A cookbook that features recipes such as a Game Burger made with Ontario Smoked Cheddar Cheese, and a Venison Bresaola Pizza topped with fresh, local Parmesan is available on the shelf!
On the shelf, Chef Michael Hunter’s cookbook, The Hunter Chef Cookbook – Hunt, Fish, and Forage in Over 100 Recipes, has the look of gravity and permanence – the kind of cookbook filled with seminal knowledge destined to endure beyond the annual new release cycle. Part cookbook, part handbook, part memoir, The Hunter Chef is an eclectic volume that collects and conveys Hunter’s true and honest passion for the great outdoors, bound together in the simplicity and authority of an all-black board and cloth cover.
A simple browse through the menu serves a range of culinary possibilities most of us would consider unusual, from Moose Lasagna to Apple Tarte Tatin with Wild Ginger Ice Cream and Pine Needle Broth with Wild Mushrooms. “It's not just a hunting book and it's not just about wild game.” says Hunter. “I watched the movie Food Inc. and was horrified by factory farming, antibiotics...all these factors around the health of animals and the health of people. That inspired me to have an organic vegetable garden at home. I started working with wild vegetables like leeks and started foraging, making maple syrup and kind of living off the land. Everyone I spoke to about it was really fascinated and wanted me to teach them. It's nothing new —in fact, it's really old. We've forgotten how to relate to food. Our culture has moved away from that. We can get anything at any time in the grocery store, whether it's good for you or not. Through his cuisine, the chef wanted to focus on local food, on the joy and importance of self-sustenance, maintaining a garden, supporting local farmers and shopping at local farmers markets. “It's also about taste. Eating a tomato that's ripened in the sun and has never been refrigerated just tastes so much better.”
The book serves as a kind of reflection of the man himself: experienced, confident in his craft and a little mysterious.
Hunter catapulted to a peculiar fame in 2018 when he famously butchered a deer leg and ate part of it in the window of his Dundas West restaurant, Antler Kitchen and Bar, an act of frustration after months of protests outside his establishment from animal rights activists for his game-focused menu.
While Antler’s game is sourced from Ontario farms as per provincial regulations, the incident may have set the chef’s reputation as an unapologetic hunter-gatherer, though it is not the whole story.
Chef Michael is a quiet person – not the showman he’s sometimes assumed to be. In spite of his curiously apt surname, his cuisine was not inherited, but explored and earned over time and experience. “I ate wild turkey for the first time and couldn't believe the flavour difference compared with what I grew up eating at Christmas and Thanksgiving. Once you eat wild meat you can't go back—you keep chasing the high.” Hunter laughs. “Visually, the meat is darker; the ‘white’ meat is actually dark pink and the dark is almost purple. The skin can be a cream colour to a dark yellow, and texturally it's a bit tougher. Brining the meat or a slow oven roast or smoking the meat really helps tenderize it. More flavour, richer flavour. My mom ate wild turkey and said "This doesn't taste like turkey. The same is true of all wild animals; the diet, habits and terroir influence the food. “A deer in the wild eating cedar and nuts and grains tastes different then farmed animals that typically have a static flavour and texture.”
Hunter addresses the debate directly, and his respect for food and zero-waste principles is evident. “For meat eaters who have never killed an animal, I don't think they have the right to judge hunters. People would not waste food if they were the ones who had to kill that animal. You need to have a connection with what you are eating. Because I hunt, and I cook, I actually eat less meat and I use the hide, the bones to make stock.”
Growing up on a horse farm near Caledon and, as many of us do, finding himself a little lost in adolescence, Michael discovered cooking through a random job at a local gas station.
“The owner needed help in the kitchen, not pumping gas.” says Hunter. “I worked in the diner doing dishes, operating the fryer, working the grill. I really liked it. From there I went to a golf course and worked throughout high school. When it closed in the winter I got a job at a small, continental fine dining restaurant - mostly French - using local Canadian products and that’s where I really fell in love with food. We made everything in house, loved learning about preservation and how people used to eat. I just loved all that stuff. I remembered when I was a kid going to other people's houses and they had jars of pickled beets - we didn't have that stuff at home. I had my daughter when I was 19, I had all this experience cooking so I felt I was a little bit ahead. I went to chef school and I credit my daughter for my success.”
After graduating with honours from the Humber College Apprenticeship Chef program and earning his Red Seal, Hunter went on to work in some of Canada’s top kitchens alongside some of Canada’s best chefs, but as his experience grew he felt an increasing desire to express his own cuisine. “I never really gave much thought to owning my own business. Both my parents are entrepreneurs so its not shocking I went that route. As a chef it's challenging to work with someone who doesn't share your vision. I really enjoyed apprenticing with other chefs, but what I was passionate about and the things I wanted to serve weren't getting on the menu. I was fed up being told no, so I got my own place.”
Hunter’s original work on the cookbook began about a decade ago and was actually the genesis of Antler Kitchen and Bar, a project spurred forward by the addition of business partner, photographer and documentary film maker Jody Shapiro, whose photography is seen throughout the book.
Once Antler was successfully launched, the pair turned their attention back to the book. While initially the subject matter had been met with some trepidation by publishers, over time the potential of the cookbook caught up with public interest in the origins of food and ‘truth on the plate’. “I remember working in restaurants where if you served a fish with the head on people would freak out.” Hunter recalls wryly. “Now, people are more accepting. I think because of social media or the internet, there's definitely been a change of attitude as to what's acceptable to serve and what's not. Maybe people are just more interested in learning. People don't need to see a portioned filet on their plate and pretend it's not an animal. Toronto’s Chinatown is a perfect example. You walk down the street and there's a whole pig and roasted ducks in the window. It's amazing. I wrote the book as general education for people who care about food.”
The Hunter Chef includes over 100 original recipes, along with short essays and tutorials on hunting and foraging. For the curious but as-yet uninitiated into the world of wild game cuisine, Hunter recommends starting with a visit to the local butcher to learn more about and procure ethically raised and sustainably farmed game cuts. “The Roast Duck with Maple Baked Beans and Grits recipe is great. Hunter recommends, “It's almost like cooking a steak. Really approachable. Many of the recipes in the book are things you'd already make at home, but with the addition of new meats, vegetables and flavours.”
Hunter’s personal favourite is the Roast Venison Rack and Neck Ragout with Spice Ash and Parsnip Purée, which features elements of the whole animal on the plate. “The ragu uses neck and shank meat and the French rack uses the primal cuts. A big part of the book was to educate hunters on how to use the less common cuts and parts of the animal. I wanted to show people they can make really delicious food with the legs, neck, etc.”
Our manifesto is about regional Canadian cuisine, promoting farmers and fishermen from the east to west coast, and inspiring people to try wild game.” Says Hunter. “We welcome everyone interested in food and where it comes from, and we do have vegetarian dishes on the menu. I still get a lot of "Oh you're the anti-vegan person." Not at all. I respect vegans because it's really hard to do. I have a lot of respect for other people's diets. All are welcome, it's a challenge for us to cook for others and we welcome everyone in our home.”
Michael’s cookbook is available at all major booksellers and through his website The Hunter Chef.
We also encourage you to check out Michael’s delectable Wild Mushroom Tart recipe made with foraged mushrooms, and delicious local dairy, a recipe packed full of Ontario’s bounty.