The first few times the protesters showed up at Michael Hunter’s restaurant, he didn’t engage with them. Three months later, frustrated by chants of “you’re a murderer,” and “you’ve got blood on your hands,” the chef did what he felt was reasonable. He began butchering deer meat in the window.
“I figured, I’ll show them. I’m going to have my own protest.”
The situation, before it became so heated, began with a short, simple message written on a sandwich board.
Antler Kitchen & Bar is a small restaurant on Dundas Street West. Mr. Hunter, a co-owner, is both a hunter and forager. In addition to a pair of antlers that hang from the kitchen window (the first buck Mr. Hunter killed), the restaurant is decorated with photos of wild leeks and morel mushrooms foraged by Mr. Hunter and his business partner, Jody Shapiro.
While the chef feeds his family meat that is almost entirely wild (he hunts deer, duck and wild turkey), these meats cannot be served in Ontario restaurants. Nevertheless, Antler’s menu reflects Mr. Hunter’s opposition to factory farming, and belief in using every part of the animal. The tougher cuts of whole boar are braised, other parts turned into charcuterie, sausage and a terrine made from the head, and the belly is smoked. Pasture-raised venison (deer) is served as a stew with Moroccan spices, house-made tahini and couscous, the roasted rack mounted on top.
The restaurant is friendly with the Federal, a neighbour down the block, and the two businesses use their sidewalk signs to playfully feud, trash-talking each other’s burgers and making food jokes.
One day in December, an employee at Antler picked up the chalk and wrote: “Venison is the new kale.”
“There was no offence meant,” Mr. Hunter said. “I’m not trying to promote a meat diet. I have a lot of respect for the vegan diet because I know how hard it is.”
But offence was taken. The sign caught the attention of Marni Ugar, who already had experience organizing animal-rights protests. Ms. Ugar, who runs a dog-walking business, A Bark in the Park, arranged a demonstration for Dec. 7.
The block has multiple other restaurants. Across the street is a butcher shop. Ms. Ugar says her main reason for picking Antler for her protest is to debunk the myth that raising animals in pastures free from hormones and antibiotics is more ethical than factory farming.
“People feel like they’re doing the right thing by going there. That they’re eating ethical meat,” Ms. Ugar said.
The first event was small and peaceful. Ms. Ugar and a group of six to eight gathered in front of the restaurant on a Thursday night with signs such as “speciesism = discrimination = injustice.” Over the winter, the protests grew larger and louder, activists chanting with megaphones outside the restaurant.
Some customers were amused. Some were upset. After a while, Mr. Hunter realized ignoring the protesters was not working. The restaurant had tried using the sandwich board to promote its vegan dishes: mushroom yakitori, sweet potato gyoza, vegan lumpia. But it didn’t work.
“The goal always is for a restaurant to go fully vegan,” Ms. Ugar said. “To reduce the animals they kill, for me, isn’t good enough.”
Walk-in traffic was down. Attempts to talk to the protesters had failed.
“I’ve left every time they came because it’s so upsetting,” Mr. Hunter said. “I just felt helpless. It’s hurting our business. I hoped it would fizzle out and go away.”
On Friday, March 23, each time the door opened, a shout of “murderer” reverberated through the restaurant. Mr. Hunter decided he’d had enough.
“This is who we are and what we do,” he said. “They’re offending us; I’m going to offend them. So I went and got a deer leg.”
The chef walked to the kitchen and brought back a cutting board, a knife and the hindquarter of a deer. He sanitized the table and then cut up the leg while protesters watched.
“When I was finished, I cleaned the area down and I went back to the kitchen. At the time, I felt like I had stood up for myself,” he said.
To Ms. Ugar, it looked like the chef was unravelling. “He was losing it because we were there disrupting his business.”
Despite the initial satisfaction, Mr. Hunter soon regretted the stunt.
“After, I didn’t feel good about it. I felt like they got to me and I played into them.”
The next day, Mr. Hunter received an e-mail from Ms. Ugar, offering to reduce the frequency of protests to once a month in exchange for an animal-rights sign to be displayed in the window: “Attention, animals’ lives are their right. Killing them is violent and unjust no matter how it’s done.”
Mr. Hunter responded with plans to introduce a vegan tasting menu and an invitation for Ms. Ugar’s group to join him on a foraging trip.
So far, Ms. Ugar has not responded. Although she said she is thinking it over.
“I’d always rather have dialogue. I want to sit down. I’m not targeting him. I’m there to defend animals.”
Ms. Ugar’s efforts have made a change. Since video of the protest and Mr. Hunter butchering the deer leg was posted online, the restaurant has seen a direct impact. Reservation requests are up.