Without his trademark kitchen-towel-thrown-over-the-shoulder, I almost don’t recognize Antoni Porowski when we meet in a suite at Hotel X Toronto. But by the time I have squeezed past the fruit platters and into a seat beside him, the Canadian TV chef is nattering away about Darjeeling Express (a restaurant in London) and there is no mistaking that this is the man the world fell in love with on Netflix’s Queer Eye.
For the uninitiated, this bubbly and – let’s just say it – darned attractive man sitting before me is the food-and-wine expert on the reboot of Queer Eye. The Emmy Award-winning Netflix series, a remake of the 2003 reality TV series Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, is the makeover show with a big heart, in which Porowski and his four co-stars travel the length and breadth of America, looking for “heroes” to transform, inside and out.
In just a year and a half, the hit show has churned out four seasons and 37 tear-jerking episodes to its legion of impatient fans. Despite the seemingly lighthearted nature of the show, the binge-worthy series has seen the Fab Five tackle topics like masculinity, religion, police brutality and even gun control – all while looking fabulous, naturally.
Montreal-born Porowski had been heading to acting auditions in NYC while moonlighting as the personal chef for former Queer Eye cooking expert Ted Allen, when the opportunity to try out for a spot on the reboot arose. It took the aspiring actor a full season of working on Queer Eye before “I realized the [cooking] track was one I’d been on all my life.”
Though brand new content (a four-episode special called “Queer Eye: We’re in Japan!”) is on the horizon when we meet, Porowski is not here to promote the show. Instead, to celebrate the refreshed Scotiabank Gold American Express Card, the self-taught chef has arrived in Toronto to rescue us hapless “heroes” from bad food. In front of a tipsy (and occasionally raucous) roomful of media in Hotel X’s stunning New Fort Hall, he leads a live(ly) cooking class, showcasing a couple of fun recipes from his new cookbook, Antoni in the Kitchen.
I got to sit down with Porowski ahead of the exclusive cooking experience to talk about food, fussy-eating and who he’d invite to the dinner party of his dreams.
Q: Your cooking tips are an important part of empowering the “heroes” on the show. Has cooking always been a huge driving force in your own life?
A: Absolutely. I think that it’s the only way that I know how to meaningfully connect with other people. That might sound like a really bold statement but it’s how my parents taught me to have conversations whenever there would be conflict or special occasions. When I started dating, it’s how I would impress somebody – I would start making a nice meal for them or take them to a nice restaurant and know how to order properly. And so I think food for me is really the ultimate connector.
Q: Did you always know that you wanted to cook?
A: I think I always had a need for it but I only started really exercising that need later. I used to say that I only started cooking when I was 17, when I moved out of my parents’ house. But I was talking to some friends recently from junior high and they were like, “no, you’ve always been obsessed with food.”
When I was 13 or 14 years old, I would have ragers when my parents were out of town. But before said rager, I would have a dinner party and grill chicken breasts (skin on, of course) on the barbecue and char up some vegetables with red wine vinegar and some fresh oregano with olive oil and salt.
Q: So, it’s been a part of your life for longer than you realized?
A: Yes, absolutely. I think it was only when I was no longer a spoiled brat living in my parents’ house and having every meal served to me and was left to fend for myself that I started picking up more skills and exploring my palate. Because I was a picky eater as a kid.
Q: Me too! My parents think it’s weird that I write for Foodism because I used to only eat chicken nuggets.
A: Same! I wouldn’t touch vegetables, I really disliked tomatoes and now they’re one of my favourite things. This is another big world statement, but I think that people are often afraid of what they don’t understand, when something is a concept. But as you grow older and you get to try things of your own accord then you realize that it’s not so scary and can actually be exciting and fun.
Q: Do you find that often comes up on Queer Eye? That people don’t understand and you have to find a way to make them appreciate something?
A: One hundred per cent. I’m thinking about one “hero” in particular from our most recent season in Kansas City, called Wanda who said she loves seafood but she only ever had fried fish fillets with her daughters. I asked her about scallops and she said she’d never had them before. I asked her, “What’s the one food you want to try that you’re not familiar with?” and she said “I’ve always seen asparagus in a grocery store, but I have no idea what to do with it.”
My mom was a fantastic cook but she used to boil the hell out of a lot of vegetables. But when you roast Brussels sprouts and asparagus, you find out they can actually be really yummy.
Q: What’s the process for planning out your segment of the show?
A: I only started doing this during the second season – I have a brief questionnaire and I start by asking them about allergies. Some people just don’t like cilantro or it’s actually a genetic thing so you’re not going to convince them to like it. But that said, I love to go in and do my own little investigative journalism and ask very open-ended questions. I never assume that somebody wants to eat healthier, that’s none of my business.
And if I don’t know, we have YouTube. Jonathan [Van Ness] and I often joke around about how there’s so much that we’ve learned as a result of being on the show. I haven’t made every single dish out there, I don’t know everything, and I don’t pretend like I do. Instead, I get to be this messenger – I learn about the recipe and I figure out how to make it accessible and relatable and parlay it onto our “hero”.
Q: On a couple of episodes you’ve really connected the heroes with their roots when teaching them to cook. How important is cooking and heritage to you?
A: I think it’s incredibly important, I write about it a lot in my cookbook. When I was a kid, there were a lot of Polish staples that I liked, and then I went through a period in my life where I felt ashamed to be Polish. It wasn’t cool to have an ethnic name and bring cabbage or kielbasa to school while other kids had sandwiches. I was very envious. But when I grew up, I started working in a Polish restaurant and I thought, “I’m not the only one experiencing this.”
When you meet people from your own tribe, if you will, suddenly your heritage becomes more attractive. You realize there’s a community.
Q: Who would you invite (dead or alive) to the dinner party of your dreams and what would you cook?
A: Well, first of all, I would buy Johnny Cash a Scotiabank Gold American Express Card [winks] so he could pick up some short ribs. I would make a chipotle-espresso-Coca-Cola glaze – I feel like that would nod a little bit to his Southern heritage.
Then I would invite Patti Smith, who is one of my idols. I would have her pick up some fresh, beautiful carrots brought in from a nice market, and we would make a lovely carrot ribbon salad from my cookbook.
My third guest would probably be Jack Kerouac and I would have him go to L’Avenue at Saks on Fifth Avenue in New York because they have the best mashed potatoes. He would get take-out and then we would all have a nice full meal together.
Q: Do you have any favourite Toronto or Canadian restaurants?
A: I’m from Montreal, but when people ask me for recommendations, all of my references are from the old-school places from 12 years ago when I actually lived there. But in Toronto, I have been to a couple of places that are really awesome. La Banane is excellent. Last night, I went to this awesome Mexican place and I don’t know the name but it’s on my Instagram stories [he’s talking about Quetzal]. There was roasted bone marrow, with a bit of a honey drizzle on it. They also had Hokkaido scallops which I usually only eat raw with lemon juice, and they were roasted in this herbaceous green butter. As you poured them into your mouth you get this little soup shot of warm butter with a nice warm scallop and that’s the best duo.