Meet and Eat: NY

Conversations with chefs and food personalities in New York City.

Meet & Eat: Baron Ambrosia (Justin Fornal)

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Promotional photo courtesy of The Baron.

Since 2008, "Baron Ambrosia"—"the mutant offspring of Ali G. and Anthony Bourdain"—has traversed the Bronx in pursuit of the borough's most excellent food, fighting villains and falling in love (several times) along the way. Dressed in a wardrobe that could inspire Tarantino, he prowls the streets with swagger and a penchant for all things spicy.

The Baron Ambrosia character is the invention of gonzo filmmaker Justin Fornal, who has forged ahead with only the limited resources of public television channel BronxNet; Ambrosia is the star of Bronx Flavor. Comedic and narrative driven, the show chronicles the borough's culinary trappings with relish.

The Baron may be a lesson in absurdity, but Fornal, operating behind the outrageous veneer, is for real: an aspiring wine collector in middle school, lover of fufu and cuchifritos in maturity; what he lacks in resources, he more then makes up for in spirit. The show's kitschy vibe and surreal aesthetic provide a much-needed injection of honesty into the increasingly bland and disingenuous landscape of food television.

It didn't take long for him to surface from the depths, gaining national attention from publications including Esquire and the New York Times as well as a small army of devoted followers. Now, Fornal has parlayed his work into a gig with the Cooking Channel, where he will make his big league debut with The Culinary Adventures of Baron Ambrosia this Sunday.

We chat with The Baron after the jump.

Both Esquire Magazine and Boing Boing have called Baron Ambrosia the "Ali G of food". How would you describe him?

I think the job of a writer is to put information in a language everyone can understand in the least amount of words possible. That description definitely gives those unfamiliar with our approach a point of reference.The Baron has many manifestations. At times he is a dashing explorer operating under a strict code of chivalry and honor, other times he comes as the mischievous trickster out to satiate his basest culinary and physical desires.

You were raised in Connecticut. What brought you to the Bronx?

I'd been to the Bronx a few times in my youth and always felt drawn here. While attending University in Pittsburgh I met an ice-cold super fox named Big Kim. She had a manicured tower of red hair, long nails, and wore a ton of gold. She, of course, was from the Bronx. I pursued her and fell into deep passion. I still remember coming off the 2 train one dark November night for a visit. The smell of sofrito in the air, a parked car booming Hector Lavoe, kaleidoscopic murals covering the brick, everywhere people were hanging out. It was like I stepped into a party. Visceral and sensuous, I knew this was where I belonged.

You label yourself as a "guerilla filmmaker." What does that mean to you?

Guerilla film making to me has always meant getting the shot 'by any means necessary'.
We never let our budget write our script. There should be no 'filter of reason' to undermine the creative vision. This usually means we shoot without permits, break into abandoned buildings, film in blizzards, and we never cancel a shoot for any reason. You will see a lot of bigger budget film makers rescheduling a shoot at the slightest sign of adversity. If the lattes are not warm enough the entire set crumbles. Our approach is far more militaristic. Unless someone breaks a bone the show must go on. We have had guest shooters who said one day of filming with us changed their life.

You seem to be something of a guerilla eater, too. The foods you eat are often strange or offensive to the average American palate.

I find it humorous when people who claim to be serious about food won't taste something. Learning flavor can be compared to learning colors. If you are a painter and someone wants to show you a new color would you close your eyes? When I experience a flavor I can't compare to anything I have ever tasted before, it is a success.

Why do you feel drawn to food?

The process of consumption is the ultimate intimacy. Even with something as simple as a strawberry. You smell it and familiarize yourself with its allure. Hold it in your fingers, feel its texture and suppleness. You taste it with your whole mouth. Different parts of your tongue recognizing that which is both pleasing and not so. Chewing and gnashing it apart... destroying and absorbing it. Its complete chemical structure gets broken down. I would like to eat buildings but we just don't have that ability.

Do you have an early memory of a particular meal or experience that sparked your initial interest?

I used to eat everything when I was a child. Chapstick, dirt, sticks, leaves, really anything I could get my sharp little teeth on. I remember when I was around 6 or 7 I used to walk about with a small cassette player. I loved my 'Haunted Sounds' tape. I would take some spices from the cabinet, go down my parent's basement, turn off the lights and listen to the tape in the darkness. I would sit in the crawl space under the stairs and eat the dried spices. I liked to think the spices were bits of the monsters I heard on the tape. The taste would give me a visual of what they looked like. When I was finished I would go upstairs and draw them based on the combination of taste and sound.

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[At the Bedford Park Station with Reni Mimura and her dance squad. They had just finished filming the number Ice-Cream Melting Everywhere.] Photograph: Raymond Pagnucco

When did you become more serious about food?

I had a subscription to Gourmet magazine when I was in elementary school. When I got to middle school I thought I was a grown man. I wanted to start collecting wine, but due to age that proved to be rather difficult. So instead I started collecting teas. I would save up and buy a bunch of different Darjeelings grown on different estates and try to smell and taste the differences. That hobby got me to start thinking about food differently.

How has your interest evolved over the course of the show?

It is always about the hunt. If I wasn't doing the show I would be doing the exact same thing. I have no shame about inviting myself to someone's home for dinner if they make a specialty I have never tasted or seen prepared. Just when you think you have a cuisine figured out you get a clue about a seasonal dish that has a complete cult following in the community. The hunt begins anew.

When you're not filming, where are some of your favorite places to eat? Is there a certain cuisine that you prefer?

I love anything with goat meat. I also love going to people's homes and have dishes prepared that you can't get in a restaurant (Circassian, Samoan, Chechen, Garifuna, etc). We do that about once a week.

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[The Baron running a calabash of salted mackerel and peppers through a Haiti graveyard] Photograph: Raymond Pagnucco

You've filmed in Port-au-Prince earlier this year. What brought you there?

We are just finishing the filming for the feature-length Bronx Flavor movie. A few months back Sony Software was kind enough to send the crew down to work with some really talented young film makers at Le Cine Institute in Jacmel, Haiti. The rest of the time we were filming Bronx Flavor in my sensuous sister city Port Au Prince. It was our chance to show how incredibly rich the Haitian culture is.

Most people who film in Port Au Prince seem to only want to show poverty, tent cities, and slums. There is no question Haiti has had its share of misfortune. I think right now, however, one of the best ways to help is to engage and celebrate its cuisine and culture. It's an absolutely amazing place with a very seductive cuisine and quite a few party animals.

How was it different working with the Cooking Channel?

They were very cool in letting the show keep its creative integrity. The premise of Culinary Adventures is to visit and shine a spotlight on other cities of flavor across the country. This special takes us on a quixotic quest to find and eat the fiendish cryptozoological creature known as the Jersey Devil, in turn finding and uncovering a host of Jersey delights!

Picking Newark was a no-brainer. You've got this classic North Eastern industrial/port city with a diverse cultural tapestry, and an extensive food scene that has not been extensively covered. I researched 40 restaurants, ate at 10, and then narrowed it down to three. The show has some special guests which include Hip-Hop legend Grandmaster Mele Mel, the great Bronx MC Armageddon, scream queen Monique Dupree, and quite possibly a Jersey Devil.

A Bronx Flavor shoot usually consists of myself and two other crew members being responsible for every aspect of production from 'soup to nuts'. I usually carry around a giant sack with all of the props and costumes. The filming of 'Culinary Adventures' was a collaborative effort between Cooking Channel, Fornal Films, and Karga 7. So we had a lot more hands on deck. One of the reoccurring props in the story was a giant piece of chicharron that we had picked up at 188 Cuchifrito. I remember on one of the last days we needed it for a shot. Everyone was calling around to locate my big meaty pork bone. I was already mic'd up and buckled into the P-Rex for the shot. I almost bust a gut watching the PA scuttle about shouting into his phone, "we need an ETA on the chicharron". For once someone other than myself had to worry about where the hell the chicharron was!

What can esle can we expect from the Baron in the future?

In the upcoming Bronx Flavor movie we cover Bangladeshi, Dominican, and Haitian cuisine. The cuisine is accompanied by incredible new musical numbers by Noah Goldberg, cosplay star Reni Mimura, salsa legends Papo Pepin and Alfredo De La Fe, and the world's first all-female rara ensemble Vodoula. Monique 'Tha Original Gata' Dupree does an incredible job playing herself. You will also meet an entirely new set of sinister culinary super-villains. There is more eating, dancing, and heavy petting than you could shake a molinillo at. Some of our new sets include a labyrinth of drainage pipes far beneath the streets, the most famous graveyard in Port Au Prince, and the rusted half sunken ships resting in the muck of the Arthur Kill. Everything is shot and edited we are just waiting on a very special surprise guest for one more scene.

The Culinary Adventures of Baron Ambrosia premieres this Sunday (November 6th) at 10:30 pm EST.

Encores will be shown on the following dates:

11/10 @ 9pm EST
11/12 @ 11:30pm EST
11/13 @ 6:30pm EST
11/19 @ 5:30pm EST
11/22 @ 8:30pm EST

Featured Locations:

Aliya Fete

579 S. Orange St. (between Whitney & Gladstone), Newark, NJ 07106 (map)

Seabra's Marisqueira

87 Madison St. (between Ferry & LaFayette) Newark, NJ 07105 (map)
973-465-1250

World's First Italian Hot Dog

202 14th Ave. (at 9th St.) Newark, NJ 07103 (map)
973-621-9468

About the author: Chris Crowley is a former Serious Eats intern. He likes to listen to Hüsker Dü and eat pickled habaneros. He sometimes tries to write about music in brief.

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