Inside the kitchen of Michael Hunter, the chef and co-owner of Antler
Stocked with swan prosciutto, wild boar and black walnut liqueur
Michael Hunter, the co-owner and chef of the Michelin-recognized game restaurant Antler, took up his trademark alias—the Hunter Chef—almost twenty years ago. He’d been working as a cook since he was 13, moving up from gas station–adjacent greasy spoon to golf course kitchen (think powdered gravy, frozen mash potatoes) and finally to a fine-dining country inn. That’s where he first experienced the joy of making pasta and desserts from scratch. “At that point, I knew I was in deep,” says Hunter.
In 2004, he started in the culinary apprenticeship program at Humber College, which landed him at the Cataract Inn in Caledon. That’s where Hunter—now known for his insistence on locally sourced meat and vegetation—first discovered foraging. “We’d go to the park on our lunch break to pick mushrooms and then bring them back and feature them,” he says. Local chefs taught him how to find morels and other gourmet varietals, like puffballs and chanterelles. Soon, he was bringing them in by the pound.
Around the same time, a family friend took the burgeoning chef turkey hunting, an experience he describes as “mind exploding.” “I didn’t even know turkey could be wild,” says Hunter. “When I tasted the difference between farmed and wild turkey, I swore I would never eat that farmed garbage again.”
And, judging by the shelves of Hunter’s home refrigerator, he’s kept that promise. Like the menu at Antler, there’s a clear proclivity for wild game. Currently, he’s got freshly hunted duck breasts, deli paper–wrapped goose sausages (he traded a buddy a bit of antelope for these), ground moose, a vacuum-sealed loin of wild boar and a whole halibut he caught in BC. “I don’t buy meat,” he says. An adventurous appetite is a must in Hunter’s household, but luckily his wife and one-and-a-half-year-old daughter are game for game.
A glance inside the fridge drawers reveals wild game pepperettes, duck fat caramels, homemade Canada goose jerky (which Hunter slices, marinates, smokes and glazes in homemade maple syrup) and—wait for it—swan prosciutto. “I actually have a whole swan in my freezer in the garage. It’s just waiting to be plucked.”
Hunter isn’t big on meal planning—he mostly improvises based on what he has on hand. “Our freezers are perpetually full of things I’ve caught, plus I always have stock for stews and soups from the animals I’ve harvested.” Recently, for his mom’s birthday, he seared some of the halibut he’d caught and sprinkled it with a bit of caviar. But he does make some slightly less fancy meals too. This week, Hunter is planning to sear off the aging duck breasts, or maybe throw them in one of his three smokers, and use the ground moose for bolognese or meatballs.
Hunter has three standard freezers (two in the basement, one in the kitchen) and a large deep freeze in his garage. The kitchen freezer alone holds black bear, moose, king salmon and wild turkey. “My wife shot the turkey,” he says proudly, “and I’m going to make osso buco with the bear.”
Meat isn’t the only thing revered in Hunter’s home. The chef grows his own vegetables, and even in the late fall his kitchen is stocked with a handful of items plucked from his garden, including an eggplant and some squash. “We still have kale growing back there too,” he says. There’s also a bunch of jalapeno peppers, waiting to be pickled or made into hot sauce. Then they can join the chef’s array of jars, which includes other pickled items (like home-grown leeks soaking in a brine of vinegar, sugar and spices), jams (including a brilliantly blue jar of hand-picked blackberry preserves) and dried foraged mushrooms.
He buys most of his pantry items (organic pasta, extra virgin olive oil, organic cereal) from Costco. Standouts include foraged chaga, citrusy staghorn sumac flower (used for ceviche, vinaigrettes, tea and dessert) and a hot sauce Hunter made by puréeing cayenne and habanero peppers from his garden. “We also preserve our garlic scapes in springtime and bottle our own maple syrup from a tree we tap at a friend’s place in Caledon,” he says.
Hunter’s proclivity for scratch-making means that he rarely eats out. “I’ll basically just go to places where my friends are working.” Right now, those include Casa Paco and Sassafraz, where Hunter used to work.
In keeping with his general ethos, Hunter’s collection of handcrafted, high-carbon Japanese knives came straight from the source. “I bought many of these when I was in Japan, in what’s known as ‘kitchen town’ or Kappabashi.” Each knife has a purpose, including one for filleting, one for “crunching bone” and another specifically for cleaning salmon.
The chef’s liquor cabinet is the only indication that he gets any downtime, though much of its contents are also homemade. The black walnut liqueur (marked “Nocino”) was whipped up out of vodka that Hunter infused with black walnuts, coffee beans, spices and maple syrup. “My neighbour hates her black walnut tree because the nuts fall down and make a mess,” he says, “so I pick them for her in July, when the shells are soft enough to cut through.”
Hunter and his business partner Jody Shapiro are also about to launch their own gin (called Antler Cedar Gin) through the Junction’s Nickel 9 Distillery—they’re aiming to have it out in time for Christmas. For now, Hunter is also holding on to a batched bottle of rum that he’s infused with apples. He’s hoping to eventually produce his own version of Nickel 9’s apple rum. Most of the time, though, he opts to sip on bourbon or scotch.
And while Hunter likes his cookbooks like his alcohol—classic and layered—you won’t catch him drinking when he’s studying his field mushroom guide. “I’ve never made a mistake when I’ve foraged,” he says, “and I sure don’t plan to start now.”