Canadian chef, outdoorsman and author Michael Hunter takes his love for sourcing wild game and foraging wild ingredients and illustrates it in each recipe in his first book, “The Hunter Chef Cookbook: Hunt, Fish, and Forage in Over 100 Recipes.” Utilizing all of nature’s ingredients available outside our backdoors, be it wild mushrooms or wild turkeys, Hunter demonstrates his passion for the outdoors through classic and aspirational dishes alike.
We chatted with Hunter about getting his start in the outdoors, being involved with the good folks at Mossy Oak, turkey populations in Canada, vegans protesting his restaurant, introducing people to the outdoors through cuisine and much more.
Read below for the interview with Hunter, followed by a delicious recipe from his new cook book.
NWTF: When did you first get your start in hunting and the outdoors?
Michael: I grew up on a horse farm. My mom was of English background, so I actually got the introduction into hunting through fox hunting with hounds on horseback. It wasn't until I was about 18 that I went hunting with the huntsmen of the hounds. He told me he was going turkey hunting, and I kind of did a doubletake and said 'what? I thought turkeys were just farmed.'
Wild turkeys were extinct in Canada at that time, at least where I lived, and they were actually reintroduced. The numbers weren't very high when I started turkey hunting. You had to take a special turkey course just to get a turkey hunting license. Even then, when you harvested your bird, you had to take it to a weigh station and have it recorded. I thought that was kind of neat.
So we went out hunting for my first time, and it is still probably one of the best turkey hunts I've ever experienced. We had a lot of birds: a tom, a couple jakes and a couple hens, and it was just one of those magical mornings where everything comes together. From that moment on I was hooked.
It was really the flavor of the wild turkey that blew me away. Even my mom was like, this doesn't even taste like turkey.' My friend the huntsmen said 'No, that s**t in the grocery store doesn't taste like turkey; this is how turkey is supposed to taste.’ [laughs]
At the time I was in chef's school so it really cemented the fact for me that this is real food. I had seen a documentary that had a huge impact on me. It was talking about factory farming and the horrors about what was going on in the food industry that people didn’t know about. I was wanting to eat a healthier diet, and that’s when I really just wanted to get into hunting for my food.
NWTF: That’s incredible that your first experience hunting was a successful turkey hunt. That probably set the bar high?
Michael: [laughs] So many times I take my kids out, and it's not that experience like my first hunt. We are lucky if we hear a gobble, but it's nice when it does all come together.
NWTF: Turkey populations have really grown in Canada. As a Canadian hunter who started when there weren't that many turkeys to now, can you speak to how the experience has changed over time?
Michael: Our population numbers are just soaring. They are steadily climbing. It's quite common to see flocks of 20 or 30 in the field when you’re driving in some areas. Before, about 10 or 15 years ago, you'd see one or two. So, the numbers have really increased. Where I live in Ontario, they have introduced a fall season. And I believe you are allowed to harvest two birds in the spring and in the fall. I actually have not taken advantage of a fall season yet because it usually falls around archery deer season, so I’m usually chasing deer at that point.
NWTF: You've done some hunting in the States. What is your most memorable hunt here?
Michael: You know, I'm really blessed to be friends with the Mossy Oak family, so they’ve had me down, and I can’t believe the amount of deer in the state of Mississippi. They have four or five times the amount of deer in their state than we do in our entire province. [laughs] It's just wild. I've shot a few deer now at the Mossy Oak family ranch, and it was a pretty amazing experience to just go down to see the amount of deer and hunt with those guys. They are legends, but they treat you like family.
NWTF: Mossy Oak is the official camouflage of the NWTF and one of its biggest supporters. How did you get involved with the good folks over at Mossy Oak?
Michael: So I started hunting when I was 18, and, like most kids at that age, we don't have a lot of money. One of the first camos that I bought was this Mossy Oak coverall jumpsuit that I still wear today. It fits over all my clothes, so I'd put that on going hunting in the morning and then take it off and go in to work. When I was working on the concept of Hunter Chef, I was looking everywhere to get a camouflage apron and they just didn't exist outside of army camo, and I found a guy to make me one, so I sent him patterns of what I was looking for, and he ended up matching my Mossy Oak coveralls by fluke with the Mossy Oak Break-Up pattern. I was just so excited.
I just tagged them [Mossy Oak] in some social media posts, and I was doing these events for the restaurant, and I think I got [Mossy Oak New Media Manager] Daniel [Haas]’s attention, and he reached out to me one day and said, “Do you want to come down one day and maybe do some filming and hunting with us,” and I was blown away, so that’s how it all started.
NWTF: It’s got to be a great feeling when you already support a company, and they see your work and invite you to be a part of what they are doing?
Michael: I know. It was just wild. When I got there, I never felt so at home. I live in a city where 90% of the population doesn’t hunt or partake in the outdoors, and then to go visit them, you know? I said, “I found my people.” [laughs]
NWTF: You've had an interest in food and cuisine from an early age, so at what point did cooking and hunting sort of coalesce?
Michael: It was really around my first turkey hunt. I was really driven by finding the best ingredients. Once I had tasted wild food, there was no going back. It's the way that food is supposed to taste. All the other stuff just doesn't compare.
NWTF: I want to shift gears a little bit, for those that are not familiar with your restaurant, could you give a brief overview of the concept of Antler and the types of cuisine you focus on?
Michael: I just wanted to focus on promoting Canadian cuisine, which doesn’t really exist [laughs]. You know we are such a young country; we are very much like the States in a lot of ways. We just have a melting pot of cultures here which is a great thing for dining in. There are all types of really authentic types of restaurants, but Canadian cuisine is something that doesn't really exist, but that I was passionate about, so I just wanted to focus on all the wildly sourced foods you could get from Canada.
All of our fish is wildly sourced. We have three costs. We can take advantage of the Arctic Ocean, Pacific and Atlantic. So we made the decision that we were only going to source wild, sustainable fish. I wanted to promote the wild mushrooms, leeks and other kinds of wild plants that we could forage ourselves. Because of our laws, we can't sell wild meat, but the next best thing is farmed game, and we are able to source mainly all Ontario local game farms. We want to keep it Canadian and help out our farmers and economy as much as possible.
NWTF: At the NWTF, we really put an emphasis on recruiting new hunters because hunting pays for conservation. With the decline of hunters across both the States and Canada, with the concept of Antler, are you hoping to spark more interest in hunting wild game?
Michael: Absolutely. And that’s really the reason why I wrote the cookbook. All my family and friends were sort of fascinated with what I was doing, and it’s just kind of funny to me because it is something that is pretty old [laughs]. People have forgotten where their food comes from, and it's really fun for me because, like the Mossy Oak tag line, it's an obsession. I want to share that with people: hunting, fishing and foraging and just getting outdoors.
NWTF: For those that don't know, do you mind informing our readers about the squabble that happened outside of your restaurant a few years back?
Michael: Yeah of course. We, unfortunately, upset some people with a chalkboard sign. We wrote "Venison is the new Kale," promoting our venison dish. Funny enough, somebody took offense to it, as people do these days, and decided to show up and start protesting our restaurant. It was really baffling to me because, you know, we support foraging, and we had a couple vegetarian and vegan dishes on the menu. You know, we welcome everybody at our restaurant. We don't care if you eat a Kosher diet or a Halal diet. We will figure something out and welcome you and make sure you have something to eat while you’re with us.
So it was really bizarre to me about what was happening. We tried to reason with them over emails a couple times, and they just wanted us to basically change our whole restaurant. We just kept doing what we do, and I think it was after three or four months that I just got pretty upset: I saw a customer come into the restaurant, and they were being yelled at by these people and being called "murderer" and things like that. I just had enough, and we got our deer delivery that day from a farmer that drops off whole animals, so I went downstairs and took off the back leg of a deer and brought up a deer and started deboning a leg in front of them as my counter protest [laughs].
NWTF: There are countless stories of vegans becoming hunters after learning how sustainable and ethical hunting is and the immense impact hunters have on conservation. Does part of you wish you handled the situation a little differently that was more welcoming?
Michael: We tried everything. We sent them an email asking them to come sit down and have a conversation. We even offered to take the foraging with us to talk about nature, and they declined, so you know I have no regret with what we did .
NWTF: Let us hear about your new cook book coming out. Does it add a twist to classic game dishes, or does it deviate from the norm completely?
Michael: There's a whole bunch. You know there's a chili recipe, a burger recipe and a pasta sauce, but then there’s some fun stuff, like a stuffed turkey breast with morels and goat cheese. There's a turkey dish with some of the stuff people tend to forget about, so there’s a turkey dish with turkey heart, gizzard and liver, which is kind of fun. So there's sort of the classics reinvented and then some of the aspirational stuff for people to try.
NWTF: Lastly, if you had to pick a recipe from your cookbook for someone who says wild game is too "gamey," which one would you recommend?
Michael: I think when people talk about "gamey" meat, it's just not being cooked properly. So things like a pasta sauce. There's a Bolognese recipe in the book, or [something] like lasagna. I think when the game meat is braised, I think it really softens any "gamey" flavor, so that would be my recommendation to somebody who wants to try game for the first time but is worried about a "gamey" flavor.
The other thing is, if the meat is overcooked, I think it has a chance to dry out and it then takes on a really livery taste. I think that there’s a misconception that game has to be overcooked, when its totally fine and safe to eat medium or medium rare.
To learn more about Michael Hunter and to preorder his cookbook, visit thehunterchef.com.
Roasted Wild Turkey with Goat Cheese, Morel Mushroom and Wild Leek Stuffing:
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 seedling to when the plant can produce its own seed, then takes 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
Serves Four to Six
Stuffed Wild Turkey Ingredients:
- 1 cup (250 mL) + 1 tablespoon (15 mL) unsalted butter, divided
- ½ cup (125 mL) minced white onion
- ¼ cup (60 mL) minced celery
- ½ pound (225 g) morel mushrooms, washed, patted dry and chopped
- ½ pound (225g) wild leeks, white bulbs separated from green leaves and chopped
- 4 teaspoons (20mL) minced garlic
- 1 pound (450 g) soft goat cheese crumbled
- 3 cups (750 mL) cubed white sourdough or artisanal bread, crusts removed
- 2 boneless wild turkey breasts (about 1 pound (450 g) each
- 1 tablespoon (15 mL) olive oil
- 1 teaspoon (5mL)
- Freshly ground black pepper
Wild Spring Vegetables Ingredients:
- 1 teaspoon (5mL) unsalted butter
- 1 teaspoon (5mL) olive oil
- ¼ pound (115 g) morel mushrooms, washed, patted dry and cut in half lengthwise
- ¼ pound (115 g) fiddleheads washed and drained
- 1 pound (450 g) asparagus spears, trimmed
- 1 cup (250 mL) freshly shucked green peas
- Kosher salt and pepper
Pickled wild leeks for garnish (recipe in page 230 of the Hunter Chef)
Stuff and Cook the Turkey
Preheat oven to 350 F (180 C)
In a large saucepan over medium heat, melt 1 cup (250 mL) of the butter. Add 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 (5cm) cut along the fat end of each turkey breast and push the knife into the centre, 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 tablespoon (15 mL) 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 (74 C), 20 to 30 minutes. Let the meat rest for 5 to 10 minutes before slicing.
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 heat.
To serve, slice the turkey breasts and divide among plates along with the vegetables. Garnish with pickled wild leeks.