He’s the Culinary Ambassador of the Bronx. The Quaffer of Culinary Consciousness. He’s Baron Ambrosia!
He’s also Justin Fornal, a Connecticut-born, Bronx-based independent filmmaker who found a brilliant way to combine a lifelong love of food and film into one over-the-top and always hungry character.
“I was with my filming partner Joe Bly in Washington Heights,” Fornal says of the first day that Baron Ambrosia drew a breath, “and we had this idea for a character who was very much like myself but at the same time had a different history and wasmuch older and had a dubious past that we could cherry pick from whenever we wanted to make a story more elaborate. You know, like, ‘There he was back in ’72 in Rangoon … .’ So we were in Washington Heights and we did our first story in a place I call Chimi Row, which is, like, Amsterdam between 175th and 181st.”
Once Fornal had his new alter ego down to what he likens to muscle memory in terms of temperament and style, he introduced the Baron to the world via his self-produced video podcast, Underbelly NYC, and then on Bronx Flavor, his award-winning, uber-quirky and ultra-informative culinary travelogue on New York’s pubic-access cable network BronxNet.
“We all now understand what the Baron will do in any situation,” Fornal says. “What he will tolerate. When he will strike out. When he will be impassioned. Whatever it is. You get to know the code of the Baron.”
Now national TV audiences will get to know the code of the Baron, too. After his successful introduction to Cooking Channel audiences in a 2011 special, Baron Ambrosia, nee Justin Fornal, stars in an 8-episode season of the network’s new series The Culinary Adventures of Baron Ambrosia premiering tonight at 10/9CT on Cooking Channel.
I talked with Fornal about introducing America to the Baron, his unique approach to storytelling and playing crab roulette on camera with the legendary John Waters.
Channel Guide Magazine: You’ve been a podcast- and New York television sensation for some time. So what was the process of finally bringing the Baron to national TV as a series?
Justin Fornal: We’ve been making the show Bronx Flavor for quite a few years in the Bronx with a great little local network called BronxNet. They were the first ones to give me the funding to carry out my vision — a gentleman named Michael Max Knobbe.
I had sent him a little teaser reel of stuff I’d done online for my podcast and he said to come on in and we started doing this show called Bronx Flavor with the gentlemen I’ve been working with, Joe Bly and Ray Pagnucco. Just this little independent filmmaking team that had been working together a long time.
So we did that show for about four years — and we’re still doing it as we speak — and then we got a great call from a man at Cooking Channel, a man named Mark Oliver, and he invited me and said, “We’d love to take what you’ve done in the Bronx and take it national. Keep the cinematic world of the Baron, but take it to different cities across the country.” And that’s how it began!
So we made the pilot a year ago in Newark, New Jersey, and it did really well and now we just finished our first season.
CGM: Ah! So that’s why Cory Booker follows you on Twitter!
JF: That’s why! He’s great. He actually gave me a proclamation naming me the culinary amabassador of Newark, which I was very proud to receive.
Actually, any city that we’ve been to, I’d like to represent for that city. We don’t just film and leave. I like to make friendships with the businesses and with the people and I love that they know that they can call me any time and I’m always there to represent those cities and their culinary traditions.
CGM: You’re busting out of the Bronx and into some pretty unique locations. How did you choose the places you went — and the stories you told when you got there? Did one beget the other?
JF: I picked places that, first and foremost, people had not covered for food television. And I thought that it was important that whatever show I’m going to be part of, you’d have a reason to watch. It’s got to be something new, someplace you haven’t been and maybe someplace you wouldn’t even think to go. It’s got to bring something fresh and interesting — and also change people’s perspectives.
I think most people have somewhat of a view of where they can go and where they should go, and I want them to know that there is a lot more adventure just around the corner. Like Newark. Or Compton. These are places that you might not realize or might not think of, but they have wonderful culinary communities just waiting for you to dive in.
CGM: It’s the tried-and-true maxim of “eat where the locals eat to get the best dining experience.”
JF: The perfect example is when we went to Compton. We found a place called Loreto’s Deep Fried Turkey, and you had a gentleman, because he and his wife are two different cultures, they have a deep-fried “Soul Taco.” So you have his Mexican heritage, where they’re making tacos, but you also have her African American heritage with the deep-fried turkey slathered in gravy. So together they made this Soul Taco!
It was such an amazing, organic experience that happened there. It happened very naturally. It wasn’t like they sat down in a boardroom and said, “Hey, let’s make a five-star restaurant and we’re going to have a long waiting list and … .” No! They said, “Let’s bring together our flavors of passion and feed our community and everybody who comes in here.” They know almost everyone’s name and exactly what they want to order. But this place is totally new to me. I walked in and was like, this is so exciting and refreshing. These places have been doing their thing for a long time, but they feel like a new discovery if you’re not from that neighborhood.
CGM: I’ve covered a lot of food television, and I’ll admit that these are the most intriguing episode descriptions I have ever seen — so walk me through a typical episode and how much is scripted and not scripted and how you build the story you want to tell.
JF: What I’ll do is, I have a lot of stories already kind of pre-written in my head. Adventures I’ve been waiting to go on. I have lot of treatments in my little memory bank. So I’ll have one kinda ready to go, but then you need the reality element to play off that, to make the story more customized.
I’ll go into a city with an idea of the story that I want to tell, but I have to make sure that it’ll work for that city. So we’ll find, say, five restaurants and we feature three per episode and have two backups. And of the three we choose, I’ll play around with the personalities we’ve met — the chefs, the patrons, the neighborhood and then write that into the story.
So the beginning and the end might be there, but this what is going to give you the guts. This is what makes it feel customized to that neighborhood and to those people. So we might have something from the menu play a major part in the storyline.
It’s such an exciting, exciting process because for me. And it’s really important for me to be there during the research, because it’s my name attached to these restaurants and I want to know that these are places that I want to stand behind. So I want to go there and taste the food and meet the people — it’s so crucial. And then to go home with your mind and your taste buds just buzzing with new information and flavors — the stores just write themselves. They absolutely write themselves. Because you feel so alive after leaving these great cities and meeting these great people.
CGM: And it’s so much fun to see the restaurant workers have more to do that say, “We add four cups of this and we cook it that long … .”
JF: At the beginning, if they’ve never acted before, of course, they’re nervous and they’re warming up — but by the end of the day, everybody’s a pro. They’re ad-libbing and they’re adding their own lines and it’s just fun to see what happens — because I think everyone has a performer inside them and it’s just a matter of them getting comfortable and forgetting that the camera is there and falling into the world of the Baron. That’s when it really comes alive.
CGM: I read that you had a subscription to Gourmet when you were in elementary school and were an aspiring wine collector in middle school — so have you basically been on this career path for most of your life?
JF: It’s always been film, performing and food — and it’s been so fun trying to make them come together.
I’ve always been so fascinated by history and culinary and lore — what’s behind a cuisine. Having a minor in history, it’s always been so interesting to me to find out not just what you’re eating, but why it tastes that way and the historical facts behind why we’re eating this and why this dish tastes this way and who may have migrated here with it at some point. There’s so much behind what we eat, and I think that if you know the historical information behind it, it gives you a heightened appreciation. That’s where the idea of “culinary consciousness” comes into play.
When you find some of these cultures that have a small pocket in a city, there’s always some things that are the menu … and then there are those Other Dishes. There’s those Other Dishes that you might not think are en vogue anymore and only the grandparents know how to make it. I think that it’s so important that we preserve those recipes and those dishes because like so many other elements of culture, they do get lost.
CGM: I’m guessing that’s the sort of combined curiosity that also led you to make your documentary about the world’s rarest food condiment Ca Cuong — which I’m not even going to attempt to pronounce.
JF: That was really the first time that it all came together! That was something that I wanted to do for a long time — I thought I just wanted to make a documentary. So I discovered in the Guinness Book of World Records, this world’s rarest condiment — this Ca Cuong in Vietnam. So, we saved some money and ventured out and filmed it. And we actually went a lot places and used it in Underbelly years later.
But it was funny, because I just felt like it felt so much drier than what I was used to making. There wasn’t the joy that was there from my more outrageous science-fiction films. That’s what brings me such joy about the Baron’s world — that we can still go to the four corners of the earth, but it’s going to be wrapped in a delicious candy shell of cinema.
For me, for my own personal pleasure, it’s the best of both worlds. I get to give you this information that you may not otherwise be hearing about. But I get to have a lot fun doing it.
CGM: Speaking of a delicious candy shell of cinema, take as long as you would like to tell me about playing crab roulette in Baltimore with the one and only John Waters for the June 22 episode.
JF: I’ve always been a huge fan of John Waters, not only for the uncompromising nature of his films, but because he also — obviously — came from a very strong guerilla filmmaking background. Where he had very little to work with but always carried on, making films with community people — and we’ve done the same thing in the Bronx. We have the same actors that we always use — just this little crew.
I’ve always felt such a bond with John in that regard. So we were looking at cities on the East Coast that we might want to use and I was like, “Baltimore is such a cool city!” — and of course the first thing that I thought of with Baltimore was John Waters. Like we have in Bronx Flavor, where you have the Baron’s Bronx — in all of John’s films, you have John Waters’ Baltimore.
So with that being said, I wanted to create an homage to the world that he created, and have kind of a ‘60s greaser-style mini-epic. And I thought it would be so great if we could get him to play one of the kind of characters that he created — because he’s created so many great, villainous, outrageous characters. So I thought it would be so great in an ironic sort of way to have him play one of these bad dudes!
So we came up with idea of him playing “J.W.” — who is completely unlike himself, and he’ll be the first one to tell you that. He’s this rough-and-tumble guy who just got out of jail and I’m dating his girlfriend. So, of course, he’s coming to kick some Baron butt!
All new episodes of The Culinary Adventures of Baron Ambrosia air Friday nights at 10/9CT on Cooking Channel.
Photos and video: Cooking Channel