Fromagerie Atwater: The 1000-Cheese Man
Gilles’s story is intimately linked to that of Atwater Market, which he holds dear to his heart. “I like to tell my employees that I grew up in the market. Like it was my daycare centre!” His great-aunt used to run a small tobacco, eggs and honey shop that his parents bought in 1972. That’s where it all started.
From age seven, Gilles used to join his parents at the market after school and baseball games. “My baseball coach would drive me there in his MG convertible, I was impressed,” he recalls. The boy would sweep and mop the floor. He also picked up old newspapers here and there. “In those days, we’d wrap the egg cartons in newspapers and tied them with string.” At seven years old, he already loved the market’s atmosphere and his job there.
In 1976, his parents expanded what was then called Marché Fernand and added a deli counter. They also moved the tobacco business to a separate kiosk that was kept locked. “Public health didn’t like the idea of selling tobacco in a food shop, plus aging pipe smokers were becoming increasingly scarce.”
As a young teenager, Gilles used to accompany these customers to the kiosk and calculate the price of the “tobacco hands” – blocks of 35 x 5 cm – purchased. “My father trusted me because I was good at maths.” At that time, he already knew he would take over his parents’ business. “It was clear to me I’d own a mixed-good business.” The love of fine cheeses came later, a bit accidentally.
The Shop of 1000 Cheeses
The first time he tasted a Roquefort cheese, Gilles immediately spat out his mouthful. “Today, I eat Roquefort at breakfast,” he says. He’s also fond of goat and firm cheeses. A ski trip to Austria at age 17 changed everything. “I tasted dishes I hadn’t even heard of.” He came back with a newly found curiosity for gastronomy, and an interest in cheese and travel that hasn’t diminished since. “I started to really get into cheeses. I’m self-taught, I learned from books.”
His father, a Member of Parliament, was often away at the time. “We’re going to sell the shop, what do you expect to do here?” his father asked him. “I want to have fun,” he replied. So at 18, Gilles took over the shop, which he immediately renamed La Fromagerie Atwater following the advice of French restaurants’ owners who had become his mentors. He began offering a variety of cheeses designed to satisfy the European clientele.
As luck would have it, the only Canadian importer of French cheese was located in Verdun, near the market. “I’d make great sandwiches for the workers and they’d let me roam around the fridges as I pleased. I made a point of trying everything.” He took advantage of the market’s renovations in the late 1980s to double the size of his cheese shop and increase its cheese offering.
Today, La Fromagerie Atwater offers some 1000 cheeses – including 350 from Québec. He offers 2000 specialty gourmet products, a wide selection of charcuteries and over 800 microbrewery beers. “I ask my employees to become familiar with all the cheeses. After about three months, they’re ready to advise customers knowledgably.”
For the shopkeeper, customer service is as important as the quality of the products. “I make sure that the products are impeccable and reasonably priced. I pay attention to the smallest detail. That’s why customers trust us and why we have a good reputation.”
There’s a true spirit of camaraderie behind the counter. Gilles tells anecdotes, suggests recipes, and asks about his regular customers. “I surround myself with competent people with whom I enjoy working. The customers feel it. I have 65 employees who work with me, not for me. Like them, I wear an apron, take the garbage out and mop.”
Being liable to outdo himself, Gilles recently decided to slow down – but just a little. His daughter Catherine runs the other branch of the business on Ontario Street, and will most certainly take over. “I’ve been blessed in life, but this is the cherry on top! But what’s really important is that my daughter has fun, just like me. Just like I do!”
Quick Questions to Gilles JourdenaisDescribe the Atwater Market vibe in a few words?
Conviviality, freshness and consistency.What motivates you to get up so early in the morning?
I love life, I marvel at everything.Your fondest memory of the market?
Every year, on December 31. The atmosphere’s festive and effervescent. It’s also a time to take stock, to appreciate the year that’s just went by at the market.
Read all the FAMILY PORTRAITS
Producers, merchants and artisans together make up the Montréal Public Markets’ extended family. For years, often for generations, they’ve been getting up early, experimenting, sometimes starting over, nurturing, harvesting and flourishing! Day after day, they stand proudly behind their stalls as if by their own dining-room table, inviting us to feast. They’re the heart and soul of the markets – their very essence – and the reason we keep coming back. The Family Portrait series aims to pay tribute to all the pillars of our public markets.This project is funded through the Programme Proximité of the ministère de l’Agriculture, des Pêcheries et de l’Alimentation, a program implemented under the Canadian Agricultural Partnership according to an agreement between the governments of Canada and Québec.