Antoni Porowski: Cooking up Love

Antoni Porowski (Photo: Ryan Duffin)

“If you really want to make a friend, go to someone’s house and eat with him… The people who give you their food give you their heart.”

– Cesar Chavez

This coming week is all about the heart, and what a better way to kick it off than an intimate evening of food and fun with foodie extraordinaire Antoni Porowski. Chef, author, model, and food & wine expert Porowski will be celebrating the release of his latest hit book, “Let’s Do Dinner” and share stories about his life and journey at the Kimmel Cultural Campus on February 13. In the book, Porowski shows cooks of all abilities how to crank up the flavor by making simple changes to classic dishes.

Porowski, who is a self-taught cook, was hired by Netflix to become the food & wine expert and a series regular on the revamped Queer Eye. He is an outspoken advocate for LGBTQIA+ rights everywhere, especially in his family’s native Poland where he serves on the board of the Equaversity Foundation, which was established to organize international fundraising to support the LGBTQ+ community in Poland. 

The Emmy award-winning host has his fingers in a lot of pies: in addition to finishing the filming of season 7 of “Queer Eye” he can currently be seen as the host of Netflix’s “Easy-Bake Battle”, which he also executive produces. If that weren’t enough, in 2022, Antoni appeared in Focus Features’ “Spoiler Alert”, based on Michael Ausiello’s bestselling memoir, alongside Jim Parsons, Sally Field and Ben Aldridge. Up next, Antoni is developing a feature film, entitled “Girls and Boys”, for Netflix with “Black-ish” creator Kenya Barris. The film is loosely based on Antoni’s real-life dating experiences as a sexually fluid man. Phew, I need him to mix me a cocktail just to get through his resume! I had a chance to zoom with him and find out a little bit more about his journey and his upcoming show here in the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection. 

I understand you’re from our neighbor to the North. Tell me a little about where you grew up?

I’m originally from Montreal, Canada. Growing up in Montreal was great. It’s a very diverse city, very multi-ethnic, very multicultural. There were people of all different backgrounds and ethnicities there. One of my favorite things was at school when we would do this annual event called buffet of the nations, where we spoke French and English. You would come in, and your parents would bring a dish from their country and it would be this whole potluck. We had a chance to sample things from all over the world and learn about different cultures. 

That’s funny, you just reminded me that we did something similar when I was in school. The funny part is that I’m a bit of a mix culturally, my maternal grandparents were an interracial couple (him Black, her Irish), my paternal grandparents were black (my grandfather from the islands), yet for some reason, I brought in Polish kielbasa!

That is funny. Do you remember why? 

I have no idea, it was in 2nd grade, so it was a little while back. My best guess was that my mother forgot about the memo and just grabbed the first thing in the fridge that had a nationality attached to it. With the name Porowski, I’m going to guess the kielbasa would have made more sense for you to bring. 

Yes! I’m Polish Canadian, first generation. My mother was born in Warsaw, Poland and my father was born in Brussels, Belgium, where his family moved after World War II. I have two older sisters and both of them were born in Poland too. I was the first one born outside of Europe. 

Cool. Hearing that you were from Canada, my first thought was wondering if after the 2016 election you had everyone asking how they could emigrate to Canada!

Yes, for sure, and fortunately, I’ve been able to have dual citizenship even though we moved to West Virginia when I was young.

I understand that when you first started trying to pursue an acting career, you almost changed your name? 

True, someone suggested I should change it so I almost became Anthony Porter or Anthony Portman. I’m so happy that I didn’t.

Me too, we need more diversity in the world. I understand you based your cooking on what you learned from your grandmother; could you describe her?

Actually, that’s false, it’s a story that’s out there but it’s not true. My biological mother was the one who did all the cooking. My parents did a lot of traveling and they would come back with food items from all over the world. One time they brought back a beautiful Moroccan rug and rolled up inside it they had some fish. We were always getting new things to try and I think that helped me expand my palate. 

What did you study at college?

There were a number of physicians in the family and I was being pushed towards that field as well, which was not something I was interested in but I thought I would meet them halfway. But after I got my degree, I moved to NY where I pursued acting, which was what I was really interested in. I waited tables and did a lot of auditioning, but I also always had a passion for food; it was my way of communicating, whether it was cooking for a study group or going for a first date. My comfort zone was always the kitchen. In fact, if I’m at someone’s house and I’m not going to be cooking, I’ll do the dishes at the end of the party! Anyway, a friend told me that they were rebooting Queer Eye and suggested that I audition. I wasn’t really sure that I wanted to be on a non-scripted show for a few reasons, but primarily because I’m a very private person and don’t usually share that way. But I auditioned and was made a member of the cast and it was fantastic.

Out of the cast, who is actually the wildest? I’m pointing the finger at you or Tan because it’s usually the quietest. 

I think we all have our moments. If I see something like a dog or food that I like, I can get really excited and just go off the rails. With Jonathan it’s anything involving figure skating or gymnastics. With Tan, it’s shocking fashion choices, where he gets very British and very blunt, although with kindness. [Laughing] It varies. It can depend on the time of day or how much sleep we’ve had! But we’re all always there to support each other. 

I have to say it is a fabulous show and so much more than I expected. You always pushed past just the aesthetics and practical things and really touched on some very emotional and personal areas. What were some of the memorable emotional shows for you personally?

In the first season, there was a guy named AJ, who had a really tough time coming out. He was regretting the fact that he never came out to his father before his father died and wanted to tell his step-mother before it was too late. Tan was taking him to Lacoste to help him with a new wardrobe. He was also uncomfortable about looking too “gay.” I decided to go along. We’d often tag along with each other but in this case I wanted to go so I could get some free polo shirts. I love those little alligators! Anyway, we had TJ in the changing booth and I shared the fact that there was no one way you had to be to be gay. That I considered myself sexually fluid and that I’d been with a woman, and then with a man sometime and then with a woman. Now I have a wonderful husband, but I hadn’t met him at that time. Anyway, afterwards I received a huge amount of mail and insta messages and people coming up to me on the street about how much it resonated with them. 

I remember that episode, I sobbed. 

Yes, the one that made me sob, well, there were a lot of them, but the one that sticks out was Mama Tammye, a woman who was very religious and whose kid came out to her. At first she thought that her faith told her to judge somebody who was gay, but later she made the decision that supporting her child meant more to her than anything else and got the whole church on board. I told her how much I wish that I’d had the same thing. Not necessarily about sexual orientation, but that unconditional love, which is something I didn’t have. 

Wow, it’s such a two way street on the show, you all often open up as much as the people you’re helping. 

True. The way I connect with heroes, which is what we call the people we’re working with, is when I’m most vulnerable. That was something for me that was just a really beautiful moment. It was very personal and I felt extremely naked. It’s a little weird though sometimes, with us getting accolades for something so personal.

So speaking of things to celebrate, let’s talk about your upcoming trip to Philly! Welcome back! 

Thank you, I love Philly. Not only did we have a great time shooting here for season 5, it’s where I met my partner Kevin Harrington!

Wow, Philly proud! So tell me about the show.

Well, I’ve published two cookbooks. The first one was “Antoni in the Kitchen” and it was more than just a cookbook, it was part cookbook, part memoir. So it’s full of photos and recipes and stories. My latest book is called “Antoni: Let’s Do Dinner.” It’s chock full of recipes, a lot of them taken from staples right in your pantry, new takes on classics and a lot of love.

The show is based on the second book, and it’s a lot of fun. It’ll be like being in a friend’s kitchen as we talk food, cook, and I answer questions from the audience. We’ll be playing games. I’ll be talking about the role that food has played in my life and I’ll be cooking one of the recipes from the book which is extremely loosely inspired by a favorite from Wawa! Because I know that Philadelphians love Wawa, as do I. And one person from the audience will have a special role in the show! I’m going to be in Philadelphia on the 13th, one day before Valentine’s Day so it’s the perfect chance to get some ideas for a special dish or bring a date to get an early start on V-Day. 

I love it! Do you do the same recipe each night?

[Laughing] Much to the dismay of everyone who’s traveling with me I refuse to do the same recipes in every city. I would lose interest and besides that, I can’t eat the same thing every night. And I love doing things like showing that eggs can be prepared in a huge variety of ways. I know they’re really expensive right now, but they are still a reasonably affordable source of protein, depending on where you source them from. Same thing with rotisserie chicken, there are so many uses for the whole bird, even the carcass so that nothing goes to waste. So I tailor the show for each city we’re going to be in. 

That’s great, and we’re a city that’s all about the Birds right now!