Toronto’s Michael Hunter is the Real Thing
STORY BY DAVID LANSING | PHOTOS BY JODY SHAPIRO
If you were going to make a movie about Michael Hunter, the famed Toronto chef who once butchered a deer carcass in front of his restaurant, Antler, while a group of apoplectic sign-toting vegans pretty much lost their minds, you’d want John Krasinski, formerly of The Office and currently the title character in the Amazon Original spy thriller series Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, to play him. Not only because there is an eerie resemblance (the tousled hair, the casual beard, the penetrating green-blue eyes) but because they both seem rather quiet on the surface but have a lot going on behind their “such-a-nice-guy” façade.
I mean just look at Hunter’s interactions with the fanatical vegan protestors who, for weeks, tried to intimidate any diner who dared cross their picket line to sup on pasta with a wild boar ragu or maybe a medium-rare bison steak. Nobody would have blamed Hunter (and, yes, that is his real name) if he’d marched out in front of his restaurant still wearing his stained camo apron and angrily confronted the odd-ball protestors as they screamed “Murderer!” at him. Instead, he calmly erected a small sandwich board sign on the sidewalk where the protestors gathered with a humorous message chalked on it: “Venison is the new avocado toast.”
You gotta love that.
Here’s the thing that really irritated Hunter about the PETA protestors (who, after several weeks, moved on to other targets): Nobody is more ethical and thoughtful about what it means to eat animals than he is. In fact, it wasn’t until he’d seen a couple of documentaries on factory-farmed animal production that he decided there was something wrong with the way most chefs approached the food they served that made him want to get back to the basics. “It’s funny that Antler is seen by some as a trail-blazing concept when all I am doing is going back to the what we were for hundreds of years: hunter-gatherers.”
I interviewed Hunter over Zoom one Sunday afternoon as he was packing to go on a week-long hunting trip in Mississippi with friends from Mossy Oak (they’re the ones that made his restaurant’s camo aprons), and while he was hoping they might bag a deer or maybe a wild boar, the game wouldn’t end up on his kitchen’s menu, even if they were open, which, because of Covid-19 restrictions they were not. In fact, none of the game meat on Antler’s menu has ever come from the wild. Instead, he sources his venison, bison, wild boar, duck, and other game from small-scale, ethically-raised Canadian game farms. Which is why he finds it ironic that the PETA folks were so irate over his restaurant instead of taking on some fried-chicken chain that uses poultry raised in unimaginably draconian conditions. “I know where my venison comes from,” he says. “I’ve met the farmer. I’ve toured the facilities. I’ve seen how he treats his animals. How many chefs can say that?”
In the introduction to his just-released cookbook, The Hunter Chef Cookbook (thehunterchef.com; $40), Hunter writes, “I am a hunter by name and by nature. And I’m a chef by training. Food is more than a passion for me; it is a way of life. Hunting, fishing, foraging, and cooking fulfill a primal urge. As a professional chef for most of my life, I have always taken pride in being able to hunt what I cook. It seems to me that people have forgotten where their food comes from. Food that is locally sourced or raised in its natural environment is healthier and more nutritious than something that’s been living in a cramped pen for months or is flown halfway around the world before it gets to your table. In contrast, walking into the forest with your family and returning with nourishments that you sourced together and then prepare for your dinner is a beautiful learning experience.”
Hard to argue with that.
But let’s get back to the movie on Michael Hunter that John Krasinski is going to star in. What’s the story? Well, it’s about a kid who goes on a journey to discover who he is and where he comes from. You know, a hero quest. Think Luke Skywalker (without, you know, Darth Vader and all the starships). Our movie begins when a lanky 13-year-old boy rides his hand-built beat-up bike to a little gas station on the edge of a small town in rural Canada and nervously asks the owner for a job pumping gas so he can help supplement his hard-working single-mom’s income. The grizzled owner of the gas station (maybe Harrison Ford?) likes the boy’s pluck. He tells him that while he’s too young to pump gas, maybe he could work as a dishwasher at the greasy spoon across the street, which he also owns.
So the boy gets up before dawn on weekends and rides his bike 30 minutes to the diner where he goes from dishwasher to chief hashbrown flipper. He picks up a few tricks along the way, and a few years later, he’s working at the restaurant at a local golf course grilling steaks and mashing giant vats of potatoes. But deep down he knows there must be more to this whole cooking thing than knowing how to perfectly roast prime rib. And so he quits and moves on. Not yet 18, he meets his Obi-Wan Kenobi, a kindly chef at an elegant country inn, who teaches him about foraging for wild mushrooms, leeks, and watercress, and opens his eyes to fresh, locally sourced ingredients.
“It was my quest for pure ingredients that led me to hunting,” says Hunter. “I wanted to eat food that was untainted by hormones and pesticides and to learn as much as I could about natural food and organic farming. This was the period of my life that cemented who I am today.”
There are more twists and turns in this cinematic fable, of course, but we’ll save those plot developments for the movie. In the meantime you can preview this story by checking out Hunter’s cookbook. And maybe make one of his favorite springtime wild turkey dishes for yourself.
ROASTED WILD TURKEY WITH GOAT CHEESE,
MOREL MUSHROOM, AND WILD LEEK STUFFING
Serves 4 to 6
STUFFED WILD TURKEY
1 cup + 1 Tbsp. unsalted butter, divided
½ cup minced white onion
¼ cup minced celery
½ lb. morel mushrooms, washed, patted dry, and chopped
½ lb. wild leeks, white bulbs separated from green leaves and chopped
4 tsp. minced garlic
1 lb. soft goat cheese, crumbled
3 cups cubed white sourdough or artisanal bread, crusts removed
2 boneless wild turkey breasts (about 1 lb.)
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 tsp. kosher salt freshly ground black pepper
Stuff and cook the turkey.
Preheat the oven to 350°F
In a large saucepan over medium heat, melt 1 cup of the butter. Add the onion, celery, morels, chopped leek bulbs, and garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the goat cheese, leek greens, and cubed bread, and stir to combine. Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature before stuffing the turkey breasts.
Using a boning knife, make a 2-inch cut along the fat end of each turkey breast and push the knife into the center, making a pocket along the inside of the entire breast. Gently fill the breasts with the stuffing.
Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add the olive oil and the remaining 1 Tbsp. butter. Season the turkey breasts all over with salt and pepper and gently sear both sides. Transfer to the oven and cook to an internal temperature of 165°F, 20 to 30 minutes. Let the meat rest for 5 to 10 minutes before slicing.
WILD SPRING VEGETABLES
1 tsp. unsalted butter
1 tsp.olive oil
¼ lb. morel mushrooms, washed, patted dry, and cut in half lengthwise
¼ lb. fiddleheads, washed and drained
1 lb. asparagus spears, trimmed
1 cup freshly shucked green peas
Kosher salt and pepper
Pickled Wild Leeks for garnish
Cook the Wild Spring Vegetables
While the turkey rests, in a large skillet over medium heat, melt the butter with the olive oil. Add the morels, fiddleheads, asparagus, and peas. Season with a pinch each of salt and pepper and cook until the vegetables are tender, 3 to 4 minutes, shaking the pan occasionally to toss the vegetables so they cook evenly. Remove from the heat.
To serve, slice the turkey breasts and divide among plates along with the vegetables.
Morel mushrooms and wild leeks (ramps) grow in hardwood forests in the spring and pair beautifully. Wild leeks take a very long time to grow, about seven years from a seedling to when the plant can produce its own seed, then they take two years to germinate. When foraging for leeks, pick no more than five percent of a patch and try to rotate your picking spots year to year. If you can’t find morels, feel free to use your favorite mushrooms from your grocery store or local market. You can stuff single breasts (as here) or the cavity of a whole bird.