It is a cliché of mediocre dinner parties (and awkward speed dates, and ‘quirky’ job interviews, and weddings in the Midlands) to ask a person what their last meal might be. The question is meant to be playfully illuminating, I think, in an almost-daring sort of way (‘imagine Charles on death row! Gosh!’) and reveal us for who we really are — the best way to the heart being through the stomach, etc etc. But, more often than not, it simply becomes an escalating arms race of sceney restaurants and fashionable ingredients, all wrapped up in the ghastly timbre of someone recounting a recent dream. (And the honest answer should really always be: a Dominos pizza with Crunchie McFlurry, which I’d then be too terrified and distraught to eat.)
But when Antoni Porowski tells you about his last meal, you don’t just listen — you salivate. The man is a kind of food-whisperer — a cook savant. An actor by training (you can tell by his posture alone), Porowski fell into food while on the audition mill in NYC (he has since worked, it is said, in every possible position in the restaurant industry). So when he heard that they were filming a new version of Queer Eye — the famous team ‘transformation’ show of the late nineties — he thought he’d pop down to take a look.
When Porowski got there, however, he found himself floundering in the intensity of competition, and falling away into the background behind the more extroverted auditionees. And then the producers asked him that innocuous question — “what would your last meal be?”— and the room fell silent for ten minutes.
“I went full Kerouac free-writing on it, and said what was on my mind,” Porowski remembers. “And this long, very large meal ended with a perfect pot de crème with a little butterscotch topping and a bit of flake salt, and the best blackberries ever — when they’re perfectly ripe and they just pop, but they’re still firm and they’re really sweet… and for the first time everyone was looking at me and they were all attentive.”
I spoke to Porowski at the start of May over a crackling Zoom connection between Austin, Texas and Reydon, Suffolk. The casting directors were right. His enthusiasm for food — and for lots of things, actually — is infectious. I could listen to him talk about frozen peas all afternoon. But you’ll be relieved to hear that we spoke about other things as well — including the oddness of the audition process, the best way to disarm people when you first meet them, and the perfect recipe for scrambled eggs.
JB: What food have you been missing most in lockdown?
AP: Lebanese food. There are a couple of places that I would usually order from, especially after a long work day — I just love getting all the salads and the fattoush and the tabbouleh. And I miss the ritual of eating at my dining table in my apartment in New York. I do really miss home. I’m a very nostalgic person — I’m very sentimental about my personal belongings. But I’m always an optimist. I know that it’s not forever and this too shall pass.
JB: Do you describe yourself as a New Yorker?
AP: When people ask where I’m from, I always say I’m Polish-Canadian. But New York has been home for the past 10 years.
JB: And you went there to become an actor…
AP: Yeah. I finished psychology at the University of Montreal and that was something that I wanted to pursue. But at the same time, I always had the ambition to work in film, whether it was acting, directing or producing. I’ve been a cinephile since I was a little kid. We had this spiral staircase in my childhood home growing up. And I was obsessed with Titanic. So I would throw myself down the stairs pretending that the Titanic was sinking and my mother would run over and be like: “what the hell!” I haven’t thought about that in a really long time, but here we are.
JB: How was your early acting career?
AP: In the first year at acting school I think we were 120 students, and then there were 24 of us in the second year. And then the end of the year came and we had this showcase, where we invited all these agents and casting directors and managers to come see us so that we could get discovered. And I was one of the lucky few who had a manager express an interest — so I signed on with her and I was thinking, “This is it, I’ve made it, I’m going to get right to work.”
And then there was eight months of radio silence, which continued for about six years! The one bigger thing that I booked was something called a U-5. It’s under five lines, and it’s just so you can get your SAG card so you can be part of the union. It was on a show called The Blacklist, and I played a Polish cop. They redid this area of Forest Hills in Queens to make it look like Warsaw, and I was this screaming, angry cop who’s chastising the two stars of the show.
JB: Did you give up hope, at all, of having a career in entertainment?
AP: I think I came close a couple of times. When I talk to actor friends who have gained a certain amount of success, I realise there’s this weird balance between delusion and blind confidence. When I see how hard it is to make it now — as somebody who’s working in the entertainment industry — it’s like: who the hell was I to think that I could actually make a career out of this and not have a plan B? Because I did not have a plan B. I was just blindly obsessed with it.
As I was reaching the end of my twenties, my energy levels and my patience starting going down a little bit. And one of my friends who I was roommates with said, “You’re so obsessed with food and you cook for us all the time. Why don’t you start doing food content or get involved in the food world somehow?” He said, “You should look up Ted Allen — he used to host Queer Eye for the Straight Guy when it was on Bravo. He was the food and wine expert.”
So I looked him up and I found out that he was launching a book at Greenlight Bookstore in New York, and I decided to go. I bought a book, had him sign it, and we started chatting about food and then we realised that we lived across the street from each other, and we became fast friends, and I ended up becoming his personal assistant, which I did for about two years. And round that time I found out that Queer Eye was being rebooted.
JB: So it all goes back to that one meeting at the book signing…
AP: Yeah. I’ve always been the type of person to put myself in these situations. I’m sure I was a little nervous at first. When you move to New York and you meet public figures, they’re concepts before they’re individuals. It can be intimidating. But what I learned rather quickly, especially with actors, is just to get over that, and to try to disarm them by getting very personal.
I find if I get really self-deprecating or share a personal anecdote right off the bat and make them laugh, it disarms people. And then they tend to do the same. It’s kind of what I do on Queer Eye too, when people are uncomfortable. Just make a weird joke or share something that’s really intimate that you probably only want to tell your therapist. It makes people comfortable, and you see the person as a human and not as a concept or as somebody whose work you admire.
JB: What was the Queer Eye audition process like?
AP: There’s always debate when I discuss this among my cast mates. Some of us think that there were 300 of us there and some of us say there was more like 60. But there was a whole weekend of ‘chemistry’ testing which was such a surreal experience. There were people from Netflix, from ITV, and from Scout Productions there, and over the weekend the numbers started getting smaller and smaller until it was the five of us.
JB: What was your strategy?
AP: I didn’t really have a game plan. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. At first I tried to be somebody else and it just wasn’t working. On the first night of auditions I failed miserably. We were supposed to bring something sentimental and share a story about it. And I developed this really bad dry mouth and I kept on pausing and everyone thought that I was trying to bring some kind of emotional weight to it. And it just came off as really awkward.
I had a Skype meeting with the show creators right at the end of casting. I’ve been to hundreds of auditions, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that you know if you’re not the type as soon as you walk into a room. The casting directors barely look up. They’re just working on something else while you’re delivering your lines. And that’s how I felt that day. Then right as the call was ending, one of them said “tell me about your last meal.” I don’t even remember what I said, but I know there was a hot dog in there, and caviar, and butter poached lobster, and a whole grilled snapper, and a baby fried artichoke with just a bit of lemon juice and flake salt. And as I was looking at this screen, I noticed their heads just started popping up, one by one. And they started listening. And that’s when I realised: maybe that’s what the secret sauce is. That’s what I have to do.
"As I was looking at this screen, I noticed their heads just started popping up, one by one. And they started listening."
JB: Are there any trends or food fads at the moment that irritate you?
AP: Oh, yes. There’s this thing — I think it’s called a garden Buddha bowl. And basically people recreate the full rainbow of colors with all of these vegetables and fruits in a bowl. And it looks beautiful, but it makes no sense. You have purple cauliflower and then suddenly you have red strawberries. Those are just two things that don’t belong. Or when I see a massive sprig of rosemary on a dish — an entire branch. That’s a pet peeve of mine — things that are just there for the aesthetic beauty, but they make no sense.
JB: You went from not many people knowing you to being one of the stars of a huge international show. Was that daunting in a way?
AP: Yes, it was. It wasn’t at all how I expected it to be. A friend once told me that becoming famous is like losing your virginity — once it’s taken away from you, it’s never coming back. And it may be really great at first, and it may be horrible, and it’s probably going to be a mix of those things — but you’re forever changed once it happens. He meant the loss of anonymity, really. That was the hardest thing to struggle with at the beginning.
When I was a little kid, I had these dreams about wearing a tux and stepping out of the limousine to a premiere and going to all these parties. And you have some of those things. But you don’t choose when you want to be recognised or not. You have days where you’re feeling a little antisocial or you’re a little quiet or in your head, or you’ve been to a therapy session, and then you might go to the grocery store and people will come up and they’re really excited to see you. And they see this version of you on the show that’s always cheerful, and that’s what they want to see and you have to give that to them because you want to make them happy. So it’s a tricky thing to navigate. But it’s gotten better with time. I think it took about two years for me to really get used to it.
JB: I’ve heard you say before that you thrive on fear. That’s interesting, as most of us shrink in scary situations. What do you mean by that?
AP: Oh, I definitely shrink. But at the same time, fear has driven my life. And at the other side of fear is always a sense that: oh, it actually wasn’t that bad. Nothing is as bad once you’re on the other side of it. You just have to get to the other side of it.
JB: What are your fears now?
AP: I love Queer Eye and I hope that we do the show for a very long time and it still brings me a lot of joy and it continues to evolve and change. It is my dream job —it’s constantly changing and I’m constantly learning about myself and I’m still very stimulated. I know that it’s not going to last forever because nothing does. So it’s trying to figure out what the next move is.
I’m an actor. That’s another part of me. It’s not something that I like more than working with food, but it’s a muscle that I haven’t exercised in a while. I’ve been taking lessons and I have a coach and it’s something that I continue to do for me. So it’s like: will I be well received? Will I be respected? Am I actually good at this? Or am I being ridiculous? But the only way to do it is just to go and see, and to allow myself to make mistakes, whether it’s going to be successful or not. Because I don’t want to live in regret. That’s part of the fear as well. The only way is through.
JB: And finally: what are you having for lunch?
AP: Okay. So what I’m obsessed with recently is this awesome app in Austin called Vinder. And they deliver food from small farmers within a 30 mile radius. So I order a ton of farm eggs every week and a bunch of veggies. They have the most delicious orange beets here. As a Polish boy, I was raised with the classic purple beets. And we only had them in soup or grated and boiled to death with just a lot of butter. And so I’ve been making this raw beet salad that I toss in a bit of olive oil. And I let them sit there for a little bit with some orange juice, because it’s the end of the season for caracara oranges. And then I put celery leaves and then a bit of salt on top. And that’s like my favorite salad. And then if I want to go a little extra, I’ll add some dried apricots and maybe a bit of bitter radicchio or some kind of a bitter green, or like an endive and maybe a salmon filet on the side…
Queer Eye Season 5 is available to stream now on Netflix
This interview took place prior to the historic events and peaceful protests that have occurred over the past several weeks.
Looking for more celebrity inspiration? Step inside Dermot O’Leary’s wardrobe…
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