The vegans planned their protest for the middle of the restaurant’s busy dinnertime shift.
The group of animal rights activists were incensed that Antler Kitchen & Bar, a locavore restaurant in Toronto that says it highlights regional ingredients, served foie gras and farmed meat “meant to run in the wild.” So a group of them stood in front last week chanting “you’ve got blood on your hands,” and holding a banner that read MURDER in hot pink lettering.
Then came the counterprotest.
Michael Hunter, a chef and co-owner of the restaurant appeared in its window with a raw deer leg and a sharp knife, when he began to carve up the meat in full view of the protesters, some of whom later said they were disturbed for days, according to news reports.
“I figured, I’ll show them,” Hunter told the Globe and Mail. “I’m going to have my own protest.”
The episode, which was captured on video by one of the protesters, has since drawn wide attention from local news outlets and social media. The event page created by the activists for their protest has since been inundated with comments, many harshly critical of their cause.
The chef is an avid hunter, and though he is prohibited by regulations in Ontario from serving the wild meats he eats at home such as deer, duck and wild turkey, the restaurant’s menu leans toward game and foraged foods such as mushrooms.
The dust-up began in December, when an employee at Antler Kitchen & Bar scribbled a slogan on a sandwich board for the restaurant’s exterior: “Venison is the new kale.”
The sign upset Marni Ugar, an animal rights activist who runs a dog-walking business, according to the Globe and Mail. Ugar did some research and said that she took issue with the fact that the restaurant served foie gras, the dish made from the liver of fattened ducks or geese that has long drawn complaints, as well as the impression that people were eating ethical meat there.
“I don’t think there’s any such thing,” she told CTVNews. “It’s very misleading because they’re calling these animals wild animals, the deer and the boar, but they’re actually being farmed. So they’re not living in the wild. They’re just being bred and killed.”
The protests began small at first, and then grew louder and larger, as protesters brought megaphones, the Globe and Mail reported. Walk-in traffic to the restaurant began to suffer.
“I just felt helpless,” Hunter told the Globe and Mail. “It’s hurting our business. I hoped it would fizzle out and go away.”
The restaurant tried to better promote vegan dishes on its menu, like mushroom yakitori and sweet potato gyoza, but the activists were not satisfied.
“The goal always is for a restaurant to go fully vegan,” Ugar told the Globe and Mail. “To reduce the animals they kill, for me, isn’t good enough.”
So last Friday, as the chants of “murderer,” took off outside his business for at least fourth time, Hunter developed a new plan.
“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.”
Video shows him cutting up the leg, slicing the red meat away from the bone, as protesters decry the “recently murdered deer,” and ask police at the protest if what the chef is doing is legal. At one point, the officers enter the restaurant to talk to Hunter.
Toronto police told CTV News that they were called to the restaurant twice but did not issue any charges or tickets.
Despite what Hunter described as some initial relief—“I felt like I had stood up for myself,” he said—he later came to regret the move, saying he feel like he played into the activists’ protest.
Ugar told CTV News that Hunter’s counterprotest had left her feeling “sad for a few days.”
“He wanted to get us back, which I guess is easy to do. We’re only there because we love animals,” she said.
“We were in shock,” she said.
Ugar has offered to reduce the frequency of protests to once a month if the restaurant displays a sign in its window saying “Attention, animals’ lives are their right. Killing them is violent and unjust no matter how it’s done.”
The offer mirrors one made to a butcher shop in Berkeley, California, whose owners agreed to post the sign in a window after four months of protest by an animal rights group.
Hunter has plans to introduce a vegan tasting menu and has invited Ugar to come foraging with him, but she has yet to respond to the offer, the Globe and Mail reported.
He did not respond to a request for comment.
“Our identity as a restaurant is well known throughout the city as is our ethical farming and foraging initiatives,” he wrote in an emailed statement to local media outlets. “We stand by our restaurants identity and the identity of myself as a chef.”
The controversy has apparently attracted at least one potential customer. Comedian Patton Oswalt tweeted:
“Next time I’m in Toronto I’m dining at Antler.”