Can pantry foods be 'fancy'? Popular YouTuber Rie McClenny is sure of it

It's a YouTube series with a little dancing, a lot of laughter and enough interesting recipe ideas to fill a pantry.

But Rie McClenny, host of Tasty's "Make it Fancy," hopes to encourage home cooks to empty their pantry shelves, giving the foods they find there a shot at glory.

McClenny, who lives in Los Angeles, California, was born and raised in Hiroshima, Japan and took interest in cooking while working as an event planner for a culinary school in Tokyo, Japan. When the CEO of the culinary school wanted to start a cafe in New York, he asked McClenny to consider moving to the U.S. to manage the business.

The cafe wasn't successful, but McClenny's life in New York had taken off: She married her husband, Blair, and stayed in the U.S., where she attended culinary school.

In 2014, after graduating from culinary school, McClenny moved to Los Angeles, eager to start her career as a chef.

"I wanted to be a food stylist because I knew cooking as a profession was very tough physically and mentally," she told TODAY Food. "But when I was studying culinary arts I also wanted to learn more and hone my skills, so I decided to work in a restaurant first."

How she got the job

After spending two years learning in a restaurant setting, McClenny started to look for jobs in media. A Google search led her to job posting at BuzzFeed that seemed to be made just for her.

"They were looking for someone who lived in LA, had culinary background, spoke Japanese and was preferably a Japanese person or someone who had lived in Japan for at least five years," said McClenny of the posting seeking a recipe developer for Tasty Japan, a BuzzFeed food website. "Basically, I thought, 'No one fits this profile better than me.'"

And McClenny was right: She got the job and began developing recipes for Tasty in 2016. While she made cooking videos showing only her hands cooking through recipes, she was uninterested in appearing on camera as a personality for the site for a personal reason.

At first, she was camera-shy

"Tasty had an iconic style of video where it was just your hands cooking," she explained. "It was a fast-forwarded version of a cooking video and it was perfect because I didn’t need to speak English.

"That was my whole insecurity, that I didn’t speak perfect English and I was self-conscious about it."

McClenny learned to shoot and edit video for Tasty, and in 2017, producer Cyrus Kowsari came to her with an idea for a new YouTube series where a chef would take pantry items and convenience foods and give them a makeover.

McClenny, who had begun to occasionally appear in Tasty videos talking on-camera, suggested they try dressing up ramen noodles. The producer loved her idea and convinced her to create a deep-fried noodle dish on camera using Maruchan instant ramen, explaining to viewers how to make pre-packaged noodles "fancy."

A series is born

"I made ramen fancy by deep-frying it and using the seasoning packet and a bunch of vegetables," said McClenny. "That video was a big hit. I think we got more than one million views within a week."

McClenny's popular YouTube series, "Make it Fancy," was born.

Since November 2017, McClenny has created 25 videos for the series, dressing up everything from Oreo cookies to Eggo waffles and garnering tens of millions of views.

In her videos, McClenny jokes endearingly about her love of cooking with alcohol and gushes lovingly about her knives, which she refers to as her "ladies." After cooking an impressive meal using pantry items, McClenny invites a guest into her kitchen to taste her creation. McClenny and her guest then do the "'Make it Fancy' dance" together — a hand-waving gesture paired with her signature "Make it Fancy" phrase.

In her 25 episodes, McClenny has ground Doritos into dust and used them as a rub for steak, made lobster poutine using frozen french fries and turned Stove Top stuffing into a "Turkey Wellington-style" Thanksgiving meal.

"I think Jell-O was one of the most difficult ones because I had no idea how much gelatin was in Jell-O, so sometimes it didn’t set when I was testing," McClenny said. "One of the ones that blew my mind was when I made a chicken cordon bleu with a Lunchable (and a chicken breast). I used the cheese and ham and then ground up the cracker to use as breadcrumbs."

A 'Fancy' fan club

McClenny says the most rewarding part of making videos is when fans try her recipes at home and tag her on social media.

"I try to make things people actually could try at home," she said. "Whenever they do, they tag me and that makes me so happy. It makes me keep doing this series."

When it comes to overcoming her nervousness about speaking English on camera, McClenny says she found the courage to be herself after the support she received from her fans.

"In the beginning, I was worried I would get negative comments about it, but instead I got overwhelmingly supportive and warm comments and that boosted my confidence," she said. "I realized people come to our channel to watch me cook and learn how to cook, not to learn to speak English from me.

"Also, you won't see a lot of Asian women in food media, especially on camera, so I think it's important I show up and provide representation so other young Asian girls and boys will follow in my footsteps if they want to."