‘Queer Eye’s’ Antoni Porowski On White Privilege And The Fate Of Restaurants

This Voices In Food story, as told to Anna Rahmanan, is from Antoni Porowski, one of the stars of Netflix’s ”Queer Eye,” which takes the Fab Five all across the United States to meet and help folks from all different walks of life. Porowski recently is a co-owner of The Village Den, a restaurant in New York’s West Village, giving him insight into restaurant owners’ struggle to survive amid the coronavirus pandemic. Here, Porowski discusses the changes he hopes to see within the food industry and the challenges that people of color and the LGBTQI+ community still face when trying to make it in the restaurant world and beyond.

On Owning A Restaurant During The Coronavirus Pandemic

Right when COVID-19 really started to get serious, I read a super emotional op-ed by Gabrielle Hamilton, the owner of Prune, one of my most beloved restaurants [which was forced to permanently shut down because of the pandemic]. When I moved to New York, I took my savings — not that it’s super expensive, but I was broke — and I would go there for brunch. Hearing that somebody who is such an iconic fixture in the local food scene and somebody whom I assume is safe from literally anything has to close up shop and doesn’t know if she’s going to be able to open again, is scary. And that’s just one story.

“It’s terrifying, frankly, and I am an optimist.”

All of my favorite restaurants in New York are these tiny little places where you’re literally rubbing elbows, bistro-style eating. A lot of small business owners pay their food orders as they go. It’s not like they can survive for however many months. So I think that when COVID-19 came along, it really shocked a lot of businesses. It’s terrifying, frankly, and I am an optimist. I have this theory that punks and cockroaches never really go away. They always just keep on coming back, no matter what. Even if an atomic bomb goes off somewhere, cockroaches always come back and I lovingly refer to New York in the same way. I really feel like it’s a city that’s going to be able to jump back. I am hopeful, but at the same time I am really concerned.

On His Privilege

We know now more than ever that [one’s personal life, whether one’s sexuality, race or socioeconomic background] is an impediment to moving ahead. It’s undeniable. But I am very privileged. Yes, I may be fluid and I may be part of the LGBTQI+ community. Yes, my parents are Polish immigrants and my first language growing up was Polish. But I am a white, cisgendered male who, for most of his life, everyone just assumed was straight. I didn’t deal with some of the homophobic slurs and homophobia in general the way some of my cast mates did, for example. I’ve really gone unscathed but, that being said, I do have a sensitivity to injustice and inequality. For me, diversity has always been the norm. It’s where I feel most comfortable.

Antoni Porowski and Samin Nosrat share the staged at a Netflix event in May 2019, each representing their respective Netflix shows.

On Food’s Role In Bringing People Together

Food has always been such an emotional medium for me because I come from a really dysfunctional household. My mother was an excellent home cook growing up and, although we didn’t get along, sitting around the table was the time when we all got along. From a young age, I was taught that food is how you connect to people.

“I think we’re in too deep, in a really good way.”

I was having a discussion with a friend. We were talking about latkes and the idea that although foods are so different wherever you go in the world, almost every culture has its concept of a potato-based fritter. We’re not all that different.

On What We Can Do To Help Support Diversity In The Restaurant Industry

[As consumers within the restaurant industry], the first step is awareness and fully accepting the fact that there is a problem and it’s systemic. It’s been going on for a long time. I’ve learned to focus on how I can actually help. How can I be of service? I have a social media presence so I can bring light to smaller foundations, whether it’s the Okra Project, where Black trans chefs prepare meals for Black trans women, or helping larger organizations like the ACLU. Education is key and then it’s about figuring out how to be actionable.

“I really hope that we start to be a little more aware of where we spend our money and how we make our choices. Where are you getting your takeout from? Are you getting it from Black-owned businesses or are you going to large chains not owned by Black people?”

You can protest peacefully or, if you’re not in a position to donate, there are plenty of petitions going around where you can just give your signature. It’s about having awkward conversations with family members because I don’t think this is something that’s just going to dissipate and get back to the way it was. I think we’re in too deep, in a really good way.

I can only speak for myself, but I really hope that we start to be a little more aware of where we spend our money and how we make our choices. Where are you getting your takeout from? Are you getting it from Black-owned businesses or are you going to large chains not owned by Black people? I really think that with COVID-19 and everything that is going on with bringing to light systemic racism, we all will realize that we are all able to control quite a bit of the industry within our small circles, whether it’s conversations we have with family members, how we spend our money, where we spend our money and just being a little mindful towards it all.