Although Antoni Porowski became famous for teaching sad dads and hapless bachelors how to whip up easy appetizers on Netflix’s hit Queer Eye, his culinary knowledge runs much deeper than that. Before becoming a TV star, he spent years working in restaurants in Montreal and New York City, and Porowski was also a private chef for original Fab Five member Ted Allen, who recommended him for the role on the reboot. Chatting with the TV star a few days before the opening of his buzzy new Manhattan restaurant, the Village Den, it’s clear that Antoni has a fondness for both healthy foods and splashy calorie bombs. His menu at the Village Den — a collaboration between Porowski and veteran NYC restaurateurs Lisle Richards and Eric Marx — reflects his eclectic tastes.
Antoni recently took a break from the pre-opening insanity to participate in the Famous Original Eater Questionnaire, an interview series where we ask the most exciting people in Hollywood about their dining habits.
Welcome to the Famous Original Eater Questionnaire. What’s the last thing you ate?
The last thing I ate was a combination of things. I had leftover cauliflower flour, so I made a cauliflower pizza, and then my castmate Jonathan came over with Church’s Chicken. I had leftover bratwurst that I cut up really nice and thin, and I had frozen broccoli. I basically didn’t want to go grocery shopping, so I used everything that I had at home. I also had pine nuts, some sun-dried tomatoes, and tomato sauce from Lidia Bastianich. So it was a semi-homemade and healthy-ish meal, paired with fried chicken.
What’s the last thing you drank?
I’m drinking it right now — it is cold brew on ice, black. No sugar, no milk.
When and where was the last time you had a hot dog?
It’s been a while. Wow, okay, the last time I had a hot dog was when I was in Brooklyn, and I was photographing a recipe that I did at the end of Season 1, where I made pickled veg and honey mustard for hot dogs in the last episode. So that was... maybe six months ago?
What do you want to eat right this second?
I don’t have the biggest sweet tooth, but I do have one in the morning. If I could have anything right now, it would be cold birthday cake, with whipped buttercream-cream cheese frosting. Vanilla. That and a coffee for breakfast is my ideal.
What’s the difference between the recipes you cook and demonstrate on Queer Eye and the ones at your new restaurant?
It’s like day and night. On Queer Eye I come in with what I know, and I try to parlay that into lessons for our “heroes.” But that’s really listening to what they need. Sometimes it’s a little more ambitious. Sometimes it’s very simplistic. But it’s got to be something that’s condensed into a short amount of time.
At the restaurant, we had several weeks of testing and developing the menu. It’s apples and oranges, a whole different beast. I’ve said it before, but I think it bears repeating: The Den is really an expression of the kind of food that I want to eat during the week. There are a lot of vegetables and fruit and that sort of stuff. And it’s a lot of protein, so definitely lighter meats.
It’s very much like me. I’m very ADD, and so culturally it’s a little all-over-the-place. There’s a cabbage roll that’s basically a reinvention of a recipe that my mother made when I was a little kid, but with cauliflower rice instead. There are fish sticks that are baked with macadamia nut crust. There are little garden bowls. There are some breakfasts that are Indian dessert-inspired because of my best friend Reema. We have a carrot halwa, which is like this really beautiful grated carrot pudding-y thing, but we have it with the cashew cream and a little pistachio brittle.
The restaurant is much more “me,” I would say.
I read that you never wanted to open your own restaurant until recently. What changed your mind? And how did you partner up with Eric Marx and Lisle Richards on this project?
The truth is that it has not been my pipe dream to have a restaurant. I know restaurateurs, and the amount of work that goes into a restaurant is nothing short of insanity. It’s a real commitment, and most restaurants don’t make it, so the odds are really against you.
We have this thing called “work-out club.” There’s a group of seven or eight of us in LA and New York, and whenever we’re all in New York together, we just go work out. And we would always go to the Wayfarer, which is Lisle and Eric’s restaurant uptown. It’s more decadent eating there, but then we’d basically ask the chefs to do like a grilled fish with roasted Brussels sprouts, or fibrous veggies with a poached egg or something. And we decided it would be great to have a place with food we really love that makes you feel good after eating it, and you don’t, like, fall into a carb coma.
It came from an organic place, and it also came about at a time when I was a “yes” man. And I still kind of am — I say “yes” to everything. With Queer Eye, I wasn’t really a hundred percent sure of what the success was going to be. So I wanted to do as much as I possibly could because... I want job security! What’s great about [Eric and Lisle] is that they have such a strong background in running restaurants. They know what operations are like, whereas with me, I just came in for menu development, and I came in as a home cook. So there’s been a lot of guidance a long the way with editing and making it more concise and restaurant-friendly.
What’s the one food item you didn’t try until later on in life?
You know what it is? I love it so much: bottarga. So it’s a dried fish roe, and you treat it basically like Parmigiano-Reggiano. You just grate it on a microplane. I had it on linguine with toasted breadcrumbs, and it rocked my world. I love fishy anchovies and sardines and that kind of stuff. And I just loved how delicate but just nice and salty it was. I have it on tartines now, and it’s awesome.
What have you never eaten that you wish you could try?
I have never tried durian, and just hearing people talk about the smell that emanates from it... I’m a really sensory person, and I’m dying to try it.
What’s your drink?
I would either go to Eataly and get a nice little doppio espresso with a biscotti on the side and a shot of sparkling water. Or, more realistically, because I’m more often downtown, I would go to La Colombe and get a black cold brew. And while I’m waiting for them to get it pressed, I’d get a glass of water — they have a little water dispenser thing there.
What album is the universal dinner party soundtrack?
I know I wore the t-shirts on the show, and I like more bands the the Strokes and the National, I swear. But the National concert is coming up this Sunday and I’m going and I’m so freaking excited. Last night I was writing, and I was listening to Boxer, which is my favorite National album. What I love about it so much is that there’s a fun festive song that’s nostalgic, like “Fake Empire.” And then “Apartment Story” makes me think of 10:30 p.m., when everyone’s at my place and they’ve already had way too much to drink and they’re stuffed and it’s dimly lit and there’s candles everywhere. And then there’s songs like “Santa Clara,” when everybody leaves and I’m alone and I take a shower and I do my whole moisturizing regimen and it’s like the perfect song to take me to bed. So that album will take me through the whole night.
What’s your “Proust’s madeleine” — the food or drink that instantly brings back memories?
I’m going to say two things. One of them is bone marrow. We had it as kids, and we loved it. And then the bones, we would give to our dog, Biggie, who was a long-haired Dachshund who was smuggled in from Poland. So we’d have that at home and I would have that with my oldest sister, Carolina, who was obsessed with bone marrow. I was super picky as a kid and didn’t like it, but then I fell in love with it and we would have it together at L’Express, which is an awesome little French bistro in Montreal. They cut it cross section-wise, and they have fried savoy cabbage on top with a bit of fleur de sel. You just have that with bread, and it’s freaking poetry. I love, love, love bone marrow.
And the second would be smalec, which is basically pork fat with little bits of pork, in a jar. It’s like the equivalent of bread-and-butter when you go to any Polish restaurant. So, here’s the pork fat. You ask them for some salt, but they never have any good-quality salt, so you just have to put the regular table salt on there. It’s fatty, salty, and there’s a little piece of bread. It’s the perfect introduction to a meal — it just gets you excited. It makes me think of my Polish roots, hence the nostalgic quality.
Who are your restaurant role models? Is there any restaurateur that you look up to?
Yes, I’m going to go with two. One of them — and I’m by no means trying to compare myself to him at all, because he’s a freaking legend — is Keith McNally. In that piece in the Times about why Balthazar is such a success, [the author] goes in depth about the fries, and their steaks frites, and how important it is to be consistent. It’s so important for the dish to taste exactly the same way every single time. New Yorkers are very loyal to the restaurants that they love as long as the food is good. So I respect him greatly.
And then my other one is my old boss and my buddy chef Chuck Hughes. He opened up a place called Garde Manger in Montreal. I was a waiter there. Because it was an everyday changing menu and we would write the menu on a chalkboard, he would experiment with some really weird shit. A lot of times it worked, and sometimes it didn’t, but he was never hard on himself. It was always like, “Okay, I guess we’ll opt for something else.” I just loved how he was always so playful with it, and he had zero pretension. He used his Quebecois roots, and the ingredients and the knowledge that he had and made it so fun. There was something accessible and very free-spirited about the way that he approached it, and I always really respected that in him. And that’s something that I want to remember with everything I do going forward.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.