Antoni Porowski Talks Trader Joe’s, Polish Comfort Food, and His New Cookbook
The ‘Queer Eye’ star and chef chats about his new dinner-themed book.
When Antoni Porowski talks about food, he falls down a rabbit hole. He’ll take you right along with him, adeptly balancing the high and the low. The Queer Eye star will discuss the lobster paella at Il Buco with the same passion as a handful of frozen Swedish fish.
With his second cookbook, Antoni: Let’s Do Dinner, out today, Porowski is proving that nothing about cooking needs to be complicated. The book, which is centered around elevating pantry staples, contains recipes with easy-to-find ingredients, single-digit steps, and minimal equipment. From a refreshing Sicilian tuna salad with oranges and beets, to a comforting turkey cheeseburger soup, no meal falls short of special.
We spoke to Porowski about his most cherished opinions: the best kielbasa in Greenpoint, the key to hosting a dazzling dinner party, and the TikTok food trends he just can’t get behind.
Thrillist: What goes into developing recipes for a cookbook? What’s that process like?
Antoni Porowski: Loaded question [laughs]. I can only speak from my experience, but when I was doing Antoni in the Kitchen, the process was very different because I was in Kansas City filming Queer Eye, and Mindy Fox, my friend and collaborator and coauthor on the book, was in Portland, Maine. So everything was virtual.
With this book, it was very different because I was in New York City, and I actually got to cook in my own kitchen. Mindy came and we tested together every day for weeks, which was the greatest gift. It really felt all the more collaborative. And achieving a very simple recipe is actually a lot more challenging than I previously thought. Because it’s just kind of getting rid of all of the clutter.
We wanted to make something that people were going to pull from, time and again. I didn’t want it to just be a one-off, where they try a recipe once, but it has 20 different elements, so they don't want to make it again. We wanted to be very conscientious about repeating certain ingredients that people already have in their pantries. There’s a reason why we use chili flakes, rotisserie chickens, eggs, certain types of kale—things that are easy for people to get, that they can actually use multiple times so that no food goes to waste.
So it wasn’t necessarily easier, even though this is your second time around.
Whereas the first book was really much more nostalgic, and kind of like a deep, almost therapeutic, dive into childhood, this one is much more about the life that I have now and the fact that, pandemic aside, I don’t have as much time in the kitchen because I’m traveling a lot.
You mentioned providing ingredient lists that feel really accessible. How do you usually approach grocery shopping?
There’s a section in the book where I show how I keep my pantry stocked, but I never really thought about it until this book. These things were always kind of a given, and I guess that’s just how I was raised, always having chickpeas and certain types of beans—things to make dinner quicker. So when I go to the grocery store, I typically start with the produce section. I pick out a couple of veggies that I need for that night and maybe the following day, and then I go and pick up my protein. Maybe I need a spice if I’m running low, and that’s it.
When I try to take on a really ambitious or technical recipe, I buy so many things, use, like, ten percent, and then I’m left with all these leftovers. I don’t really know what to do with them, and most of the produce just ends up in the juicer. So I really wanted to just make life easier. Because cooking should be fun. It’s something that’s really meditative and so essential to my wellbeing, and I just want others to feel that way, too.
You suggest grabbing a few ingredients at Trader Joe’s in some of the recipe overheads. Do you have a favorite Trader Joe’s item?
Oh my gosh. Looove, TJs. Not an endorsement. I mean, I love all grocery stores. They’re all my happy place. But Trader Joe’s is just one of the few brands that I feel have very successfully come up with their own line of products. In the book, we have stuffed shell pasta with turkey, smoked mozzarella, and kale, and it uses store-bought marinara sauce. What I love about the Trader Giotto’s is that it’s actually quite low in sugar compared to others. What gets me really excited when I go is their nut selection. Their pine nuts are always really well-priced.
Ok...Tan [France] is going to be so happy that I’m bringing this up, and it has absolutely nothing to do with the cookbook, but I don’t care because everyone should know about it. So Tan is an excellent baker. He really loves making everything from scratch, loves spending time in the kitchen. And he swears that the greatest pain au chocolat that he’s ever had is from the freezer section at Trader Joe’s. I told him he was insane, because he also told me that the best sushi is in Salt Lake City, where he lives. But I decided to try them out. I let them thaw out overnight on a cookie sheet, and in the morning, put them in the oven and they are so flaky and delicious. The only thing that I would suggest is maybe dabbing a little bit of melted butter so that they get really dark and golden, otherwise they look a little yellowy, but still taste delicious. There’s loads of really good, high quality, dark chocolate in there.
You know, you’re actually not the first person to tell me this. I have to try them already.
They’re unbelievable. And while we’re at it, I know you asked for one item, but I can't help myself. They have these jicama wraps. I always describe jicama as a baby of a potato and an apple. And these jicama wraps are basically used as tortilla shells or wraps for sandwiches that are crunchy and sweet and delicious.
I loved seeing your signature Polish twists in the cookbook, like steamed mussels with kielbasa. I’m Polish myself, and I have to say it’s been so great seeing you represent Poland within the food world, because I feel like you're one of the only people making Polish cooking more mainstream. What do you think defines Polish food?
I always joke around, but it’s literally just pork chops, potatoes, and sour cream in various different forms—which is not completely untrue. But it’s comfort food. It’s the food of winter. I was raised in Montreal where we basically have close to nine months of winter, so we’re always eating stews. Everyone talks about pierogi, but the real unsung hero of Polish cuisine is our soups. Whether it’s a sorrel soup or a kapusniak, which is the cabbage and sauerkraut soup that’s featured in the book, or the white borscht that I have in the first book. I know whole roasted cabbage steaks are having a moment right now, so there’s also a recipe in the book.
Anything that’s really sour. We love our kielbasa nice and smoky. In New York, you can get it in Greenpoint. When people boil it, it just drives me crazy. You really have to heat it up on a pan or a grill pan or a barbecue, so you can render the fat and if you score it, it gets really crispy. That with, like, horseradish or mustard...it’s comforting, it’s delicious, it makes me feel more Polish.
Same. And it’s suitable for every meal—breakfast, lunch or dinner, you can have kielbasa.
Totally. It’s inexpensive, it’s high in protein, and if you’re conscious about the fat, because sausages do tend to be fattier, cut them lengthwise so that they’re nice butterfly cuts, score them a little. A lot of that fat will render out, it’ll get really nice and crispy, it’ll improve the texture and the bite of it, and it’ll still be really delicious.
Do you have a favorite deli in Greenpoint where you get your kielbasa?
Kiszka. It’s a bunch of Polish women and a couple of Polish guys. It’s chaotic as hell. There’s always an insane lineup, but you can get the best smoked bacon. They also have really nice kabanos, which is basically like a fancy Slim Jim. And they have this mustard there called “dobra teściowa,” which means “nice mother-in-law,” because it’s really spicy and sweet.
I could talk to you about Polish food forever, but I guess we have to move on. This book is filled with familiar faces, like Gigi Hadid and Tan, who you have over for dinner. What’s the key to hosting the best dinner party?
The key to hosting—and I’m not going to say that I’ve achieved this—is to really protect your sanity, and then make sure that it’s an enjoyable experience for you, the host. I often do dishes that I’ve never made before, because I want to impress people, when the advice that has always been given to me is, “Make the thing you’ve made a 100 times that’s foolproof.” Try to plan as much as you can ahead (Ina Garten taught us that), so that you’re not stressed and you can actually enjoy yourself. I can’t help myself—I love being a server, I love picking up people’s plates, filling up their glasses of wine, their water, all of that. But I always have to remind myself to sit down and actually enjoy the company of my guests because they came to hang out with you, you know?
And what about cooking for yourself? Have your habits changed at all since the pandemic?
I wish I could tell you that I’ve been so much better at just making food for me, solo. If it’s for me and my boyfriend, great, that’s easy. But for myself, I just don’t do it. I’d rather order in from somewhere. But the one thing is breakfast. I’ve definitely fallen even more in love with eggs, and I’m just all about the perfect soft scramble or a nice over-easy. And then just topping it either with some za’atar, or some Everything but the Bagel seasoning and a bit of ketchup if I’m feeling a little trashy, or this thing called “black magic oil” from Suerte in Austin, which is my favorite Mexican restaurant. It’s fermented garlic with this oil, and it’s spicy and smokey and unbelievable.
That sounds amazing. When cooking is the last thing you want to do after a long day, how do you motivate yourself?
Music, definitely number one. That’s kind of what keeps me going. I mean, I’m still not over Folklore and Evermore, so those are still on repeat, but I love my Maggie Rogers, my Troye Sivan. I have a record player—it’s a little tougher because you have to change it every 20 minutes or so—but I put on some old Miles Davis and Coltrane records. Jazz is really nice because it’s a little chaotic and disorganized, and you don’t really know where anything is going, which is kind of what my brand is like most of the time [laughs].
Who are some of your sources of inspiration in the cooking world—any cookbook authors, chefs, food influencers, etc.?
I’ll start with influencers. His name is Jeremy Scheck, of Scheckeats. He’s super talented. He’s got a good head on his shoulders and is just very opinionated, which I really respect. In terms of Instagram, Half Baked Harvest, Tieghan Gerard. Her ideas are just brilliant. She tends to meld things that I wouldn’t expect. I don’t know how she does it, to eat pasta every single day, but seriously, goals.
And then in terms of the classics, I just got the Food Network app on my Apple TV and I’ve been obsessively watching every single Ina Garten episode on Saturday morning. That’s my version of cartoons. She just makes me feel so good. And it’s like, good, classic American and French bistro food. Martha Stewart on YouTube. I particularly love—and you'll appreciate this, as a Polish person—any type of videos that she did with her mom, Mrs. Kostyra. They would make cabbage rolls and pierogi, all of the traditional stuff that I grew up with. It’s really about watching their dynamic. And in terms of food writers, I think my all-time favorite still remains Nigella Lawson. The way that she writes is just beautiful.
If you had to recommend making one recipe from the book, which would it be and why?
One that I genuinely make more than any of the other recipes is the warm kale and rotisserie chicken salad. You pull apart some shreds, you get some nice, old stale poilâne or whatever kind of bread you have laying around, tear into nice little pieces so that they're not perfect cubes. And the kale...I don’t have the time or patience to massage my kale, and if you don’t massage it, it just tastes like grass. But making a warm vinaigrette with a little bit of anchovies, chili flake, and then topping it with some raisins and some hazelnuts. It’s crunchy, sweet, and salty, it’s got a bit of heat, it’s packed with protein. And then the croutons soak up the warm vinaigrette. And it’s also very, very loosely inspired by one of the best roast chickens I've ever had at the Zuni Café in San Francisco.
Ok I’d love to end with a few rapid fire questions. Favorite food city?
Whaaaat? Paris. No...um...Paris.
Your breakfast this morning?
I wish it was something really chic and elegant. My assistant’s sitting right next to me, and if I lie, she’s going to give me a weird look. I had two orders of the egg white sous vides from Starbucks. They’re good. I really like ’em. I’m not sorry about it. I did get a Silpat muffin tin and I want to start making my own. They don’t look too complicated, and you can dump in a whole bunch of leftover root vegetables or anything that you want to just kind of want to throw in there.
The culinary trend you can’t get behind?
[Gasps] Okay, Kev, my boyfriend was telling me about this, cause he’s, like, obsessed with TikTok. Apparently everyone is putting mustard on watermelon.
Oh yes, but that’s an old trend at this point.
Ok, well, apologies. That grosses me out and I have no interest in trying it. What’s a recent one that’s going on, and I’ll tell you my opinion on it.
Hmm frozen honey is a more recent one. People are freezing honey and eating it.
I understand that because, being raised in Quebec, we used to take maple syrup at sugar shacks and pour it over snow and then roll it up with a Popsicle stick and it was freaking delicious. And I do everything like that. I do, like, Nutella peanut butter balls in the freezer, and I think it’s awesome.
Your most recent, life-changing meal?
I had an incredible lobster paella at Il Buco. You just tasted, in the rice and sauce, the flavor of the lobster shells. Weird thing to say, but you just felt that flavor in there.
Go-to midnight snack?
Rutab dates, which a friend of mine sent from Dubai. But I love my Medjool dates, I love my Meladuco Farm dates from California. I slice them open, take out the pit, and I’m obsessed with pistachio butter. It’s delicious on really good firm, nutty cheeses, like Gruyere types. If you put a little bit of that in a date, it’s a freaking dream. But if it’s a Saturday night and I’m feeling a little trashier, then I love frozen Swedish fish. Because the first bite they crack, and then it softens up, and I’m less likely to eat the entire bag because it takes you longer to eat them.
Your favorite spice or seasoning?
I actually made it earlier today. It’s not a shameless plug, but it’s a shameless plug. There’s a sheet pan roasted chicken thighs in Let’s Do Dinner, with bursting grapes and red onion and loads of rosemary. And that chicken is basically rubbed in ancho chili powder. Very lightly smokey, not too spicy. And it’s just really lovely on a rainy day, like today. Anything that’s a little smoky is exactly what I want.