• Frankie Celenza cooks a burrito breakfast in Struggle Meals (Struggle Meals)Source: Struggle Meals
The energetic chef wants to show everyone how to make food that's easy, delicious and affordable.
Kylie Walker

4 Dec 2020 - 9:42 AM  UPDATED 4 Dec 2020 - 10:49 AM

--- Join Frankie Celenza for fun with tasty, easy, budget-friendly recipes on Struggle Meals, 3.30pm weekdays from 7 December on SBS Food and then SBS On Demand ---

Meet Frankie Celenza: He thanks his Nonna for the passion that underpins his food, his ways with bacon will surprise you (bacon cookies! We are not kidding), he’s cooked with Cookie Monster and he’s determined to show that saving money does not mean boring food.  

“Life can be a struggle, but a good meal does not have to be,” says Celenza, the energetic host of Struggle Meals, in the introduction to the show.

Struggle Meals takes affordable ingredients and uses them in easy, inventive dishes that are very budget friendly – almost every dish costs less than $US2 (about $AUD2.75) per person. And Celenza has a lot of fun along the way: he lauds cauliflower as “the new Meryl Streep” because “she can perform well in all kinds of roles” (before turning the star veg into cauliflower rice and cauliflower crust pizza); he puts potato chips into a tuna melt.

The show, which started on Facebook before expanding across television, has a strong social media following, and when quarantine changed everyone’s lives, Celenza took to doing daily cooking videos on Instagram, from his home in Idaho. It was exactly what folk stuck at home needed: as one fan posted on Celenza’s Instagram account, “thanks for helping us all get through this year!”

Quick moving, chatty Celenza doesn’t just cook up cheap food - as he says in the show, when cooking up a batch of baked banana berry oatmeal, he’s aiming for nourishing, cost-effective and delicious. And, we discover when SBS Food has a quick chat to the Italian-American chef, he loves the fact that budget-friendly meals can be good for the planet, too.

“if you want to spend less on food, use up all of your ingredients,” he says.

There are plenty of examples in Struggle Meals: Half of the second episode of the show is devoted to recipes “taking food back from the dead”, including a banana mug cake that pops up “like a cool hairstyle from the '80s” (it’s also perfect for when you have just one sad banana) and a French toast casserole, to use up stale bread.

In another episode mostly devoted to bacon, Celenza rings the value out of the bacon used in another dish by making cinnamon cookies using bacon drippings. And in an episode that shows how to make the most of canned food, those salty little crumbs that end up at the bottom of a bag of potato chips become the secret ingredient in a tuna melt (potato chips, he says, “are like salt on steroids”).  

With Struggle Meals about to start on SBS Food, we talked to Calenza about his Italian roots and his passion for helping make food affordable.

Has your Italian heritage inspired your love of food and cooking? 

It’s my Italian heritage that set me on this path. My grandparents were amazing cooks and hosted elaborate family dinners -I can still remember the tastes to this day. My mother’s cooking has always been effortless, ever-present, and flavourful. I didn’t know how good I had it until I left home; that’s when I "caught the bug" and began to learn for myself. I left home at 14, so it’s been a 20-year journey for me.

When I became obsessed with Italian language about 15 years ago, the secrets, myths, and history surrounding Italian dishes opened up to me with depth I’d never seen in the English language. I gathered tips, tricks, stories, and lessons from Nonna, boat captains, dentists, and motorcycle racers of Italy. I took what I learned and cooked for my friends in New York while sharing my acquired knowledge. Amatriciana, for example - sheep’s pecorino cheese is the only cheese that can be used because the people of Amatrice were sheepherders; their commune doctrine calls for an iron pan to be the exclusive cooking vessel for the guanciale’s fat to be rendered in.

How did you start filming what you were cooking?

The apartment that I lived in had the stove facing into the room rather than towards the wall, so all of these dinners - which grew in size and popularity - were very much like a live cooking show. One day, a friend of a friend - whom I’d never met until that night – said: “Frankie, you know, you should really film this." She was right, and so here we are! Not only has my Italian heritage given me a great foundation, it has set me on this path to share and teach with passion. 

What are your top tips for people who want to watch their budget?

I recently put out a survey on my Instagram page in order to understand what I can do to better help my followers. One of the questions was, “Are you motivated to do a better job reducing food waste by using all of the ingredients you buy?” The average answer was overwhelmingly, "Yes." Another question was, “Are you motivated to spend less money on cooking than you currently do?” The responses to this question varied by age; the younger folks wanted to save money, while the older folks weren’t as concerned. So, my thoughts are this: if you want to spend less on food, use up all of your ingredients. First World countries throw out more than 40 per cent of their groceries, which means that we can theoretically save 40 per cent of what we spend on food just by being craftier in the kitchen.

Struggle Meals aims to provide creative solutions to the food waste and dollar cost conundrum. One of the most exciting areas of the world I view from afar is that of green energy and green tech; we now have so many tools that can help us save our planet! Food waste and decomposition, however, are just as detrimental to greenhouse gases as the world’s entire transportation sector. The combination of cooking, using all ingredients, saving money, and eating great meals is an awesome way to do our part to leave a smaller footprint while also saving money. 

How did you come to host Struggle Meals

I'd been working with Tastemade [the company that makes Struggle Meals] for a couple of years. We’d had success with Frankie’s World, but we felt that a budget cooking show was needed and timely.

When I was approached about the opportunity, I was ecstatic! We got to work right away. Myself and the Tastemade team agreed that the show should be high energy -- like a Snap video -- but not exhaustingly so … the way we film the show is in a constant state of evolution in a never ending quest to do better by the audience. The most exciting part is that we have a direct line of communication with hundreds of thousands -- if not millions -- of fans via social media. It feels good knowing that their feedback helps direct us in the direction we head with each new season, episode, and featured dish.

What have you learned from making the show? 

I’ve learned a lot. I've learned that I can always do better -- for the team on set, for myself, and for the viewers. I’ve learned that I’m not just a chef anymore; I have the role and responsibility of a host, which has a huge performance aspect to it. My role isn’t just to make great recipes, it’s to become that of an onscreen salesman of sorts. I need to sell the affordability and explosive flavour of each dish, leaving the viewers' mouths salivating.

Cooking on a screen - TV or mobile - cuts out the senses of aroma, taste, and texture for the audience. As a result, I work incredibly hard to stimulate the visual and aural senses as best as I can. I’ve got an amazing team behind me that helps elevate these two senses by being passionate masters of their own crafts and by pushing me to give more to the cameras. It’s intoxicating and I love it.

At the end of the day, we will continue to evolve and work hard to do better until technology allows me to hand viewers the dish through the screen!

Find more about Frankie Celenza on his website (which also has links to his social media channels). Find more budent-friendly recipes from Struggle Meals here

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