A cook’s intuition is something you either have or you don’t. Kind of like 20/20 vision, or an inclination toward kindness. Some people can, with a shrug of Parisian casualness, combine ingredients in a way that reminds others what their mouths are for — not just for sustenance, but for pleasure. Others burn down the house while trying to boil water.
For the record, I did not mean to set a kitchen towel on fire while I was boiling water for spaghetti. But kitchen choreography never came naturally to me. After that incident, I hung up the apron and my cooking ambitions. The spontaneity that cooking seemed to require — the way my mom confidently threw things in a pot with the assumption they’d taste good together — terrified me.
So it was out of a sense of earnest desperation that I tweeted at Antoni Porowski, the cooking expert of Netflix’s Queer Eye reboot, to help me figure out a kitchen like he helped the flailing gents in the show’s trailer. To my surprise, Porowski responded, “Let’s do it.” We set a date, and the next thing I knew, I was meeting Porowski at the Tribeca Whole Foods in Manhattan to gather ingredients for a baked feta dip. He promised it would be so easy even amateurs like me could make it.
Picking out lemons in the produce aisle, we immediately find something in common: We are both easily distracted in grocery stores. He is distracted by the recipe ideas that ricochet in his mind (he never goes shopping hungry). And I ramble through Whole Foods with the same wide-eyed wonder as I do at a Michael’s craft store. I want to expertly string the colorful components lining the aisles into a cohesive whole, but don’t know where to start. They are words in a language I haven’t yet mastered.
Luckily, Porowski knows how to speak food, and after days of Queer Eye press, he’s happy to be back in his element. He plops multicolored olives in a bucket, and parses the different brands of feta, from Bulgarian sheep’s milk to Green dodoni, before selecting the kind he wants. He has a favorite brand of olive oil. I am out of my league.
But I’m also in good hands. On Queer Eye, Porowski tailored cooking tutorials to the specifics of each episode subject’s lifestyle. He taught a father of six to make an army’s worth of chili, and a man who lived alone how to string together a charcuterie plate that would impress his friends. Most of his recipes are simple — Porowski saves the elaborate boeuf bourguignons for Sunday nights, when he cooks for his boyfriend and his boyfriend’s parents.
Essentially, Porowski installed kitchen training wheels for each episode’s subject. As well as teaching basic skills, Porowski tried to erode the mental blocks these men might’ve built up around cooking. After starting with homemade guacamole, the men could work their way up to elaborate French stews. Now he was here to cure me of my own blocks. We’d start with a baked feta dip.
After spending two minutes with him, I realize that if anyone is going to chip away my deep-seated inhibitions about cooking, it is Antoni Porowski. When recalling a pork chop he ate in Mykonos, Porowski’s sentences run together, like he can’t quite keep up with the excitement. He speaks about cooking like it is the key to a good life – and he makes me believe him.
He’s confident that anyone (even me!), can develop an ease in the kitchen, no matter how they grew up. “Even if you weren’t raised with it, that curiosity is there. It just has to be sparked,” Porowski tells me.
Porowski is uniquely well-suited to sparking that curiosity. He’s entirely self-taught, and, up until Queer Eye, made a point of never cooking professionally. So he approaches cooking with the unabashed enthusiasm and passion of an amateur — if he can do it, so can you. “I never wanted food to become part of my professional career. It’s always something that I kept very sacred and personal, and that’s why I’ve been able to enjoy it so much,” he says as we cook. In New York, Porowski worked as a waiter, an actor, and, after meeting him at a book signing, as a personal cook for Ted Allen, the cooking expert on the old Queer Eye.
Porowski hesitated to apply for Queer Eye in the first place, because he didn’t want to turn cooking into something professional. “Is this really what you want, Antoni?” Allen asked Porowski, when he told Allen of the opportunity. Porowski wasn’t entire sure it was, but felt he needed to audition.
Porowski approached Queer Eye with trepidation, and the feeling was mutual. The producers were also hesitant to hire an amateur, but were soon won over by the same enthusiasm that struck me. “They wanted real professionals, people who were masters of their domain in a given field. I think they asked me, ‘What would your last meal be?’ And I went on a whole manic rant that lasted about ten minutes, describing it, and they said, oh – you’re for real. You know what you’re talking about,” he recalls.
Watching him talk about his passion for French stews while slicing olives into perfect, even pieces, I can’t understand why anyone would doubt his abilities for a split second. We tear the filaments from the marinated peppers, lay them on the baking pan, place blocks of feta on top. We sprinkle the layers with olives and salt, and place the baking pan into the oven.
During the cooking process, our conversation diverges away from Queer Eye and into his other interests. Books — he’s read A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara twice this year, and considers himself a Willem type. His boyfriend, Joey — they’ve been together for seven years. Italian — it’s his fourth language, and he’s taking private lessons now.
Soon, everyone in the room is joining in on the conversation. Essentially, what happens is the very embodiment of what Porowski loves about cooking: The genial warmth of people coming together. “Food is how I interact with people,” he says. We dip the toasted bread into gooey warm feta, and don’t need to say anything else.
On the three block walk back to the Refinery29 offices, Nicolas Bloise, the photographer who captured the experience, and I gush as though we can’t wait to get back into a kitchen. “He made me feel like I could cook,” Bloise said. I couldn’t agree more. With time and practice, I can learn to avoid setting a fire in the kitchen. Porowski provided me something more important than technical expertise —he made me want to learn.
Here’s how to make the baked feta dip that I’m going to try making for my Oscars party:
Antoni Porowski's Baked Feta Dip
1 block feta in water
Olive oil, preferably Greek
1 package or jar of your favorite olives (Kalamata and green are a nice mix), pitted and thinly sliced
1 jar marinated roasted red peppers
Small baking dish (4x4 or 4x6)
1. Preheat oven to 400°F.
2. In a shallow baking dish, apply thin layer of red peppers. Top with thick slices of feta.
3. Bake at 400°F until light bubbles on cheese become to appear, about 10 minutes. Change oven setting to broil and watch carefully. Remove when cheese is nicely browned/charred.
4. Remove dish from oven. In a small bowl, toss sliced olives, torn oregano, and olive oil. Top the mixture over cheese, liberally.
5. Enjoy with either crudité, pita chips or pieces of baked pita tossed in olive oil and salt.
6. Take pictures, then dig in!