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, ‚ÄėThere he was back in ‚Äô72 in Rangoon ‚Ä¶ .‚Äô¬†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‚Äôve 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‚Äôve 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 ‚ÄĒ a gentleman named Michael Max Knobbe.
I had sent him a little teaser reel of stuff I‚Äôd 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‚Äôve 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 ‚ÄĒ and we‚Äôre still doing it as we speak ‚ÄĒ and then we got a great call from a man at Cooking Channel, a man named Mark Oliver, and he invited me and said, ‚ÄúWe‚Äôd love to take what you‚Äôve 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‚Äôs 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‚Äôs why Cory Booker follows you on Twitter!
JF:¬†That’s why! He‚Äôs 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‚Äôve been to, I‚Äôd like to represent for that city. We don‚Äôt 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‚Äôm always there to represent those cities and their culinary traditions.
CGM:¬†You‚Äôre busting out of the Bronx and into some pretty unique locations. How did you choose the places you went ‚ÄĒ 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‚Äôm going to be part of, you‚Äôd have a reason to watch. It‚Äôs got to be something new, someplace you haven‚Äôt been and maybe someplace you wouldn‚Äôt even think to go. It‚Äôs got to bring something fresh and interesting ‚ÄĒ and also change people‚Äôs 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‚Äôs Deep Fried Turkey, and you had a gentleman, because he and his wife are two different cultures, they have a deep-fried ‚ÄúSoul Taco.‚ÄĚ So you have his Mexican heritage, where they‚Äôre 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‚Äôt like they sat down in a boardroom and said, “Hey, let‚Äôs make a five-star restaurant and we‚Äôre going to have a long waiting list and … .” No! They said, “Let‚Äôs bring together our flavors of passion and feed our community and everybody who comes in here.” They know almost everyone‚Äôs 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‚Äôre not from that neighborhood.
CGM:¬†I‚Äôve covered a lot of food television, and I‚Äôll admit that these are the most intriguing episode descriptions I have ever seen ‚ÄĒ 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‚Äôll do is, I have a lot of stories already kind of pre-written in my head. Adventures I‚Äôve been waiting to go on. I have lot of treatments in my little memory bank. So I‚Äôll have one kinda ready to go, but then you need the reality element to play off that, to make the story more customized.
I‚Äôll go into a city with an idea of the story that I want to tell, but I have to make sure that it‚Äôll work for that city.¬†So we‚Äôll find, say, five restaurants and we feature three per episode and have two backups. And of the three we choose, I‚Äôll play around with the personalities we‚Äôve met ‚ÄĒ 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‚Äôs such an exciting, exciting process because for me. And it‚Äôs really important for me to be there during the research, because it‚Äôs 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 ‚ÄĒ it‚Äôs so crucial. And then to go home with your mind and your taste buds just buzzing with new information and flavors ‚ÄĒ 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‚Äôve never acted before, of course, they‚Äôre nervous and they‚Äôre warming up ‚ÄĒ but by the end of the day, everybody‚Äôs a pro. They‚Äôre ad-libbing and they‚Äôre adding their own lines and it‚Äôs just fun to see what happens ‚ÄĒ because I think everyone has a performer inside them and it‚Äôs just a matter of them getting comfortable and forgetting that the camera is there and falling into the world of the Baron. That‚Äôs 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 ‚ÄĒ so have you basically been on this career path for most of your life?
JF: It‚Äôs always been film, performing and food ‚ÄĒ and it‚Äôs been so fun trying to make them come together.
I‚Äôve always been so fascinated by history and culinary and lore ‚ÄĒ what‚Äôs behind a cuisine. Having a minor in history, it‚Äôs always been so interesting to me to find out not just what you‚Äôre eating, but why it tastes that way and the historical facts behind why we‚Äôre eating this¬†and why this dish tastes this way and who may have migrated here with it at some point. There‚Äôs 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‚Äôs 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‚Äôs always some things that are the menu … and then there are those Other Dishes. There‚Äôs 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‚Äôs 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‚Äôs rarest food condiment Ca Cuong ‚ÄĒ which I‚Äôm 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 ‚ÄĒ I thought I just wanted to make a documentary. So I discovered in the Guinness Book of World Records, this world‚Äôs rarest condiment ‚ÄĒ 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‚Äôt the joy that was there from my more outrageous science-fiction films. That‚Äôs what brings me such joy about the Baron‚Äôs world ‚ÄĒ that we can still go to the four corners of the earth, but it‚Äôs going to be wrapped in a delicious candy shell of cinema.
For me, for my own personal pleasure, it‚Äôs 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‚Äôve always been a huge fan of John Waters, not only for the uncompromising nature of his films, but because he also ‚ÄĒ obviously ¬†‚ÄĒ 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 ‚ÄĒ and we‚Äôve done the same thing in the Bronx. We have the same actors that we always use ‚ÄĒ just this little crew.
I‚Äôve 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, ‚ÄúBaltimore is such a cool city!” ‚ÄĒ 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‚Äôs Bronx ‚ÄĒ in all of John‚Äôs films, you have John Waters‚Äô Baltimore.
So with that being said, I wanted to create an homage to the world that he created, and have kind of a ‚Äė60s 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 ‚ÄĒ because he‚Äôs 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.” ‚ÄĒ ¬†who is completely unlike himself, and he‚Äôll be the first one to tell you that. ¬†He’s this rough-and-tumble guy who just got out of jail and I‚Äôm dating his girlfriend. So, of course, he‚Äôs 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