Breaking Bread with Michael Hunter
A name has never been quite so fitting as Michael Hunter’s – considering his intense passion for foraging and hunting wild game. From growing up on a Caledon horse farm and hunting with his family, this Toronto-born chef believes that everyone should have the option to access truly wild, organic meat in a sustainable way. Michael’s passion also stems from working in the restaurant business since the age of 13, where he has developed his love for authentic Canadian cuisine. Michael left his last position as Executive Chef at Reds Wine Tavern to pursue opening his own restaurant in Toronto aptly named Antler. Set to open in late October, Antler will stay true to its rural roots by providing local, farm-fresh Canadian cuisine with a wild twist. You can expect to see game including venison, wild boar and bison on the menu, along with foraged ingredients hand-picked from the countryside by Michael himself. Michael Hunter is featured in our next edition of Breaking Bread – a charismatic chef whose mission is to make Toronto diners fall in love with local Canadian cuisine.
Describe your cooking style in one word.
“Wild.” My culinary influences come from nature. I was raised on a horse farm and remember eating wild leeks out of the forest floor at a very young age. I’m inspired by the seasons and what I find when foraging and hunting. Food simply tastes better when it is freshly harvested because it’s growing in its natural habitat. I am and always have been a strong, vocal advocate for wild game, conservation and hunting. Animals should be free to roam and free from cramped pens. This means they are healthier for us because wild game is therefore free from growth hormones and unnecessary antibiotics.
What food is your guilty pleasure?
Dark Chocolate. I spent a few years in the pastry kitchen, resulting in a glutinous desire for sweets. Dark chocolate is my go-to. I love the bittersweet nutty flavour.
What do you think is the most overrated ingredient? Underrated ingredient?
Overrated: Micro greens seem to have become the trend for garnishing everything, with little thought to flavour simply because it’s an easy way to make things look pretty.
Underrated: Offals (aka organ meat) are some of my favourite meals. They are incredibly healthy to eat and very cost effective if you are on a budget. Some consider it “peasant food” and some consider offal as a delicacy. I love to utilize every part of the animal. When I harvest a deer, the best part is the heart. Either pan fried or raw as a tartar.
What’s the one kitchen tool you can’t live without (excluding a knife)?
That’s an easy one – A good blender for vegetable purées. Working for Scott Conant at Scarpetta really influenced my cooking style with the use of purées. Scarpetta translates to “little shoe” in Italian, meaning a little shoe-shaped piece of bread to scoop up the remaining sauce on a plate. I love pairing food with a seasonal vegetable purée for an added depth of flavour and texture on a plate. I hope to deliver this depth and flavour every day to patrons who visit us at Antler.
Describe the craziest thing you’ve ever seen happen in a kitchen?
Oh there’s a few, but a huge deep fryer being on fire was up there in the top 5. I accidently caused it when I was 14 years old working at a golf course. I was the opening breakfast cook and sleepily turned on all the equipment at 6am before going to get changed. I was interrupted when the server was screaming “fire!” The deep fryer had been left dirty and the oil low. The deep fryer was an old school model with an electric element inside the oil, and the entire piece of equipment went up in 5 foot flames!
Where is the one place in the world you want to travel to for the food?
For me, France is the Mecca of the culinary world. The mother of my children is of French and Italian decent. Some of the best meals I’ve ever had came from her families that live in Montreal. I’ve already explored Italy, so France is next.
Who’s the one person, dead or alive, you would love to cook a meal for?
Daniel Boulud is one of those role models you have, but have never met. In the early days of my career I read his book Letters to a Young Chef, and he became a huge inspiration for me. His cooking style of using the seasonal ingredients surrounding his home is a part of inspiration for my foraging and hunting. I only hope that the food we serve at Antler inspires people to try new foods and fall in love again with Canadian cuisine.
Who’s the bread to your butter?
The relationship between everyone in the kitchen is important, but especially for me it’s my Sous Chef. I think you are only as good as your team. I’m one of those artistic types that can be disorganized. My Sous Chef is my right arm, keeping me organized and being a second set of watchful eyes. I could not be more proud of the team that my business partner Jody Shapiro and I have assembled at Antler, because we know trust is critical and communication is vital.