The Netflix reboot’s food and wine expert shares the challenges and rewards of introducing cooking skills to the show’s “heroes.”
When it premieres on Wednesday, February 7, Netflix’s Queer Eye reboot will see a whole new Fab Five taking on a brand new city and a new set of makeovers. The goal—giving interested people the tools to transform their lives—is still the same. But other things are not. From expanding the cast’s diversity and planting the quintet in the South to explore issues close to the cast’s or heroes hearts (like bullying), Netflix’s Queer Eye is a new entry in the catalog of who and where America is, from what we’re wearing to what we’re eating. Among these many changes, perhaps the most interesting is the show’s more personal approach. For Antoni Porowski, Queer Eye’s new food and wine expert, this personal touch influenced and somewhat permeated his work on and with the show.
The Montreal-born, New York-based chef is insightful, traveled, and a self-described perfectionist who admires April Bloomfield, Alice Waters, and Julia Child. Mostly self-taught, Porowski currently lives across the street from his mentor, Chopped host and former Queer Eye food and wine guru Ted Allen, making occasional appearances in his kitchen. In many ways, his life is and has been different than that of the show’s makeover recipients (or “heroes” as they’re called), and even some of his fellow cast.
Food & Wine spoke with Porowski about what viewers can expect to discover about cooking and Atlanta’s food culture, the “delicate dance” of entering someone else’s kitchen and how to find each person’s guacamole. (Parts of this interview have been edited for clarity.)
“I think what I learned throughout the experience is that not everybody has this inherent need to cook the way that I do,” Porowski tells Food & Wine. “I took that for granted going in thinking, ‘of course, everyone wants to know how to make a perfect frittata, or a croque monsieur, or an ideal breakfast for your family.’ A lot of people don’t, and eat for survival. What we realized is that with the heroes who didn’t have the interest, what got them going was when they found a reason for it.”
“One of my favorites, Cory, was basically cooped up in his basement,” Porowski continues. “[He] was so unfamiliar in his own kitchen and too intimidated by it to even cook a meal for his family. We knew that he loved his family and that gave him a perfect reason for it. We taught him how to supreme a grapefruit, cut the flesh out, to remove all the fiber and just eat the meat part of it. [But] as important as [the demonstration] is, I think the reason for it is actually the more interesting, more important part—the motivating, the wanting to learn how to cook, to know more about the food.”
Reflecting, Porowski says that due to his life and background he’s “used to a certain way of eating” that may be different than the show’s heroes. Netflix’s decision to transplant its reboot from the (inter)national food mecca of New York City to the southern cultural epicenter of greater Atlanta and its surrounding areas highlights a bit of the culinary juxtaposition Porowski alludes to. But more than “culture shock,” the move to Georgia—with its own set of taste and ingredient preferences—offered a different set of challenges and a culinary playground for the food and wine expert.
“Ted [Allen] had the luxury in New York to go basically wherever he wanted, having any country in the palm of his hand in terms of the culinary experience. We didn’t have that,” Porowski says. “There were cases where we were able to be in the city and then there were other episodes where we were in very small towns where you’re limited. Where you have either a small market or you have access to one of these mega stores. It was interesting to do the detective work, go in and learn about what’s available to people. It was also a good reminder that we needed to accommodate the reality of each hero’s life. You don’t want to bring them to a place that they’ve never been to that they’re probably never going to go to. You want to show them something that they can apply to their lives.”
While some chefs—like Emeril Lagasse and Guy Fieri—enjoy the spectacle and performance of creating meals, other cooks, like Porowski, prefer to have a quieter, more personal experience with making food. Either way, letting someone into your kitchen, especially with a camera, can be an act of immense vulnerability. Because the nature of Queer Eye’s format makes something personal very public, the Porowski says cooking with and for his heroes was “a very careful dance.”
“When you go into somebody else’s kitchen, and you’re discovering all these new things, you have to go in there with humility and openness,” Porowski explains. “It’s a missed opportunity if I come in there, and I start throwing things all over the place, saying, ‘This is for the stuffing!’ [I] try to grab at little bits of information, be a little Sherlock Holmes-y and figure out how I can help because it’s a service job. It’s not just a little moment in time, having them taste blini with crème Fraiche and caviar.”
“In improv, there is this whole concept of ‘yes and,’” Porowski continues. “So, I tried not to shut anything down. I went in there with an open mind…trying to figure out what it is that I know about cooking, about grocery shopping—the skill set that I have—and how to apply it for each hero and their family. I have to say casting did an incredible job finding these [people]. These are people who maybe are so different in their beliefs, their eating habits, their customs, religion, everything across the board. This is my psychology background coming out right now—they all scored very high on the personality test of openness to experience, which is basically a willingness and an excitement [toward] a different way of life. They were ready for it, and they were there with open arms.”
Teaching and learning have always been at the heart of the Queer Eye approach. But Porowski’s work in the reboot’s first eight, one-hour episodes did more than just educate those watching about how and what to cook. The heroes he worked with also taught Porowski about the dynamics of food culture and education, informing him about selecting appropriate dishes.
“We spend a lot of time with these heroes, so we get to learn a lot about their lives and their daily eating habits,” Porowski says. “As we learn in the first episode with Tom Jackson, he has Lupus. I'm not a doctor, but I do know a little bit about diet planning. [A family member] has Multiple Sclerosis and she… stays away from things like nightshades—tobacco, bell peppers, aubergines, eggplant, tomatoes, garlic. [But Jackson] eats burritos every night with peppers in them. He smokes cigarettes. He drinks jalapeno margaritas. All these things that a nutritionist tells you have a very strong relationship with autoimmune diseases. I’m not going to go in there and tell him, look, you need to change A, B, C, D and E. What I can tell him is there are studies that point to A, B and C. Just give yourself a chance to try a different diet for a few weeks, see how you feel. This doesn't mean that you have to say goodbye to [Tex Mex].”
“I was teaching date night food and self-care food that he can make during the week, but simple, using his new outdoor grill,” Porowski continues. “The first thing that I made, I was like, everyone needs to know how to make it. I’ll teach him how to make guacamole. So, I cut open an avocado, and he looks over, and he looks inside and he sees the pit. He’s like, ‘What’s that?’ I got goosebumps and I almost broke down into tears. Like, what a moment of humility. This guy’s never seen the inside of an avocado, and here I am trying to show him this whole complex menu, basically trying to show off my skills so that I’m like some credible home cook. It’s not about that. It’s about figuring out what works for this guy. I cut open a lime and he’s asking where the seeds are and I’m explaining there are no seeds in limes. It’s like, right. That’s what it’s about. It’s not me going to teach Julia Child’s entire book of French cuisine. I tried to apply that to every single hero and figure out what their guacamole is.”
The first season of Queer Eye starts streaming on Netflix February 7.