Time to reconsider squirrel meat? Chef Michael Hunter on takeout booze, his cookbook and how the pandemic is expanding our palates
Michael Hunter may win the prize for the chef most prepared to ride out a pandemic. As a passionate hunter, forager and wild game enthusiast, the owner of Antler restaurant has always believed in living off the land. Here, he talks about lockdown, turkey season and how he convinced the government to allow booze to-go.
My sources tell me you’re the guy who convinced the Ontario government to loosen up the restrictions on alcohol takeout and delivery. First off, thank you. And secondly, how did you do it?
I wouldn’t say it was all me. A friend of mine works in government relations so he put me in touch with Ontario’s small business minister Prabmeet Sarkaria to talk about how the government could support restaurant owners. I had a video conference call back in March with the minister and a bunch of other restaurateurs, including Rob Gentile, Grant van Gameren and Scott Vivan.
Did you have to beg? Plead? Promise to sign over your first born?
Ha! No, they were actually really agreeable. Even before Covid-19, Premier Ford ran on a platform of loosening restrictions. I’ve always found it frustrating that it’s easier for a Toronto restaurateur to buy wine from France than from British Columbia. So when the minister asked us what the government could do to help owners, I mentioned allowing alcohol for takeout and delivery. It went into effect only a couple of days after our call—and it made a big difference.
You were in Saudi Arabia when the pandemic hit full-force. What were you doing and what was that like?
I was there cooking at a festival called Winter in Tantora, which is a big outdoor techno party—basically a rave, but without booze and drugs. They were taking Covid very seriously right from the start. When I arrived there in late February, I had to answer a bunch of questions at the airport and there were random roadside stops where they would take your temperature. When I got back to Canada in early March, I was pretty shocked about how lax things were at Pearson.
Ontario restaurants were ordered to shut down in mid-March. What was lockdown like for you?
At the beginning, we were thinking—or at least hoping—that it would take a couple of weeks to flatten the curve, so we shut down completely and sent our staff home. At that point, we weren’t planning to offer takeout. We’re lucky to have an incredibly gracious landlord, who didn’t cash our rent cheques until the government assistance program started. But a few weeks into the lockdown, my business partner and I realized that if we wanted to meet our financial obligations, we didn’t really have a choice—we had to start selling something. We started small with a pop-up, trying to sell the things that don’t freeze well. We did a bison rib eye with creamy polenta and sautéed greens. We’ve also had a lot of success in selling raw meat, marinated and vacuum-sealed with instructions for cooking. I got a lot of emails from customers saying that they had never cooked duck before, and that it was a lot more approachable than they had realized.
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It seems like a lot of people are cooking outside of their comfort zone in Covid times.
Totally. I heard somewhere that Mason jars are selling out because people are doing more canning and preserving. It’s all very much in line with my own beliefs and what we try to do at Antler, which is celebrate our province’s wild game and foraged goods. We don’t serve beef or chicken or pork. Our menu is pretty much what people would be eating in Ontario if the world collapsed and everyone had to hunt their own food.
The world kind of has collapsed. And we’ve seen how things we take for granted—getting food we want from the grocery store—can suddenly disappear. Have you noticed more people taking an interest in hunting?
I think people like the idea of being able to take something into their own hands—and avoid the grocery store lineups! I’ve definitely had a lot more people asking me questions about hunting and how to get started. My advice is—once the program is up and running again—to take the Hunter Safety and Education course, which only takes a weekend and is sometimes paired with a firearms course. It’s a great way to learn the basics and also to meet people, maybe find a hunting mentor.
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Are you accepting mentees?
Not at the moment. My wife and my kids are my only apprentices right now. They were out with me a lot during turkey season, which coincided with the beginning of the pandemic, so we were pretty much quarantining in the wilderness for a while: all around Milton, Caledon, Orangeville, Barrie. My son is still too young to get a minor’s license, but my daughter is sixteen so she’s started hunting with me.
Are you still the best shot in the family?
Ha! My daughter and my wife are both pretty good—we shoot a lot of clay targets at the gun club. I actually didn’t have that much success this year with turkeys, though. I don’t know if it’s bad luck or the fact that I’ve been going back to the same place for a few years now and the turkeys are getting wise to me. Legally every hunter is allowed to purchase two tags—so, two birds—but I only caught one. It’s currently in my freezer along with deer, fish, Canada goose and bear. My kids and I made a delicious bear curry the other day. A lot of what’s happened has been hard and obviously there has been a lot of tragedy, but it’s been great to have so much time at home with my family. We’ve been making bread once or twice a week.
As a small business owner, though, you must be eager to reopen. Antler doesn’t currently have a patio. Any plans to change that?
We’ve reached out to the businesses on either side of us to see if they would be open to sharing their sidewalk space. We’ve filled out all of the applications so we’re just waiting to hear back. Hopefully we get the go-ahead because otherwise we’re pretty screwed.
On the bright side, you just announced your new cookbook, The Hunter Chef. Presumably it’s for hardcore carnivores only?
There are actually some vegetable-based recipes in there, made with ingredients you can forage. There’s one for puffball mushroom carpaccio. There are a few turkey recipes, too. Turkey is really special to me because the first time I realized how superior the flavour of a wild bird is was when I ate wild turkey. There are also some recipes that are pretty accessible from a palate perspective: a moose lasagna, a bear curry. The gamey flavours become a lot less intense when the meat is ground and cooked with other ingredients. You’d think it was beef if you didn’t know better. And then we have some options that are not going to be for everyone—a few squirrel recipes, for example, including a squirrel au vin.
Lemme guess—it doesn’t taste like chicken.
Squirrel is in the rabbit family and the meat is very similar in taste. So actually it does taste like chicken—a really good chicken.