Emmy Winner Frankie Celenza Talks The New Season Of Frankie Vs. The Internet - Exclusive Interview

Frankie Celenza has been delighting the internet with his incredible cooking ability for years. Celenza first made his cooking debut on his YouTube channel, "Frankie Cooks," teaching a young generation how to cook from one of their contemporaries. It wasn't long until he took off and started producing more content, first for local television and now as the host of various shows for Tastemade.

With all his success, Celenza hasn't forgotten his roots as a poor college student. As part of the show "Struggle Meals," Celenza takes on challenges with limited funds and supplies and shows how a little ingenuity can create satisfying meals. Celenza recently won an Emmy for outstanding culinary host for his role on the show. Ever busy, Frankie's other series, "Frankie vs. the Internet," is set for a new season to be released on July 20, 2022. We sat down with Frankie to find out what we can expect from Season 2 and what he finds the most rewarding about being an internet chef.

Frankie vs. the Internet

Could you tell us a little bit about "Frankie vs. the Internet"?

Sure. Effectively, social media's been around a long time, but as it's miniaturized and gone onto cell phones and vertical video has taken over, these short snippets have become the de facto standard. We often see these videos of food that are either outrageously expensive or have a gazillion steps. The whole thing is presented in a 30-second package with a little bow on top. The purpose of this show is to see: "Is it feasible in real life? And does it taste good?" We're taking those things [and] we're bringing it to a longer format. That's what I would say the show is.

How does the show come up with what they're going to use as the challenge for the episode?

I've got an awesome co-host, Katie Molinaro, and she's huge on TikTok for basically spotting out these viral food trends, rating them, eating them, [and] making fun of them. She's got her finger on the pulse big time, and it's awesome having her on the show because there is no hack she does not know. There is no trend that she does not know. She can see right through the BS if someone's spitting it at her because she's so on it — that is her thing. Katie's definitely one person to say, "Hey, maybe this should be a challenge." Then, there's an entire production team that figures out what would be good.

If something went viral for a short period of time — even if it garnered millions and millions of views — if it doesn't continue and other people don't try to continue to copy it, that's probably out. But something that keeps getting passed on and morphing, much like the virus we're dealing with ... that's good, as far as the recipe goes, not like virally. Oh, that's ironic. Double entendre there.

What's in store for Season 2

Are there any special surprises in store for this season that you can tell us about?

I'm sure there are, but I don't know if I can tell you anything. We came back with Season 2 even better than Season 1 because we learned a lot about how to make the show. If Season 3 comes around, I already know a gazillion things I can do better.

What would be a surprise? I don't think anything's too [surprising] ... I think you'd be surprised at how going into one of these recipes or hearing what it is, you might say that [it] sounds like the dumbest thing ever. But the beauty of all this stuff and seeing the steps [is that] even if you don't make the final dish or a viewer doesn't make the final dish, there's so many little nuggets of how to navigate little problems that arise in cooking or ways to handle a certain ingredient that you could use for a dish that you've been [making] your whole life. There's a lot of value in that for sure, because cooking is a never-ending learning experience.

Who are some of the guests and contestants we'll see in this coming season?

Oh, we've got a lot. A really big one would be Josh Elkin. Josh was part of the Epic Meal Time crew, which as far as I'm concerned was the first viral food thing on YouTube ever. They had epic music and a calorie counter and they made totally blasphemous college food. He's turned it into a career and has been going as long as I have, if not longer. I know he is in year 13 plus. This is right up Josh's alley because he's been making this kind of food forever. As far as I'm concerned, he's the king of it.

We've had Bricia Lopez as a judge. I'm seeing her on Netflix and Food Network. She's all over the place — she's an awesome chef. We had Caroline Chambers, who has one of the highest subscriber counts on Substack. She's a mom that cooks for kids, and she's got thousands of paying subscribers, which is cool. Don't count her out. She's unbelievable. Ashley Morgan, the Jerk Muva — she was absolutely slaying, coming up with really interesting stuff. [There are] a lot of people [on the show].

Internet cooking success

What first got you interested in cooking?

I grew up in an Italian American family in New York City. When I left home for the first time, it occurred to me that not all other Americans had good home cooking in the family. I started undercutting my college's meal plan by a dollar, inviting people over to my place and telling them the history and myths of these Italian dishes I'd been eating my whole life, and they seemed interested. 

Then I looked online. I saw there were ... well, there was only YouTube at the time, because this was when George Bush was the president. I looked online and I was like, "Gee, if a 22-year-old wants to learn how to cook, there's no one with whom he or she can relate. All there [is] is Food Network, and they're all in their late 30s." The passion of food and eating then went to, "There's an opportunity to tell my generation or at least teach them in some way."

You recently won an Emmy for your efforts for "Struggle Meals."

We're so happy. We've been working on "Struggle Meals" for five years now. We've done seven seasons, and the nomination came on our last day of 11 days of shooting. I started seeing people come onto set and whispering in the director's ear. I was like, "I think we got it." We all got to celebrate that together. The win obviously is super cool, but nominations are fantastic too. It's nice to be recognized on a newer channel that isn't established by the Academy. Actually, it's cool. I'm pleased, Tastemade's pleased, everyone on the crew is pleased. It's an awesome honor.

Tough situations on set

How do you and the other chefs on "Frankie vs. the Internet" handle the stress of the ticking clock?

I've definitely got an upper hand because I'm comfortable on that set. I know 70% of the crew at any given time. You've got to just do it. These challenges that come to us are so absurd, the little nuggets of the videos that we were talking about earlier. Ultimately, one has to improvise to make these dishes happen. In order to improvise something and have a high probability of a successful outcome, you've got to have at least a base of classical cooking techniques conceptualized in your head.

We've had a lot of people that are private cooks come on as well as social media people. They tend to handle the pressure extremely well because anyone who has private cooked, myself included, knows: Just do it, make it happen. You push through, and the problems keep coming, and you roll with them and you figure it out ... I don't know, you keep going. It's like life, actually.

Is there any recipe that came onto the show that gave you a particularly hard time? How did you cope with that?

There was one episode where I had to cook a three-course dinner in a microwave. I went with really colorful stuff. I don't know how much I should give away. 

I went with really colorful stuff. It seemed like it was going to work out pretty great. One of them was a dessert in the microwave. I did an olive-oil orange cake, which actually was the best thing that came out. But my logic going in is the microwave is the biggest enemy to texture, and texture is one of the most beautiful things about cooking. Therefore, if I'm using a microwave, I cannot cook meat or fish. My competitor took the opposite strategy and came up with some incredible stuff. It was mind-boggling.

Frankie's favorites

Do you have a favorite recipe that you worked on this season?

There were a few that came out that I was proud of that I thought were cool. One of them — I don't remember what I called it in the moment — but it was popcorn-popcorn chicken. I made popcorn chicken, but I popped popcorn and worked it into the breading of the popcorn chicken. Then I got to feed it to Kim Prince, who's the heiress to Prince's Hot Chicken. She loved it, so that was cool. But the pressure was on [for] that for sure. That was pretty cool. 

We had to make a meal with watermelon that couldn't look anything like watermelon when it was done. I came up with a fried watermelon sandwich with watermelon rind ketchup. Then there was another one where I had to deconstruct a meal and turn it into a taco — or maybe that's just what happened. I don't know if that was actually a challenge. That one was pretty cool too, [and] wild making it happen — the weirdest stuff. There's a good sense of satisfaction when something totally bizarre comes out and it relatively worked.

What's the most rewarding part of doing these shows for you?

I enjoy cooking very much and I love challenging myself and improvising with the bag of tools and techniques that I have, but I'm finding another interesting, rewarding, and satisfying feeling [working with people] who have tens if not hundreds of millions of views. They get on our set and they're shaking a little and I'm thinking to myself, "Oh, my goodness, you've reached everyone in the country view-wise, but you've been doing it in the privacy of your own home, not live on your phone on a tripod." 30 people behind the cameras is a whole different experience. They come up to me with these enormous social followings afterward, and they're like, "That was exhausting, but oh my God, that was so exhilarating."

Listen, there's so many tools for the 22- and 23-year-olds now doing this that didn't exist when I was there. I'm satisfied in helping them [and] keeping the journey going. A year is nothing — three years isn't even that long. I feel like it takes eight years to really be in it. I want these kids who have absolutely killed it in the last two [or] three years to hang on another five. That means morphing and being a chameleon.

The secret is salt

What is one ingredient you can't live without?

Salt. That's it. I was watching a video where someone was making something and they had one of the salt crankers. I'm thinking, "I hate the salt cranker." I've always hated it because you want to develop a muscle memory with a salt that you can pick up and a brand that you like so that you can really feel it. But also it's such a scam, the salt-grinder, because salt doesn't need to be freshly cracked like pepper.

What is your go-to fast food order?

Right now it's a flat-top hot dog cut in half and then cooked with the cut side down [to] get the nice maillard reaction — that would be it right now. Relish, mustard, maybe onions, done. That's it. I'm happy with that. No soda — sparkling water, maybe with a squeeze of lemon. That's pretty good. I've done that three or four times, which is an enormous amount of fast food for me because I find myself cooking something really fast.

Breaking the rules

Who is one chef you would love to cook dinner for you?

Dominique Crenn. I'd be down with that. She's the only three-star Michelin female chef in America. She's out in San Francisco. She's French, but she breaks the rules. I admire that so much because the Italians don't want to break the rules and the French don't want to break the rules. When people at the high level of those cuisines with that heritage do so, it actually changes that very locked-in, "this is the way it is done" mindset of those historically rich food countries. I know a dinner with her would be great.

It seems like a lot of "Frankie vs. the Internet" is a lot of breaking the rules to complete the challenges.

100%. It's easy to look at it on the surface and say, "This is stupid," and that depends on your age and whatnot, but it's not the case. You can learn from anything. You really can. It brings me full circle.

If you have to turn ramen noodles into something that's firm for a silly challenge, doesn't that then give you some techniques on how to make something soft [into something] crispy or brittle for a textural change in a different dish? Yeah, so then you learn subconsciously.

Listen, this [cell phone] is an amazing device. It has become the free television of my generation and younger, but people are not going to watch long-form vertically. If we can take what's working here, bring it into a longer format, and dive deep into these things to see if they really work or not, then it's going to weed out the bad recipes that are all there for shock value. But it's also going to give people continued culinary knowledge, which makes everybody a better eater, a better food buyer, and a better diner. 

That's the beautiful thing about all these food shows — the food IQ of Americans is going up after ... The '60s, '70s, and '80s were bad years for the United States food-wise. It's coming back. We're in decade three of bringing it back, and this is part of it. It just is.

Frankie Celenza and Tastemade's hit series, "Frankie vs. the Internet," is back for Season 2 on Wednesday, July 20, available for streaming on Tastemade.com.

This interview was edited for clarity.