What is authentic?
Guys, lately I’ve found myself wondering about this concept, both for reasons linked to my new university experience (you’re 28 and still at uni? quote by Bra's funniest Barber) and a quest for personal growth.#sodeep
Think about it, how strange is it for an Italian guy to cook typical American dishes? Do you remember when the Germans tried to cook pasta straight in the pan and Italian people rebelled against “The Man” and united like back in the days of Zinedine Zidane’s head hit.
I remember it a bit different...
In my opinion American people think the same about my recipes, but I don’t feel guilty...on the contrary, I defend my choices and I don’t disown my decisions. This is why I wanted to try and understand how it feels on the other side, spreading Italian culture in the US, among generations of immigrants and cooking shows junkies.
Today I want to tell you about Frankie Celenza. With his shows such as Frankie Cooks, he endeared thousands of Americans to Italian cooking, with an ironic style and a bit of wisdom for each dish.
I’ve come to know Frankie through my sister, who showed me his video on Youtube. At first I asked myself “Who is this guy?” then I started to follow him regularly, in particular with his new show “Struggle Meals” where he creates good, healthy and tasty dishes with less than $2. (Perfect for those who, like myself, must struggle with a permanent lack of cash #StruggleMeals)
My favorite episode so far
We talk on Skype. Frankie is as genuine as grandma’s pie, what you see on Youtube is really him, superengaged and with a passion for food that he shows in his every move.
Over with the fanboy moment, I’m trying to act in a dignified way so we start talking about food.
He tells me of how “the Italian taste” is a construct. He talks about immigration the other way around, of products which arrived in Europe from America way before the people…. think about it: the tomatoes, symbol of Italian cooking, that actually originate from the US! Pasta with tomato sauce, the emblem of nostalgia for so many immigrants to the Americas is nothing but a going back to tomatoes’ roots.
“So what’s wrong about experimenting?”
Mindblown. When we think about cooking (Italian in particular) we are always tied to an immovable tradition that more than often holds us back and doesn’t allow us to go forward and jump into the unexplored, slaves of our comfort zone.
We talked of how the immigrants to Argentina created a “gnocchi day”, of the different Italian dishes which have become important for entire communities all over the world.
Frankie is writing a book on all this and on Italian cooking…. needless to say it will be an #instantbuy for me.
Frankie started his career in high school where he organized dinners for his classmates, cooking traditional Italian dishes. From there he decided to start his career as a youtuber, which led him to win several Emmy Awards and become one of the most popular people on Tastemade.
AND guys, his granddad is from Vasto, so I cannot help being fond of him no matter what.
A special guy under many respects.
I have been talking too long so I will leave you with five questions to know Frankie, the guy who loves Italian food more than many inhabitants of the Boot.
5 questions for Frankie
Who is Frankie?
I'm a third generation Italian American. A kid who rides a 150cc vespa around the streets of New York, who loves blues music and eating all the great cuisines of the world with friends. I love tennis, I love the snow, I love beer and wine. I love the culture of Italy and the pace of the United States.
Frankie's world, Frankie cooks and Struggle meals: different shows, same Frankie. What keeps you moving between exciting and new projects?
I’m always going to be myself, which may or may not be a blessing. The shows keep changing because I’m trying to find the right format that really clicks with my generation. I think Struggle Meals is that show, or at least the closest we’ve come yet. At first we thought it would be a resource only for university students, it turns out that truck drivers, single parents and a lot of Americans find it an incredibly useful resource. Part of the reason is because, unlike Italy, Europe and Asia; Americans really tried to create their own food culture based on convenience. Fast food of the sixties and frozen dinners of the seventies are an example of that, as a result we lost the heritage that our families brought with them to the USA. Struggle Meals offers a way to travel the world via dishes of food, without spending a lot of money and without the pretentious nature of a highbrow travel/cooking show. Mentions of how a dish would be in a certain place are common on the show, but because of who we’re catering to, I have to make changes to the recipes. This upsets many purists, who in my opinion are completely missing the point. What keeps me moving is the motivation that I can provide some information and motivation that bestows pride upon people whom I don’t know. I’d like to do that for as many people as possible, and that’s why the shows keep changing. As people search for recipes on the internet, I’m searching for the right viewers at the same time.
Can you tell us about your Italians origins? In Italy, the importance of "authenticity" in food and cuisine is a big deal... even if nobody can really give a definition of it. What is your your definition of "authenticity”?
In 1914 my dad’s side came from Vasto a small town in Abruzzo, Mom’s side came from somewhere in Campania around the same time. I grew up with home cooked meals my whole life, none of my friends did. Eggplant parm was one of my favorite childhood dishes, my friends only knew of chicken parm, which is authentic New York Italian America, but non-existent in Italia. I’ve come full circle on the word “authentic” I used to be an adamant defender of the “correct” way of doing things. But ironically, more often than not, the correct way uses ideology such as “quanto basta” and while living in Firenze, dado cubes were always added to the sugo. I don’t think there’s one way, I think there are many ways and the key, I’ve found, is to know as much as possible. I’ll use Amatriciana as an example. The true recipe calls for guanciale cooked in an iron pan, with some peperoncino, no onion, no garlic. White wine is used for deglazing then 6-7 san marzano tomatoes are added. the Cheese is meant to be a Pecorino from Amatrice, and only spaghetti or rigatoni are to be used.
Now, already, I’m sure some people have read this and decided that I’m incorrect. So already ‘authenticity’ is being questioned, even though this is how the website of the commune of Amatrice states is “the authentic way". Now, I’m in New York, I cannot get Pecorino from Amatrice, I can only get Pecorino Romano, is that an acceptable substitution? The Amatrice would say “absolutely not” the Romans, wouldn’t have a problem with the swap. What if I can’t get DOP San Marzano tomatoes? Can I still make the dish? Many would say “absolutely not” (especially those who have access to DOP SM tomatoes) but any people who live in an area were DOP tomatoes aren’t shipped would say “yes you can still make the dish”. So it’s all very self severing depending on where you live, and at times it can feel like school kids nagging at each other over who gets to be captain of dodgeball. At the end of the day, I want to respect the origin of dishes, try to learn everything I can and then make adjustments based on where I live and the ingredients available to me. This upsets some people - but if you go back far enough, Amatriciana was only Gricia (before the tomato came from Peru) and if you go even further back, there is no pasta, you only have the guanciale. So the noodle from China was made Italian by the Italians who used an American fruit as the centerpiece. A great dish, one of my all-time favorites, but still invented with ideas and ingredients from far away lands.
Is it that different from Americans taking the Weiner Schnitzel and treating it in the manner of a Parmigiana? In 200 years, I’m sure Veal Parmigian will be “authentic” to some.
It’s a tough question, which is why I’m asking more questions than answering. Here’s what I’ve tried to do: Learn as much as possible and have an educated discussion with those who will tell you that they know more and that you’re wrong. And that is why the word “authentic” is both wonderful and annoying at the exact same time.
You had the chance of cooking for Michelle Obama, harvesting the vegetable directly from the White House Garden. What you think about the importance of home gardens?
I think home gardens, both big or small are fantastic. The eggplant that I’ve grown the past five years are so wonderful every August. They’re so good because they’re local and were picked the day I cook them. That’s worth everything. Mrs. Obama’s garden was truly incredible, she even has a few varieties of lettuce that NASA has tested on the space station, I tried them, they were “out of this world” with flavor.
What does the future look like for Frankie Cooks? Any spoilers for us?
The future looks long. I’m ten years deep into doing this and I’ve realized that it will become my life’s work, it will have to if I want to make an impact. The competition here in New York is so strong that if 100% isn’t given, things dim quickly. I’m trying to rewrite the book on Italian American food, partially to define it as its own cuisine, but also to teach my generation how to make these great derivatives of your cuisine, and in doing so talk about the origins of dish. I’d like to open a small restaurant in Brooklyn and I have a prototype of a product that I think can become an entire product like of useful pieces for the kitchen. If the last ten years are any indication of how these goals will go, then I know the road will be steep and with many potholes, but I’ll keep pedaling.
Gastronome con la passione per il BBQ, gli Anni 90 e il Whisky che si produce nelle verdi terre Scozzesi