When Justin J. Fornal (a.k.a Baron Ambrosia) was as young as 5-years-old, he would grab his miniature camcorder and venture out into the woods of his Connecticut neighborhood, tasting anything he could find. He would eat berries, nuts and even small insects. Worried, his mother would rush him to the hospital to make sure he didn’t eat anything harmful. “I would explore the world through taste,” said Fornal. “I was always in a quest to find the mysterious and unexplored.”
Years later, Fornal’s passion for food is stronger than ever; only this time, he isn’t lurking in the woods for tasty treats. Instead he is traveling all around the Bronx to discover the borough’s most appetizing eateries on his hit show, “Bronx Flavor.” Fornal describes “Bronx Flavor” as a hybrid blend of sketch comedy and culinary journalism.
Fornal’s latest episode entitled, “The Liberian, the Pepper, and the Pestle” was featured at the New York Independent Film Festival on March 26. The episode was filmed in Liberia, Africa and it is focused on the foods and culture of the Liberian people. This month, Fornal will premiere an episode focused on Irish food on Bronx Net (Channel 67) and Verizon FiOS (Channel 33).
Wearing black slacks, a burgundy and white striped oxford shirt and a shiny burgundy vest, Fornal, a native of Killingworth, Connecticut, always dresses the part. His hair is slicked back in a ponytail that only he can pull off. His hardcore filmmaking has earned him the title of “a guerrilla filmmaker.” He isn’t afraid to shoot in an abandoned building without a permit, and will produce a product with little to no funds or sponsors. His drive to succeed is evident in “Bronx Flavor,” in which he takes on the stage name (and role of) “Baron Ambrosia.” The show follows the comical host around the Bronx as he visits some of its best eateries.
Fornal, 31, was inspired to create “Bronx Flavor” with encouragement from his business partners Joe Bly and Dave Chekan, whom he met 7 years ago at the University of Pittsburg while studying film. Bly, a cinematographer, and Chekan, who was also in the film business, suggested that Fornal make a podcast about his quests for delicious foods at mom-and-pop type restaurants that weren’t being covered in the mainstream.
“I always eat at the hole in the wall family owned businesses.” he said. “I noticed they were not being represented out of the borough by critics such as Zagat.”
The first podcast was called “Underbelly” and it quickly became the number one food show on iTunes, but funds for “Underbelly” soon ran low.
Fornal needed a production company to fund the show and contacted Michael Max Knobbe, the director of BronxNet, a not-for-profit community television station, for help.
“You have to believe in what you create 100 percent,” Fornal said. “People will tell you no before you get a yes. I am passionate about this. I don’t do anything in life I am not passionate about. They [BronxNet] really grasped the concept, which is very rare in this business.”
Fornal’s team and Knobbe decided to change the name of the show to “Bronx Flavor” to coalesce with the Bronx access channel which has a studio in Lehman’s Carman Hall. Fornal said that it was brave of BronxNet to invest in such an unconventional show.
“You can taste the flavors of the world right here in the neighborhoods of the Bronx,” said Michael Max Knobbe, who is now the executive producer of the show, “and what a great way to learn about these culinary opportunities than with a dynamic program like ‘Bronx Flavor.’ This is part of the way BronxNet shares programming and presents opportunities for creativity and community development and helps connect the Bronx to the world.”
Because there are so many restaurants in the Bronx, Fornal has certain criterions that determine which eateries get chosen.
“People ask me to cover top steak houses and well known establishments,” he said. “I think to keep the credibility of ‘Bronx Flavor,’ each establishment needs to be a unique representation of their community and culture. They need to be genuine and authentic.”
Even though people tend to go to restaurants that cook foods that are special to their own culture, the goal of “Bronx Flavor” is to bring people in the Bronx together through food.
“I think there are races that stay together,” he said. “People are afraid to come out of their neighborhood for different foods and to meet neighbors.”
Fornal wants to make “Bronx Flavor” a commercial and international success and also hopes to be of inspiration to other eccentric filmmakers. He advises them to take some tips from his character Baron Ambrosia.
“Anyone can have an adventure,” he said. “Baron is a wild man. He will live life to the fullest through all aspects. Find your inner Baron. My goal as a child was to be a mad scientist. People miss out on their childhood dreams [because] they get caught up in the every day struggle, but I always kept the dream of being mad scientist in my heart. Filmmaking is mad science in its own right.”
“Bronx Flavor” airs on Cablevision (Channel 67) and Verizon FiOS (Channel 33), Sundays at 6:30PM; Tuesdays at 1 AM and 9:30 PM; Thursdays at 11 PM and 3 AM, and Fridays at 3 AM. You can also view episodes on his website, www.bronxflavor.com.