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‘Queer Eye’ Star Antoni Porowski Is Cooking Up His Own Empire Beyond Netflix’s Fab Five

After Antoni Porowski was cast on Netflix’s 2018 reboot of “Queer Eye” and skyrocketed to fame as the makeover show’s boyishly charming food expert, he found himself struggling to say no.

For years, he’d hustled as a busboy and waiter in upscale New York eateries while auditioning for acting gigs. So when he finally got the job that meant he could blend, rather than balance, entertainment and food, he wanted to go all-in.

“I went through a weird phase when ‘Queer Eye’ came out where I was like, ‘I’m not going to enjoy myself,’” he says over breakfast at the downtown Manhattan restaurant The Smile. “I’m just going to work and hustle. I’m going to do every single endorsement.”

His yes phase proved to be rewarding, leading to cookbooks, a fast-casual restaurant in New York City’s West Village (which closed during the pandemic), and brand deals to tout espresso, nutrition gummies, meal-planning kits and other accouterments to his 4.5 million Instagram followers.

But it all became too exhausting. So when COVID-19 forced “Queer Eye,” which was filming in Austin, to halt production, Porowski used the time to mentally reset and refocus his priorities. He spent early pandemic days hunkered down in Texas with his boyfriend, Kevin, and their newly adopted foster dog, Neon.

“I took a breather. Not to use a food analogy … ” he starts, before offering one of many food analogies he’ll use during our two-hour conversation. He recalls advice that he got from his agent: “Think of it like a simmer. You don’t have to say yes to everything.”

Porowski, 38, started considering the kinds of projects that uniquely aligned with his newfound calling as the celebrity home cook next door. That has manifested in his first big swing outside of “Queer Eye,” Variety has learned — as the host of Netflix culinary competition series “Easy-Bake Battle.” Think of it as his Harry Styles or Camila Cabello breakout moment. But fear not, reality TV fans: Unlike One Direction or Fifth Harmony, the “Queer Eye” Fab Five — also consisting of interior design specialist Bobby Berk, culture expert Karamo Brown, grooming guru Jonathan Van Ness and fashion ace Tan France — aren’t breaking up, as the series has been renewed for Season 7.

“What’s nice about working with four cast mates is that I tend to drift off,” he says, referring to “Queer Eye.” On the new series, he doesn’t have the others to rely on. “I’m somebody who is terrified of so many things in life, but I also really get off on leaning into fear. I was like, ‘Let’s see if I can do this.’”

Porowski — who will be joined by guest judges, including Kristen Kish of “Iron Chef” and “Nailed It!” alum Jacques Torres — helped pitch and develop the series as an executive producer. “We got to know Antoni on ‘Queer Eye,’ and we always knew there was more to do with him,” says Netflix VP of nonfiction content Jenn Levy. “He makes food super accessible.”

The series, which already completed filming and will be released later this year, also gives Porowski a chance to carry out an unfulfilled dream: “My parents were like, ‘We have an oven. Why would we get you an Easy-Bake Oven?’ So selfishly, I get to relive my childhood.”

Inspired by the popular children’s toy, “Easy-Bake Battle” spotlights home chefs who go head-to-head in two rounds of savory and sweet challenges using only an Easy-Bake-style oven. Baked into the show’s ethos is the idea that cooking does not have to be complicated. But unlike the mini kitchen appliance, the competition series is not suited for children. “They have to understand temperature. They have to understand timing,” he says. “I know this doesn’t sound easy, but they have to be ingenious.”

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Antoni Porowski wants to branch out beyond his role as the culinary expert on “Queer Eye.” Ryan Duffin for Variety

Porowski is an enthusiastic talker, and he leans forward when he starts to discuss the home cooks, who face off for large cash prizes: “I’m really excited for you to meet two moms who always wanted to do this for a living. Their families convinced them to do other things. I love the idea of empowering people who are passionate about things but didn’t pursue it in a professional capacity.”

Porowski admits, “It’s a little projecting onto myself.” Though he became famous as the resident foodie on “Queer Eye,” he developed a bit of a complex about cooking, because he wasn’t trained professionally at a culinary school.

“I’m a home cook, and that’s something that I used to feel a bit of shame for,” he says.

Like a slow-cooker beef stew, coming to terms with that took a little time. His insecurity was amplified after the first season of “Queer Eye” premiered in 2018. For the inaugural episode, Porowski went to great lengths to come up with recipes that matched his subject’s abilities and dietary restrictions. The very first “hero,” a lovable truck driver named Tom, suffered from lupus, which meant he could not eat alkaloid-heavy foods like tomatoes or eggplant. Instead, Porowski cooked skirt steaks and quesadillas and made salsa from corn and black beans. In the kitchen, there happened to be some avocados lying around. So as a final touch to the Tex-Mex feast, he taught Tom to prepare guacamole with Greek yogurt.

“That was the only thing that made it in the episode,” he says with a groan. Cue the internet think pieces about whether or not Porowski even knew how to cook. “And then I became the guac guy.” He pauses to laugh. “I got endorsements out of it, so I’m not complaining.”

In later seasons, he tried to overcorrect by concocting more complex meals. Those never made it on the show, because a “Queer Eye” producer convinced him it wasn’t necessary. “She’s like, ‘You’re reading into people who may criticize you for being simple. But know your audience and who you’re working with.”

Thanks to his job, one aspect of his life that he never had to contend with was deciding to come out publicly. It’s not lost on Porowski that he became famous through a show that celebrates the LGBTQ community. Porowski, who has dated men and women, identifies as sexually fluid.

When “Queer Eye” first aired, he recalls, “I was straight-passing. I had a lot of friends reach out to me, like, ‘Is this an acting gig?’” He told them: “No, it’s unscripted. I’ve dated guys.”

His real-life dating history will soon serve as the inspiration for a romantic comedy called “Girls & Boys,” which Porowski is making at Netflix with “Black-ish” creator Kenya Barris. That movie won’t be his first on-screen role outside of reality-show host. He also landed a small part in the upcoming drama “Spoiler Alert” starring Jim Parsons for Focus Features.

Though Porowski started his career in show business as a cook and talks about meals with the detail and precision usually reserved for doctors preparing for surgery, food was not always part of his grand ambition for stardom.

Born in Montreal to Polish parents, he grew up obsessing over Martha Stewart and Saturday morning cartoons like “Chip ’n’ Dale Rescue Rangers” and “DuckTales.” In his grade school yearbook, he wrote about wanting to be a famous actor and a surgeon, but he did neither of those things while studying psychology at Canada’s Concordia University. He decided against going to graduate school and instead pivoted back to his childhood dream of becoming a performer, moving to New York City to pursue theater at the Neighborhood Playhouse. But once he got to Manhattan, he envisioned he’d be working with Martin Scorsese rather than channeling Rachael Ray.

“When ‘Queer Eye’ happened, it wasn’t part of the plan. I was sort of like, ‘OK, I got the job that I needed, and not the job necessarily that I wanted,’” he recalls as he adds freshly cracked pepper and ketchup to four soft-scrambled eggs.

He pauses, taking a moment to defend the condiment he’s just spooned onto his plate. “It’s because of my boyfriend. I judged him for the first year of our relationship. I was like, ‘It’s really trashy!’ I tried it once, and I’m obsessed.”

Porowski had to similarly reevaluate the career he envisioned for himself.

“I’m not a character actor,” he says. But still, he’s worked to find roles that fit into the persona he’s cultivated on “Queer Eye.” “Amy Schumer consciously picks roles that are an extension of who she is. And that’s kind of what I want. I’m branching out into acting while still honoring the food space.”