lot of work with them at Joey's. They use top product, they don't screw around, man. They come in here all the time for staff tastings etc. Rupert is awesome. He is literally in here every Sunday with his wife shopping. Graham Pelley from e11even, a big supporter of ours and they have a great wine list there and cheese program. Graham comes from Langdon, this guy is very talented, we grew up in the industry together.
Frank [Parzhigar of Frank's Kitchen], this is the first year we've had him. He is awesome. Frank has one of the best pedigrees in the business, he's young, and he's hungry. I've known him for 10 years. I knew him when he was at Centro. Victor Barry, we have never had before. County General is one of my favourite spots right now. He's gonna be waving the Splendido flag though.
How are the wineries involved?
Same type of deal. We do a lot of work with local wineries, so I send an invitation and they come on board. This year we have Norm Hardie, whom I adore, he's in here once a week with his kids. We haven't had Rosewood estates before, we carry their honey and do a lot of cheese pairings for them. I do quite a bit of work with Stratus.
So what are you goals for the event this year?
We wanna raise 25 – 30,000 dollars for the charity. It's for a phenomenal cause. Guests come in and make a donation and it all goes to FPP.
Cheese Boutique 2012 Festival of Chefs:
May 5: Rob Gentile (Buca Restaurant)
May 6: Lora Kirk (Ruby Watchco)
May 12: John Horne (Oliver & Bonacini)
May 13: Frank Parzhigar (Frank's Kitchen)
May 19: Graham Pelley (e11even)
May 20: Victor Barry (Splendido)
May 21: Albert Ponzo (Le Select Bistro)
May 26: Rupert Martin (Joey Restaurant Group)
May 27: Rocco Agostino (Pizzeria Libretto)
The Cheese Boutique
45 Ripley AVenue, Toronto
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Written by Suresh Doss
Suresh Doss is the publisher of SpotlightToronto.com and Rickshawmag.com. Founder of the Food Truck Eats festival, Suresh has been a pioneer for the Street food movement in Toronto. In 2011, He was awarded the VQA Promoter’s Award for outstanding achievement in the Media category in the promotion of Ontario VQA Wines. Suresh is also the Global Editor for Whitecap’s StreetEats series of travel guides, which focuses on the best street food across North America.