Antoni Porowski has entranced audiences with his role as food expert on breakout Netflix hit Queer Eye. He tells Stylist.co.uk why food is a key ingredient to happiness…
Time can be measured in BQE and AQE: Before Queer Eye and After Queer Eye. Before a reboot of a beloved reality TV show performed a sparkling 2018 makeover on what the word ‘makeover’ could actually mean. Before a global audience realised that the short-sleeved shirt and blazer combo works on basically everyone. Before ‘hunty’ was a phrase understood by the heterosexual community en masse. Before we truly knew the power of an avocado.
Queer Eye – as it’s now known, having dropped the original suffix that would have restricted the show to only assisting straight men – became a breakout hit on Netflix earlier this year, after word-of-mouth helped spread the gospel of a makeover show that didn’t focus solely on aesthetics.
The reboot’s mantra was revealed in the first episode of series one, when grooming expert Jonathan Van Ness looked Tom Jackson – a self-described “ugly redneck” – in the eye and told him that true beauty comes from within. It was unorthodox for a format that has traditionally taught people that a new haircut can fix all ills, but it proved to be exactly what the world needed.
The (extremely handsome) face that launched a thousand avocado jokes is that of 33-year-old Antoni Porowski, one-fifth of the group we’ve come to collectively know and worship as the ‘Fab Five’. Alongside Van Ness (grooming), Tan France (fashion), Bobby Berk (designer and miracle worker) and Karamo Brown (culture), Porowski travels the US state of Georgia, helping those to rediscover the lost pep in their step.
A Polish-Canadian former actor with a degree in psychology – which explains those impeccable listening skills – Porowski is responsible for helping the subjects of Queer Eye in the kitchen, charged with the ‘food and wine’ portion of the show. Since the first season of the series dropped, he’s faced questions over his culinary skills due to the simplicity of his dishes, including a grilled cheese sandwich and the infamous avocado salad.
But Porowski tells Stylist.co.uk that the (very) basic levels of cooking seen on the show are mostly a result of editing, since anything complex would take up too much time (see also – or rather, don’t – Bobby Berk’s off-screen house transformations).
There’s also the fact that many of the Queer Eye subjects aren’t well-acquainted with the kitchen. As a result, a range of basic skills serve them far better than learning to make one fancy dish.
Talking with Porowski reveals a gifted and passionate chef whose love of food informs all aspects of his life. He says that food helped him woo his boyfriend of seven years, actor Joey Krietemeyer, and also kept him afloat throughout his troubled college years (he began using substances after his psychology degree forced him to confront difficult aspects of his upbringing). The kitchen is Porowski’s safe space.
It’s also where he conducts many of the impromptu therapy sessions seen in Queer Eye – including an emotional chat with religious community leader Tammye that will undoubtedly provoke the first tears for audiences tuning in for season two.
The new series, although filmed at the same time as the first, also sees Porowski develop his role further. He asks mentees to teach him their recipes instead of imparting knowledge and cooks alongside them. He’s a human kitchen aid, shoulder to cry on and puppy-eyed pin-up all in one.
Stylist.co.uk sat down with the nakedly open chef to find out why food is so important for the soul…
Why is it so important to take time to cook for yourself, even when alone?
I just thought about JVN [Jonathan Van Ness]. He’s all about self-care and the virtues of face masks and little eye pads that depuff in the morning. I think the same goes for learning how to make a nice omelette for dinner with spinach and a bit of goat’s cheese. However simple it may be, this is a moment you can take for yourself. It’s like drawing a bath, listening to Adele and burning a beautiful candle. Something very personal you get to make for yourself.
How does food play a role in our identity?
I think it ties us closest to who were are and where we come from. If you don’t have an understanding of that, it’s hard to move forward and develop as a human. It especially ties to me to my background. I was a very picky eater, a huge brat and I hated Polish food. As a kid it’s not cool to like where you come from. Polish was my first language and I was ashamed of it. I didn’t like my name because it was so uncommon. I didn’t want to play piano because my parents made me do it – for generations we’ve had pianists in the family.
As I grow up, all these things are so much more interesting to me. I’ve fallen in love with Polish food; I’m learning to cook a hunter’s stew called bigos that’s all about flavour development using raw cabbage, sauerkraut and all these different meats. I’m glad I have that foundation that I can go back to.
Food culture can be overwhelming; how can it become more accessible to people?
It’s finding the personal little switch, the emotional attachment that can tap into the broader spectrum of what it means to create that dish and make it a little less scary.
For example, if I was working with you, I would find out what your tastes were. You said you have a sweet tooth and love lemon curd so I would say let’s look at something simple like a lemon tart and learn how to make shortbread. It’s all about that little snap.
What was your snap?
[Laughs] I think my first snap was in the winter. My parents were going to a ball and they were getting dressed; my father had this beautiful black that he looked so sharp in. They were cooking oeuvres for people and they served something with demiglass which are veal bones, charred and slowly cooked down, with a velvety rich dark sauce that’s super flavourful. You’re only supposed to have a little bit of it but I would just go to the pot and take spoonfuls.
I think that for me was like ah, food can be so naughty and decadent. There’s an Anthony Bourdain quote [that says something] like “Your body is not a temple, it’s a playground.” And that’s what that [moment] was for me.
In terms of your personal cooking journey, when did you start to teach yourself?
In my relationships. The first night my boyfriend and I met, he wasn’t that into me. I wanted to see him again so the following night I threw myself into his life and made him a beer-can chicken, which is where you take a can of beer and let the chicken sit on it while you roast it so the beer evaporates. And I did a chilli rub over it.
I wanted to do a really good meal so he knew what it tasted like and what life with me could be like. I’m crazy. But I knew I was in love and from the first day, that’s always how I’ve been. I was like, I’m going to make myself unforgettable to you and the way I do that is with food.
In the new series, you’ve swapped from simply teaching to cooking with people. What was behind that decision?
The episodes were actually filmed in succession, so we had season one and two done at the same time but couldn’t talk about it. I’m the worst at secrets so it’s a shock it didn’t come out earlier. I actually cook with every person in every single episode, but for editing purposes sometimes the food is the focal point of the story and other times it isn’t.
With someone like Tammye [in series two] it wasn’t about teaching her to make a new recipe from scratch that’s she’s going to have to make for 200 people, whilst dealing with the emotional baggage of her son come back to church. It was about me showing up and being of service to her. It was about learning you can make pasta salad with different condiments and hard boiled eggs.
Who out of all the Queer Eye mentees has had the food story that’s impacted you most?
I think it’s Tammye. She taught me that as much as food is about that perfect bite and flavour, it’s really what food represents and what it’s able to do that’s important. The food was for 200 people that they’d saved to build that community centre for. They’d been [raising money] over three generations and we were able to come in with the help of Netflix and Bobby’s design team and make this dream come true for her.
If you were to tell your life story through three dishes, what would they be?
That’s a very good question. My parents used to watch 20:20 with Barbara Walters and they’d make elaborate cheese and charcuterie potters and enjoy a few bottles of wine. It was the one night of the week I was allowed to have junk food so they would buy American hotdogs. My mother would butterfly cut them, heat them on a pan to get them crispy then add cheese and have it crisp up. It was my favourite thing – I would take hot Dijon mustard, mix it with honey and dip the crispy hot dog into the honey mustard. That’s one.
A second is from when my oldest sister had a brief stint in a culinary school and learned to make gorgonzola sauce with gnocchi from scratch. That was a really important lesson for me because this is someone who didn’t have an interest in cooking at all. Anyone can learn to cook as long as you have a certain set of tools and a bit of an education in it.
And for the third I think it’s the perfect Sunday night meal that I make for family, my boyfriend and his parents when they come over every other week. My favourite dish to make is a perfect roast chicken stuffed with onion and lemon. In the fall I use a lot of sage and put thyme or rosemary in. I also make a parsnip puree to go with it.
What are the three seasonings every kitchen should have?
I’ve mentioned the virtues of English Maldon sea salt too many times so I’m not going to say that. Montreal steak spice. It’s a mix of coriander seed with old spice and is great on any meat or even fish. I like to put a bit of maple sugar to make it sweet and if you’re making a Bloody Mary, it’s delicious.
I also love fennel seed; toast it a little bit then crush it up. My best friend Rima is pregnant and loves sausage but she can’t eat it right now because of the nitrates. So I’ve been making her these turkey meatballs with crushed fennel, honey and chilli flakes to replicate the flavour profile so she can still enjoy it.
Then I’d say explore chilli powders from chipotle to classic chilli powder. It’s such a nice smoky seasoning that’s really great in sauces and stews.
Queer Eye Season Two is now streaming on Netflix