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True New York Flavors

By Jaquelyn Johnson

Bronx Journal Staff

Who is that man talking into a banana, aboard a sailboat, en route to save City Island from the evil Queen of Westchester?

It’s the host of BronxNet’s most popular program “Bronx Flavor” exploring the borough’s culinary offerings with preposterous panache.

Baron Ambrosia is known for outrageous antics on his food show — breaking into a prison kitchen, plotting revenge on Joe Battaan — and his out-of-this-world props such as a purple 1929 replica Mercedes called P-Rex.

The Baron is the alterego of 34-year-old Justin Fornal. “It’s not just about being the Baron on television, it’s about being the Baron in the neighborhood,” explains Fornal, sitting in his apartment, wearing a purple suit with a purple windowpane collared shirt and gold cufflinks. We discuss his life, show and the adventure it has been going from being a videographer to the brains behind one of the Cooking Channel’s up-and-coming shows.

Born and raised in Killingworth, CT, Fornal got a B.A. in film studies from the University of Pittsburgh before becoming the host, director and producer of “Bronx Flavor,” the culinary adventure series. Fornal combines two of his loves — food and filmmaking — into one show that highlights local restaurants with intricate story-telling and eye-catching titles such as “The Vodka Sauce Vendetta.” During the program, Fornal weaves in history, explaining the origins of soul food in one episode, and culinary tidbits, educating viewers in “curry speak” in another.

“One thing that I let everyone know is that I am not a food critic,” Fornal says. “I’m here just to celebrate the Bronx.” When asked why he chose the Bronx as the place to find great cuisine he says, “I think the Bronx has always called to me. There’s such an essence here, it felt like such a genuine place. I didn’t want to do film on the West Coast because my family and everything is here. I didn’t want to film in Times Square because I like something that doesn’t feel fabricated. The Bronx is a sexy place. It is the true New York.”

Fornal explains that he does not visit restaurants to criticize them. He only features restaurants that are Baron approved. Indeed, Bronx Flavor is more drama than review. It is a cross between Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” with host Guy Fieri, “Good Eats” with host Alton Brown, and a Fellini film.

The Baron does his own stunts and is not afraid to put his life on the line. He says he has almost set his face on fire twice. Episode themes range from the mystical — “Bling of Fire” — to the historical — “The Legend of Van Cortland Park.” Often Fornal weaves restaurant staff and patrons into his narratives.

Restaurant owner Rose and her customers smile and shake their heads when the Baron experiences “Chitlin’ Rapture” at Berzet’s Soul Food on Bronx River Ave. They join him in hallelujahs as he repents a life of lust and gluttony, and is transformed into Reverend Baron of Flavor Ministries. At the City Island Lobster House, patrons try to remain straight-faced as the Baron holds a staff member hostage with crab legs, warning them, “I’ve got crabs.”

When describing the difference between himself and his alter ego, Fornal says, “We both have an obsessive nature and we let our passions take the wheel. When we want something, we don’t let even ourselves stop us. I think that the Baron is different because he has a much different history. He’s been around a longer time. By not setting his history in stone, we allowed him to have been everywhere and experience everything.”

Before coming to BronxNet, Fornal hosted his own podcast entitled “Underbelly,” which aired on iTunes for quite some time until BronxNet Executive Director Michael Max Knobbe picked up the show. Ambrosia now has a new show in production with the Cooking Chanel (Scripps Networks) called “The Culinary Adventures of Baron Ambrosia.” It is set to air in the near future in cities such as Baltimore, Bridgeport and Brighton Beach.

“Because the show uses a comedic element, it makes it even more important to dig deep to get the best information we need for each show,” says Fornal. “I dare the most jaded foodie to watch and try not to learn something new.” Unlike shows such as “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives,” Fornal does not get his location ideas from viewers. He and his team go out digging for information, finding towns that are unknown to many Americans, breaking down the cities by ethnicity to find the core essence of each location.

“We get down and dirty to find our locations,” he says. “I like if a restaurant feels like a discovery to the viewer. I want it to be authentic. I want the Mexican restaurant that the Mexican population of the city goes to, even when they know they can cook the same food at home.”

Fornal’s biggest satisfaction is doing something that he loves. “Being on a national channel doesn’t mean a thing if I am not proud of what I am making. There has to be passion.”

When asked what advice he would give to people who see themselves one day in the same field, Fornal says “What’s most important is that you realize success is doing what you love.” Fornal is currently scouting new locations for his show on the Cooking Channel. One day he hopes to take his show global, visiting countries and celebrating their culture. Episodes of his show “Bronx Flavor” can be seen on www.Bronxflavor.com

Watch a trailer for his Cooking Channel program:

BARON AMBROSIA from Justin Fornal on Vimeo.

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