As the all-round culinary expert on Netflix’ Queer Eye, Antoni Porowsi knows a thing or two about food. Ahead of the release of his first cookbook, Antoni in the Kitchen, we asked the self-taught chef about his love for cooking, go-to dinner party recipe, favourite foodie destination and so much more.
Tell me a little bit more about your background?
My upbringing was a mix of Polish heritage and Canadian culture. I was born in Montreal, but my parents and older sister emigrated from Poland, so I was the first member of my family to be born outside of Europe. Montreal is a very diverse city; I was exposed to multicultural foods from a very early age. We had this tradition in elementary school called ‘buffet de nation’ and all the kids would bring food from their respective countries. Most of the parents were from different countries, so everyone would bring two dishes.
I lived in Montreal for most my childhood, then moved to West Virginia for three years, and ended up going back to Montreal for university. I was studying Psychology and working night time jobs at several restaurants – from a family run Polish restaurant to the sort of farm-to-table restaurants – until I moved to New York, where I’ve been living for ten years now.
At what point did you develop an interested in food?
It sort of stemmed from necessity. As a child, I wasn’t really allowed to partake in the kitchen in terms of cooking, only my mom would do that, and I would just watch from a distance. It wasn’t until I was 18 and no longer living at home, that I had to figure out how to cook meals for myself. I quickly realised that it was such a lovely way to communicate with other people. My friends and classmates from university would come over and we would make meals together – it was such an easy, inexpensive way to socialise.
But you never trained to be a professional chef?
We have a lot of physicians in our family, so when I graduated high school, I was encouraged to pursue medicine. That wasn’t something I wanted to do – I was obsessed with movies and I wanted to be an actor – a degree in Psychology ended being the middle ground. When I finished my undergrad, I moved to New York and studied at the Neighborhood Playhouse. Afterwards, I worked for Ted Allen for a couple of years – he was the original food and wine expert on Bravo’s Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.
When I was studying, and afterwards even when I was working, the one job is always had was working in restaurants. It didn’t register to me that it was something I could do in a professional capacity until Queer Eye came about and that is when it all changed. For me, food was how I connected with my family growing up, behind closed doors in our dining room. I would consider myself a private person and being on Queer Eye sort of flipped the tables because now I’m talking about my personal life, my experience growing up and what it was like being part of the LGBTQI community.
As a private person, what has been like dealing with the success of Queer Eye?
It was definitely rather explosive at the beginning. It felt like this overnight thing that happened. I would get really exciting about meeting all kinds of interesting people, going to these events and being flown around for press. It was, and still is, an exciting new life – I mean, it’s only been two years. During that first year, I didn’t know how long the excitement was going to last, so I would drain myself until exhaustion and then go home and cry. There were mornings when I would step outside my apartment to get a coffee and within a few minutes, someone would recognise me and ask for hug, even though I hadn’t showered yet, or had just gotten back from the gym.
People get very excited because they think they know us personally. We are ourselves on the show, it’s not a full-on performance the way an actor plays a character, we are wider versions of ourselves. At first, I would forget this and someone would grab and I’d be like: oh right, this is a thing, and this isn’t a thing that is only on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Eventually I started to get used to it, and now I’m able to remain cool and calm, say hi and not be as much of a weirdo. But I still have days where I’m a little shyer and I have to remind myself that this interaction might be really important to this person.
Do you help the other cast members with their cooking skills?
Tan once made me roasted and mashed sweet potatoes with chilly flakes and they were really nice, but he hasn’t fully cooked a meal for me yet. I do know for a fact that Tan cooks a lot at home for him and his husband, so he doesn’t need the help. Jonathan, however, I believe has absolutely zero interest in ever preparing a meal for himself. He is arguably one of the largest sponsors of Postmates, it’s a delivery service that will delivery anything at any time of the day, whether it’s McDonalds, limes, a block of cheese or chips in the middle of night.
I’ll be 100% honest, whenever I have Tan and Jonathan over at my house for fajita night, Tan always asks if he can help, but I love to do everything myself. One because I’m way too much of a control freak, secondly because I tell myself that’s what a good host does. But I’m trying to be better. I recently watched the docu-series Salt Fat Acid Heat on Netflix and chef Samin Nosrat was explaining that if she is making pesto, she lets one of the guests tear the basil so they feel like they’re part of the process, and leave feeling like they have learned something. So maybe that’ll lead up to teaching Jonathan and Tan something.
What’s your go-to dinner party dish?
Growing up in Quebec, we always had a cheese course after dessert, so I kick off my dinner parties with the thing that makes me the happiest; dairy. My favourite starter is a cheesy, lemon, rosemary and artichoke dip. It’s dairy-heavy, but the brightness of the lemon and tanginess of rosemary make this perfect with crackers, chips, or even some beautiful rainbow carrots, endives or thinly sliced radishes. If I don’t make the dip, then I will always have a cheese and charcuterie board.
And for date-night?
The champagne and lemon risotto is easy and light. You and your date can drink some of the champagne and use the rest in the dish. It’s a simple recipe, only takes 20 to 30 minutes to prepare, and there’s something sexy about stirring gently over a stove. Another favourite is the macadamia-crusted lamb lollies. There’s just something very primal about tearing away the macadamia nut crust of these perfectly medium-rare, salty, crispy lamp lollies drizzled in a spicy honey agrodolce. It’s sticky, it’s spicy, it’s meaty and it’s a bit of animal fat – I think that’s the sexiest dish in the book.
I assume you have a lot of cookbooks. What’s the one you always grab when looking for inspiration?
My favourite one is Feast by Nigella Lawson. I received it as a gift, and it’s the one that inspires me to be a little creative and try to figure out the story that I’m telling with my food. It’s a fantastic book (especially if you’re looking for inspiration for festive menus) and there’s something so sensual about the way she writes about food that is also so comforting. If she manages to do that with her writing alone, I can only image what her dinner parties are like.
You now have your own cookbook. What has this experience been like?
It all happened when we were filming season 3 and 4 of Queer Eye in Kansas City, Missouri. I would film during the day and then go home at night and test out various dishes per night. None of my recipes were ever written down, everything was just in my head, and I’ve never measured a single thing, so the technical part of the process took a lot longer than I thought it would.
I’m really fascinated by the fact that food can be so incredibly intimate and personal, so there’s a story behind every recipe in the book, no matter how basic or how complex it is – whether it’s a memory of where I tried it for the first time or who made it for me, a dish I invented out of necessity when I was a broke student or a Polish heritage recipe that I wanted to improve and reflect a little bit more of who I am.
What’s your favourite foodie destination?
Paris is great for decadence. When I’m there I just sit in a café, have an espresso and then go somewhere fantastic and enjoy really nice traditional food that is all about technique. What I love about Rome is the lack of pretention. You’ll have some of the best food there is, served at rickety tables in little cobble stone streets. One of my favourite restaurants is Su & Giu – I once went for three meals in a row – it has laminated photos of the food hanging on the walls and the nonna there runs the show. They have the best puntarelle salad, made from the leafy tops of chicory, anchovies, lemon juice and olive oil.
What about London?
Ninety per cent of the time I go for Indian or Pakistani food with Tan – our favourite restaurant, Star of India, sadly closed down – and the other ten per cent, I go to Nando’s. I’ll order two sides of halloumi – I love it so much, it’s squeaky, it’s delicious and it brings me so much joy – two classic burgers, one order of the peri-livers, three sides of the peri-naise and finally, I’ll ask them for a large plastic bag of their nut mix – they usually sell them in little containers but I’m not about that. Actually, since we’ve touched on Nando’s, I actually have a little homage to Nando’s in my cookbook and created my own version of their livers.
I really wish I had a chic recommendation, but that’s the tricky part. We’re so lucky to visit all these great cities, but we get taken from one hotel to the next, and we don’t really have time to actually explore. I know London has a really awesome food scene, but as soon as we get there, it’s all about Indian food. I was raised on Indian food so that’s something, especially when I tried it in London, that changed everything for me.
Antoni in the Kitchen by Antoni Porowski is out on September 19