Queer Eye's Antoni Porowski on food, family and growing up in Montreal
The Canadian food and wine expert talks to us about the new series, his Netflix heroes, and exactly what he thinks of his critics.
Fans of Netflix's Queer Eye will instantly recognise Antoni Porowski. The self-taught cook, actor and model serves as the food and wine expert on the reboot of Queer Eye (formerly with the suffix for the Straight Guy). The show – in which Porowski and his four co-stars visit Americans with the aim of teaching them to look, live and feel better – first made its name back in 2003 on the US TV channel Bravo. After a decade-long sabbatical, it returned to our screens via Netflix in February this year with an all-new cast and was met with much acclaim – not least for the way it challenged its subjects' views on ideas of masculinity and sexuality.
Alongside Porowski, UK-born Tan France now handles fashion choices, with American co-stars Karamo Brown on culture, lush-locked Jonathan Van Ness on self-care and grooming, and Bobby Berk on interior design duty. Canadian-born Porowski completes the set, on food and drink.
That 'expertise' took some flak after the release of the first season: thanks to the way the show is cut together, he says, his recipes can resemble something more like straightforward preparation than cooking. While the show can make Porowski seem reserved and softly spoken, in person he's charismatic, eloquent and more animated than he can appear on-screen. He also seems to be, at least judging by his Instagram feed, an accomplished cook, with his big break coming partly via a close friendship and working relationship with the show's former food and wine expert, Ted Allen.
With season two on the horizon, we managed to snatch some time with Porowski to find out exactly what the show's return means for him. Here, he chats to us about how he got his foot in the door, what he thinks of people claiming he can't cook, and that guacamole recipe.
Were you always interested in food?
I think I underestimated the importance of food in my life until this show came about. I was talking to my cousin Maya about this, and she told me: "You were five or six years old and you used to talk about how much you loved demi-glace, or how the perfect roast turkey had a really amazing gravy and it was all about not putting too much flour in it. You always had this obsession with talking about food. You'd be eating one meal and talking about the next."
It's something that's been very important to my family. I come from a family where we weren't very good at being communicative about our feelings, but where we all connected was around the dinner table, from lavish feasts to something as simple as a Sunday brunch. It's such a nice way to laugh and share something together.
Did you always want to work in food?
I didn't know what I wanted to be when I was growing up. When I was in university I studied psychology; I was going to be a psychologist. I considered medicine at one point because everyone in my family is a doctor or an engineer. I studied theatre because acting is something that's always been very important to me. I've always had many different passions, but food has always been something that I never really considered as something that I wanted to do in a professional way. The best cooks that I knew growing up were all moms and grandmas. Grandmas did the baking and the mothers did the cooking – it was very homely and not something that I thought about getting a professional education in.
My biological mother is an excellent home cook but she never let me participate. I used to judge her for that, but I'm the exact same way now – I don't let anyone cook with me. No helpers. Let me do it. I want to do the cooking, the cleaning, the presentation – all of it. I'm even the waiter. When I moved out of my parents' house when I was young, I didn't have any money, I was no longer living this really spoilt lifestyle and I had to teach myself.
I would obviously love to go to CIA or Cordon Bleu or wherever and learn, but at the same time, I watched the greats on PBS when I was growing up before Netflix came around, and now I have Mind of a Chef.
Who are your favourite TV cooks?
Gabriel Hamilton is one of my favourites ever. The simplicity and honesty that she approaches food with is just so incredible. And Christina Tosi is this sweet, kind-hearted girl who learned from her grandmother and her mother and now she basically has this full-on empire of sweets. I have a deep reverence and respect for chefs. They're my rockstars. They're my Pete Dohertys.
How do you go from working in restaurants to being Ted Allen's [the food and wine expert on the original series] personal assistant and chef?
Working in restaurants was the first job that I had. I was a busboy at a family-run Polish restaurant in the old port of Montreal where they made perogies, bigos and borscht. Then I worked in a fancy Italian restaurant where I was a runner, just serving plates and learning about Italian wine. I worked at a farm-to-table restaurant where there was a lot of duck, a lot of foie gras, and things like that that were very local. Or scallops, which the Quebecois love.
With Ted, it was purely accidental. We happened to live on the same block in Brooklyn, I went to his book signing at Green Lake bookstore – it was for In My Kitchen, his second cookbook – and we became fast friends. We cooked a lot together, and then I started working for Ted and his husband on both sides of their business: his husband owns a gallery of post-war mid-century American and Italian furniture and art, so I learned how to photograph and work on that side, and then with Ted I was helping with recipe development, cooking meals during the week and helping them with dinner parties. I was sort of thrown around, which is perfect for my sensibility because I can't do too much of one thing. It was kind of the perfect job.
Did the opportunity to join the Queer Eye team come through that?
A friend of mine who works at a management company first proposed the project – when he told me that Netflix was rebooting it I decided to call Ted. We talked about it and he gave me his blessing, so we went ahead and tried it. He put in a good word for me, he wrote me a beautiful recommendation letter that brought me to tears and he's been nothing short of supportive.
Did you have to make something in your audition?
Yes, so we had a fake episode that we filmed, which I wasn't expecting. We went into a gentleman's kitchen and looked through everything that he had in his fridge and I made a cast-iron filet mignon. Fillet is the leanest cut of beef – there's not a lot of fat, so the perfect vehicle for that is a seasoned cast-iron skillet with butter, some crushed garlic and thyme and rosemary. And I just butter-based it. So we made a nice medium-rare steak and when my cast mates came into the room they had smells of garlic and beef wafting through this beautiful, Tuscan-style villa in the Beverly Hills.
On another occasion I made a pasta carbonara and I just taught them how to make a very simple one with a foundation of bacon, eggs and mixing them with the cheese – what temperatures to do it at.
Is your cooking on the show deliberately simplistic?
Firstly, we do several components to everything on the show. Tan does multiple outfits for every single person. But only a couple of them – he would very much approve of your shirt, by the way – ever make it into the final edit.
For Tom Jackson, for example [the infamous 'guacamole' episode] we did make him a whole meal: we taught him how to make a flank steak, to cut against the grain so it's delicate enough to put in a quesadilla, because you don't want to bite into a quesadilla and have the meat pull. And how to work with Mexican oregano, marinating it properly and how to grill it to get a char; what kind of cheese to use that doesn't have too much of a pull, but that's still really creamy. Tom has lupus, so we wanted to make a salsa that actually didn't use nightshades – peppers or tomato or garlic or any of those – because they're inflammatory foods and for lupus that's a problem. So instead I made one with jícama, a really delicious Mexican root vegetable that kind of tastes like an apple and a potato had a baby, with crunchy charred corn, black bean, cilantro and lime juice that actually has zero nightshades.
We made all that and the guacamole was the one that made it to the final cut. When I saw that I was like "I worked so hard." And I even made him out of his 'redneck margarita', a thyme and rosemary-infused lemonade, because I wanted him to have a healthy option – none of it made the cut.View on Instagram
What do you say to people who think you can't cook?
It's always been pathologically important for me to be loved by everybody, but with having a public life, it's actually impossible to have that. It's actually been the ultimate lesson for me. But if you're going to be a moron about it and say that I can't cook, check out my Instagram. Get over it.
We're so blessed to have the love and support that we've had for this show. It's been very explosive and very quick – these are the times that we live in and when you get so much positivity, you're bound to get a bit of hate as well. So if that comes with it, it is what it is, and it's not going to stop me from wanting to do what I want to do. I know that my passion is real, and I don't have to justify that to anybody. Netflix had faith in me – that's got to count for something.
Overall it's been good for me, though, because it was a reminder that this isn't about my skills and showing off what I'm capable of cooking, even though I hope that I imparted a bit of knowledge along the way. It's about really dealing with the show's hero and what works for them. For Tom, he had never seen the inside of an avocado before and he eats guacamole every frickin' day, so I just wanted to show him that it's really easy – it has three or four ingredients and that's it. And you know what? I do like Greek yoghurt, and some Mexican restaurants I've been to put it in their avocado. I'm sticking by it.
Do you prefer to cook or eat out?
I absolutely love cooking at home. Even when I'm really exhausted and even if I'm not really hungry I just have to do it. There's just something so meditative about it, even something as simple as cutting up carrots, celery and onion, getting them into perfect little cubes, cooking them down and watching them caramelise and reduce as the moisture leaves and the colour changes, while I'm listening to Miles Davis. It's my favourite thing to do.
Do you have a signature dish or a particularly feel-good recipe?
Mac 'n' cheese. That's the ultimate.
Homemade or Kraft?
You know what? Kraft has a really weird appeal to it. The bright colour that's so unnatural and not of this world. But if you add fresh parmesan to Kraft dinner and it's not the worst thing in the world.
When I make mac 'n' cheese, I love to make my own roux: typically the mix is a very high-quality, cloth-bound sharp cheddar; I put in gruyere for the nuttiness and then I put in mozzarella and make sure that I've incorporated it into the roux, with a little bit of nutmeg. I'd pour it over the pasta, I throw in my frozen peas and then I cook turkey meat or ground beef. Then I put diced tomatoes and you cut out the insides, use that for like a vinaigrette, but just the flesh of the tomato in cubes with panko breadcrumbs that I toss in a bit of olive oil.
You bake it and you basically have all your vegetables, you have all your meat and it's just this sheet pan of baked mac 'n' cheese. My boyfriend and I will bake that and then we'll watch 30 Rock episodes and end up eating the entire vat and feeling like death. That's the perfect night for me.
Queer Eye Season One is on Netflix now. Season Two is available from Friday 15 June; netflix.com