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Fed up with overpriced university meal plans, Frankie Celenza decided to use his dorm, then later a shared loft in New York, as a test kitchen.
Years later, he's still teaching hungry young adults how to feed themselves on a budget. His series "Struggle Meals" from global entertainment company Tastemade shows viewers how to create $2 dishes, and has been viewed more than 6.5 million times. And no, it's not boiling an onion in water every day. His dishes range from buttermilk fried chicken to pizza to zucchini fettuccine. The series debuted on Facebook's Watch, but is available now on other platforms including Amazon Prime, Tastemade and YouTube.
"Instagram stories in particular enable me to cook big meals for my family and friends without thinking about lighting or cameras," Celenza said.
"It brings them into my kitchen. The double whammy is that it's inspiring to watch a lot of things being cooked at once, it makes my fans think 'I could do that'! And that's exactly the point, they can!"
Celenza, a native New Yorker, grew up spending summers in Italy with family friends. He quickly learned how to whip up grub with just local ingredients and no recipe books.
When he started attending New York University in 2005, he was surprised at price of the required meal plan in the dorms. Currently, the minimum requirement costs more than $15 each meal. So he began making dinners for his friends using the dorm's facilities, then eventually moved to a rent-controlled loft, where he and his roommates built a kitchen.
Though Celenza was studying music production, he realized he loved cooking. Upon graduation, he started "Frankie Cooks" on YouTube, which taught people how to make quick recipes. He soon found there were too many YouTube cooking shows. To stay competitive, he decided to move his show to local access TV on NYCLife. Through the course of 19 half-hour shows, he focused on showing New York's expansive cuisines. The shows were later cut up and shown on YouTube.
Eventually, Celenza caught the eye of Tastemade, which hired him to make sponsored content and a series. He's since worked with the company on projects for Starbucks, Pepsi and Avocados From Mexico, and was one of two chefs invited to cook with Michelle Obama at the White House.
Coming full circle from his dorm days, Celenza's latest Tastemade show, "Struggle Meals," focuses on low-budget easy dishes. He counts the cost of ingredients down to the pennies' worth of olive oil to keep each serving under $2. His tricks include buying larger items, like cutting a whole chicken into several parts, and using dry bulk goods. He also uses free take-out packets of ketchup, salt, pepper, honey, red pepper flakes and soy sauce to add more flavor.
Everyone can make a hearty meal with some sort of fat like an oil, starch like rice or pasta and an aromatic like onion or garlic, Celenza points out. These items are shelf-stable and relatively cheap, so you don't need to go to a grocery store every day. There's really no excuse to avoid cooking, he said.
"To those who say they can't cook: Can you physically not do it?" Celenza said. "That's the only legitimate excuse for not being able to cook. Give it a shot, maybe you'll fail — it's no big deal, do it again. We're humans, we learn to do everything from repetition and persistence, nothing more, nothing less. Plus, you'll have an excellent skill for life, so there's really no downside to learning to cook."