As a child, Joseph Chaeban’s life revolved around cheese. Every morning after waking up, he would head straight into the aging room of his father’s cheese shop in Tunisia and pick a fresh, creamy wheel of Camembert off the shelf to enjoy with breakfast. When his family moved to Canada, however, the artisanal cheese was replaced with Kraft Singles.
"I thought my mom was poisoning me," Chaeban says with a laugh. "I refused to eat it… here’s this floppy, yellow, processed cheese and you can tell the difference of taste, even if you’re six years old, you know this is not normal. So, that was surreal."
The co-owner of Chaeban Ice Cream has returned to his roots, producing a line of fresh cheeses out of the shop’s small facility in South Osborne. Chaeban Artisan was launched earlier this year as a way to solve the business’s ongoing "winter problem" — ice cream sales tend to nose-dive in the colder months — and the cheeses have quickly found their way into the shelves and kitchens of local grocery stores and restaurants.
"It makes you feel proud to be in Winnipeg, that you have people helping you and supporting you," Chaeban says of the local uptake.
Although his specialty is European-style aged cheeses, Chaeban has opted to start selling feta, labneh, ricotta and mascarpone, which can be finished in days, not months, although one day, he’d like to revisit the Emmentals and Gruyères of his childhood.
Chaeban’s family is from Lebanon but his parents fled to Germany as refugees before he was born. In need of a new profession, his father, Daham, started studying under a Swiss cheesemaker with plans to open his own shop. It was difficult to break into the cheese-saturated European market, so the family moved to northern Africa and opened Fromagerie Chaeban in Tunisia.
Daham started teaching his young son about the trade and Chaeban has vivid memories of the milky smell of fresh batches wafting through the factory and the bright colours of aging cheeses.
"It’s an amazing process," he says. "When you’re making cheese and creating something special, there’s a lot of feeling involved; you have to touch it. A lot of people think the machine can do it for you, but no, everything is about sense."
The business was booming, but Daham knew there were few opportunities in Tunisia for his children. Chaeban arrived in Canada when he was six years old with his parents and three sisters.
With the fromagerie shuttered, Daham was again looking for a new career.
"He didn’t know English, so he couldn’t find a job where they would just give him a chance, so he went into truck driving," Chaeban says, adding that the pair continued making cheese as a hobby in the basement of their house.
Chaeban studied marketing in college and started his own trucking business, but had to close up shop during the 2008 recession. A conversation with his father got him back into the world of dairy.
"My dad is my best friend, and so I took his advice. He was like, ‘You know everything about cheese,’" Chaeban says. "And he was absolutely right, like it brings out a passion (in me) and it’s something that I always wanted to do."
He headed to Vermont to study dairy science and landed a job as a plant manager and cheesemaker in Winnipeg. But the entrepreneurial itch remained.
Chaeban saw an opportunity at the site of the former Banana Boat Ice Cream shop and started selling his own frosty treats with wife Zainab Ali and business partner Darryl Stewart in 2017.
The expansion into cheese has also required an expansion of space. Behind the Chaeban Ice Cream storefront at 390 Osborne St., there is a cramped production area with a small room dedicated to pasteurizing and processing cheese; the shop’s former seating area has been turned into a makeshift labelling and packaging centre. The business will soon be gaining 1,000 square feet of leased space next door and will be moving into a facility at the University of Manitoba later this year.
The goal is to process 1,000 litres of cheese each day — a drop in the bucket compared to the 40,000 litres Chaeban oversaw daily as a cheese plant manager. His philosophy has always been about quality over quantity.
During our conversation, Chaeban’s cellphone rings several times; he’s a busy guy, constantly looking for ways to make his business more sustainable. Cheese is both a step forward and a homecoming.
"It brings joy," he says. "You’re playing with a living organism, you’re putting in good bacteria to fight bad bacteria and you’re creating something special that comes out delicious — people can appreciate the art behind it."
Visit chaebanartisan.com for a list of local retailers.
Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.