Food & Drink

Antler’s Michael Hunter explains why he only uses wild meat at his Toronto restaurant

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Amidst heavy downtown traffic and the bright lights of the city, one Toronto chef is bringing people back to nature with his foraged fruits and hunted game.

In the West end of Toronto, tucked between a Thai restaurant and a pizza joint, Antler Kitchen and Bar is serving something you won’t find at most local restaurants. Chef Michael Hunter, appropriately dubbed “The Hunter Chef,” brings Canadians back to their roots at his rustic style eatery and menu full of wild game.

This Friday, you can catch Hunter at Tastemaker, a culinary event hosting some of the cities best chefs. Hunter will team up with Chef Vikram Vij, owner of Vij’s, for an unlikely collaboration of Canadian game and Indian spices. Guests can expect new and unique combinations including venison paired with scented basmati rice and sumac chutney. The event is on all weekend at Evergreen Brickworks and tickets can be purchased online. Each day offers a different chef pairing and an exclusive menu.

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Antler interior

Raised on seasonal

Duck, foie gras, boar and pheasant are all regulars on Hunter’s menu, but the dishes rotate depending on what’s in season. “This morning, actually, I just went foraging for wild leeks and wild ginger,” Hunter says, dropping hints about this week’s menu.

That’s how Hunter was raised. Finding what’s in season and incorporating it into his food. “I grew up on a horse farm in the country, and that’s really the connection I have with nature.” Ontario law prohibit Hunter from serving hunted meat at his restaurant, but that’s still the way he eats at home. “I actually just took my son turkey hunting on Saturday. We got a turkey,” he adds. 

For his restaurant, Hunter sources wild game from farms: “We have a deer farm, a duck farm, and a rabbit farm,” he says. But the farms Hunter speaks of aren’t like the ones most Ontario restaurants get their chicken and beef from. These are game farms, which means they’re much smaller, and according to Hunter, more humane. “I just find the animals are treated much better on a smaller scale farm,” Hunter explains. “And there’s also a big difference from a flavour standpoint.”

Bringing the wild to the table

Hunter started writing a hunting and foraging cookbook a few years ago with Toronto film producer and now co-owner, Jody Shapiro. The cookbook is still in the works (set to be released in 2020), but perhaps the real gem that emerged from the partnership was Antler. The unlikely duo opened their doors in fall of 2015 to a crowd of Canadians eager to try their wide range of game.

“I think we have the most meat options in one place,” says Hunter. “I find people are usually excited to try new things,” he says, suggesting that restaurant newcomers explore the menu and try something different. Antler faced backlash earlier this year when a group of vegan protesters planted themselves outside his window and demanded he stops butchering animals. But Hunter doesn’t see himself, or Antler, as being anti-vegan. “There’s something for everyone at the restaurant,” Hunter says. Even if you don’t eat meat.

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Antler game burger. Photo courtesy of Antler Kitchen and Bar.

To get a taste of Hunter’s foraged plants, try the wild mushroom tarte tatin with caramelized onions, foraged mushrooms and sorrel pesto. For pasta, opt for the chestnut gnocchi with celery root purée, roasted squash, Brussels sprouts, almond brittle, and sage. But if you’re game for game, this is the place to order it. Their game burger is a beautiful blend of wild boar, bison, and deer and topped with a duck egg aioli, hot mustard and house smoked cheddar. For an extra luxurious bite, add foie gras to the already decadent burger. Antler’s menu is dedicated to nature through and through; even the drinks and desserts are foraged.

Signature cocktails include a dark and stormy made with rum-infused with wild ginger and a foraged cedar sour made with cedar infused gin. For dessert, try maple toffee pudding with wild ginger ice cream and a salted maple caramel. 

An Antler signature cocktail.

Connecting with nature

From the menu to the décor, it’s all about getting back to your roots. The birch tiles, the exposed brick, and of course, the deer antlers hanging off the wall. It all complements Hunter’s food as well as his own foraging photography, which lines the walls. Seeing the images reminds guests of where their food comes from. And it reinforces the restaurant’s values as well as the values associated with hunting and foraging, which is important to Hunter because many people don’t understand what it’s all about.

“I think what a lot of people don’t know it’s illegal to trophy hunt in most parts of the world.” And that’s not what Hunter does in his private or professional life. “Hunters are conservationalists,” he says. They pay for permits which go back into wildlife conservation. “The biggest misconception is that people assume we hunt for fun and sport when really, it’s for food.”

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Hunter and Vij’s grilled lamb