As skilled in the forests of Ontario’s north as in indoor kitchens, Chefs Joseph Shawana and Michael Hunter share the flavours of Ontario’s outdoors. Chef Joseph’s Pine Ashed Venison is finished with buttery mushroom and leeks and creamy sunchokes, while Chef Michael’s legendary Smoked Cheddar Cornbread is served with a Maple Chili and Birch Syrup Back Ribs.
Ontario Chefs Joseph Shawana and Michael Hunter are among the kings of local food, with key differences in their culinary styles. Chef Joseph sums it up very well. “We both use the same ingredients, but we use different cooking techniques. Our flavour profiles are different, we layer things differently and we season things differently. My Indigenous cooking and Michael’s Canadian cooking are similar in our difference from the general restaurants that serve a four-page menu of every different cuisine. We are more hyper-focused on the ingredients themselves, asking how Canada’s or the Indigenous food system are showcased in that restaurant or experience?”
The word “experience” may be the key distinction between these chefs’ personal cuisines and those of so many others. Joseph’s cuisine is rooted in Indigenous food, whereas Michael’s is focused on hunted, fished and foraged Canadian dishes. In conversation with both, it soon becomes clear that we’re talking about something different. It’s less about specific dishes or techniques than a holistic sensory experience. Both chefs are deeply knowledgeable about Ontario terroir, flora, fauna and foraging, and this knowledge has been earned over time by both. It would be understandable to assume that the type of cuisine they pursue is beyond the reach of regular cooks, but education is a gift both chefs are willing to share without reservation.
“I try and bring as much knowledge and history of what Indigenous food is and what are the stories behind the ingredients,” explains Joseph. “Like how wild rice became a ceremonial food and why we can’t eat berries, like strawberries, at certain times of the year – all of these different teachings and ceremonial rites that are tied into food. I think about how we can honour those ingredients and bring their stories to the general public.”
Joseph has been busy teaching at Centennial College and in the fall, will be teaching a local, sustainable course that’s heavily Indigenous food-involved. His work with Indigenous Culinary Associated Nations (ICAN), a federal not-for-profit, is focused on educating up-and-coming Indigenous chefs interested in working in the Indigenous tourism sector to truly offer an authentic Indigenous culinary experience. As each region, food source and tribe are unique, Joseph and the organization are working in collaboration with Indigenous chefs and leaders from coast to coast to develop a multi-faceted chef education and placement strategy. This strategy will represent and reflect every region and culture as authentically and fully as possible while delivering the true taste of each region. “It’s going to take a lot of work, but we’ll get there. We want to make sure everyone is represented as they should be. We don’t want to put words in each others’ mouths, so to speak. I know the story of The Three Sisters in my region, but the stories they have in Six Nations, which is not too far from Toronto, are completely different. All of our food systems are understood through stories.”
Storytelling and the lore of food are essentials for all who wish to venture off the beaten path. Both chefs are experienced foragers with deep knowledge of the culinary delights hidden away in the wilds of Ontario. They’ve earned this knowledge over many years and are eager and enthusiastic to share it. “When I was a kid, we used to peel back the cedar tree and chew on the white inner membrane of the cedar,” says Joseph. “It was very sweet. Wild licorice is delicious and tastes exactly like the real thing, but you really have to know your plants because wild hemlock looks pretty much identical. And you don’t want to eat that.”
When it comes to fire as the element of cooking itself, Michael lights up. “When you’re sitting around a campfire, you can’t take your eyes off of it and when you’re cooking over a fire, you can’t help help but be completely mesmerized by what’s going on. Cooking outside is a lot slower, unless you’re fire roasting a steak, but for me it’s a much more enjoyable experience. Endorphins are heightened when you’re outside. It’s more of a sensory experience – you can smell the fire and the food, whereas in an oven you can’t see inside; the food is just in there. I think visually seeing the process builds expectation the entire time you’re watching dinner be prepared. It heightens the satisfaction when you actually get to eat it.”
Joseph agrees. “For myself, cooking outside evokes and builds on memories from my childhood. During the summer months, my mom would cook a big meal outside for the whole family. Not just our immediate family, but our aunts, uncles and cousins and her aunts and uncles too. We built a fire pit for her with a steel grate and she would cook everything from her soups, meats and bannock—the whole thing. Now, every time I cook outside, I get a flash of her cooking. It’s a method that we survived on for thousands of years. When you’re outside and you’re cooking and you smell and see the fire and hear the crackling of the wood it really brings back memories. It’s like when people sit and stare into the fire —everyone sees something different, and it’s the same thing with cooking. When you put something in the oven, you just turn on the timer and you walk away and forget about it. Outdoors, it’s the whole mixture of things that can’t be defined. You’re completely actively involved—adding wood to the fire or taking it away. You’re controlling the heat and managing it, every step of the way.”
When you cook outdoors, your body just feels happy,” says Joseph. “It’s like going back to your roots. When I went out to Pokagon, Michigan for an Indigenous food summit, we ate one hundred percent off the land, rendering the whole animal down for cooking fat, tanning the hides, learning how to make tools and different needle points out of the bones—everything. When I was eating the food, it felt like my spirit was truly happy. It was meant for me to consume. I think when you cook outside, it does something to that effect.”
“There is definitely a higher connection when you either grow your own food or you’re out picking mushrooms in the forest or hunting or fishing your own meal,” Michael acknowledges. “I think there are a lot of subconscious emotions that take place that you don’t get when you go to the store and buy your food. I was just showing a picture to somebody the other day and my son caught his first fish all by himself. I was sleeping, he got up early and I told him to go fishing off the dock and I woke up to him screaming “Dad!!!” because he needed help reeling this thing in. He caught this humongous fish all by himself and we ate the fish for dinner that night. It was just this overwhelming feeling of “Wow. I taught my eight-year old son to fish and he provided dinner for the family tonight.” It was an incredible feeling of satisfaction. It was a really weird emotion and a lot of people really miss that connection with their food these days. When you buy food or order takeout, you have zero connection to your food and where it comes from and who made it. It’s a very different experience when you’re part of the growing, foraging, hunting or fishing aspect of it.”
Joseph’s son has been part of their hunting trips since he was an infant, in all seasons. “He knows the whole process of hunting, fishing and foraging and getting our food off the land, letting Mother Nature nourish our bodies when we need her to. He knows what Indigenous food is and he knows where his food comes from. I had to pick up another freezer a few weeks ago because a friend brought over two bear hides for me and we filled that freezer with even more meat. We have moose meat and I have some elk heart in the fridge I want to experiment with.”
While most of us will never have the opportunity to experiment with elk heart, Michael has some simple ideas for those who wish to begin to build their food knowledge. “Start simply by supporting local farmers and producers by making the time to shop local farmer’s markets and source local products and sustainable wild ingredients. For example, I just met a fisherman who fishes Lake Huron and Georgian Bay. He’s actually part of an Indigenous commercial fishery. I would much rather support that company because there’s a greater connection with a person I met at Trinity Bellwoods Park who has a family-run fishery than with a large corporation. Just getting to know your purveyor – the local butcher or the local fishmonger or farmer makes a difference. And, if foraging is intimidating to people, even just growing a small herb garden or a couple of tomato plants will really change the way you look at food. Having grown tomatoes myself every year for a long time, I rarely buy tomatoes from a store, unless it’s a farmer’s market. They taste terrible when they’re picked far away when their green and ripen on a truck. It’s a totally different experience when you grow something yourself.”
When Joseph is on the hunt for pantry ingredients, he likes to head north to Manitoulin Island. “One of the stories we have is that the Creator created everything on Turtle Island first – plants, animals, humans; everything. Then he allocated Manitoulin Island as his own place for himself. That’s why we call it Mnidoo Mnising. You can find a great deal of natural wealth and ingredients. The geography of the island is so different from where we live in Wiikwemkoong where it’s more woodland with evergreens and maples to the more central part of the island where there’s more limestone and it kind of resembles farmers’ fields, and a lot of those are natural fields. Then you head toward the west of the island and it becomes more wooded again; more bush with cedars and evergreens. We have a whole ecosystem on the island so I like to just venture home as much as possible to forage the ingredients I like to use.”
By contrast, Michael grew up north of Toronto in Caledon, Ontario, and is a little saddened to see so many people encroaching on his formerly secret foraging grounds. “Once, I wouldn’t see anyone when I’d go out, but now I see 10 cars there. But truly, anywhere there’s green space, there’s food. Even something as simple as wild sumac or mint growing in the creek or dandelions. Once you’re a little educated and you learn what you can eat, you start to notice it all around you. I found huge Chicken of the Woods mushrooms growing in High Park in Toronto just walking the dog. People don’t even notice or see, and they walk right by. Meanwhile, I’m so excited because there’s like five pounds of these perfectly ripe mushrooms growing on a tree. They get tough and woody as they grow, but these ones were just perfect. I guess the fact no one noticed worked out for me! If you start to learn what’s edible, you’ll start to see it, even in the city.”
When asked if the chefs might prefer to keep this food knowledge under wraps, Michael laughs. “Selfishly yes, but at the same time, I like teaching people and it’s not mine to hoard either. It’s coming from nature and the earth and should be shared with people.”
As avid outdoorspeople and celebrated chefs, we wanted to know their must-have essentials for a minimalist trip into the wilds of Ontario. Laughing, the chefs acknowledged that this is “our dream.” Chef Joseph chose wisely. “I just picked up a good cast iron dutch oven. That would definitely come with me, along with a good axe, a good knife, a tarp and a rod.”
“I’d copy Joseph with a good dutch oven, a nice knife, an axe and some kind of grill or grate to cook on for a nice outdoor set-up,” Michael agrees.
When it comes to spices or flavouring agents, Joseph would find what he needs in the wild. “I would be sufficient just finding what I need. Most of the ingredients I have in my pantry are from the actual wild. I’d need some pine needle ash “salt”, which is just pure pine needle ash that adds a little bit of sulphur. That’s pretty much it.” Michael would miss salt and would prefer to bring equipment over ingredients. “There’s enough in the wild to flavour your food and create interest with. If we had to preserve fish or meat, I’d definitely want salt.”
Michael’s recipe in this Guide features his unbelievable Cheddar Corn Bread with a side of ribs. When asked the difference between regular pork ribs and wild boar, he gets into it. “There was actually a breed of boar that was brought over from Germany and promoted to farm in Canada as an exotic meat in, I think, the 70s. I researched it for my cookbook, The Hunter Chef. The wild boar that are running around are not actually native. They’re released farm animals. When pigs get out from pens, they are feral and self-sufficient, lasting through the winters. They don’t have natural predators. The main difference between the two is their diet. Wild boar meat is more of a dark red than a pink, and their fat is more yellow than white. This specific breed has black fur and big tusks that grow out the side of their snout, whereas domestic pigs don’t have those jaws and teeth. I find the meat has a richer flavour than regular pork, though they’re actually very similar.”
Joseph’s venison and creamed sunchokes recipe features his can’t-do-without pine ash. It may be a new flavour profile for some, but it’s a delicious gateway opportunity to expand your palate and your experience.
Chef Michael admits that of the culinary comforts he reserves room for in his kit, butter is a priority. “Butter makes everything taste better and its shelf stable. I love cheese though too.” Chef Joseph agrees. “Even when you’re short on space, butter weathers the journey well, and is worth the little extra backpack weight.”