Craft Stars: Filmmaker and Food Explorer Baron Ambrosia
Curious about the culinary secrets lurking under the lid of the US of A? Wondering if Brooklyn and Manhattan is all there is to NYC flavor? There's no one better on earth to deal with this kind of gustatory inquiry than one Baron Ambrosia, the Cooking Channel's newest star. Illustration by Ellen Lindner.
Imagine, if you will, turning on the television one quiet evening. What would happen if, instead of the rap videos or late-night shopping shows you'd been looking for, you came upon a hallucinatory short film celebrating Puerto Rican cooking, complete with an evil, gap-toothed witch called Doña Sofrito and a deep-voiced superhero in a suit who just wants to have a good meal?
Welcome to the growing circle of folks who've become aware of the toothsome hijinks of Baron Ambrosia. The creation of independent filmmaker Justin Fornal, Baron Ambrosia spent years educating New Yorkers about the fantastic ethnic cuisines on their doorstep via his excellent television show Bronx Flavor.
The Baron's new showcase, Culinary Adventures of Baron Ambrosia (now airing on the Cooking Channel), takes the Purple Crusader to such flavorsome frontiertowns as Baltimore, Maryland, Long Beach, California, and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with the Baron and talk about his travels, the (speculative) pleasures of eating dinosaur, the Bronx Flavor film - and the city he left behind.
Left: eat your heart out, Guy Fieri - the Baron snarls behind the wheel of his trusty purple steed, the P-Rex.
Baron Ambrosia, I have a burning question for you - how does the rest of the country compare to the Bronx? CAN it compare?
The Bronx is my home - my den of flavor. But there are cities across the nation that are full of mystery and excitement - and it's fun for me to discover that.
(In the Bronx) you can smell the sofrito in the air. And when I was in Long Beach, I felt the same connection with the Samoan community, I was like, this place is alive! I'm finding elements in the Bronx in other parts of the country - like in South Central. The Bronx is home...if I wasn't in the Bronx, where would I be? Maybe Port-au-Prince.
I've done a lot of traveling, but very little across our own great nation. This has been such a fun experience for me, because it's not just a chance to explore food, but to explore the country. You have that moment where you see that this is the place - this is the place, that's the exterior, these are the chefs and yes, THE DISH! They have the dish I have been dreaming of.
Now - I have a bit of a devil's advocate question - there are plenty of American cities that have amazing food, but I feel like you've avoided the ones that are, to me, most obvious - New Orleans, Atlanta, even Portland, Oregon. Is there a strategy behind the cities you've chosen?
One thing that was always one of my passions with the Bronx was that I felt it was an unsung culinary destination. As an explorer, and a member of the Explorer's Club, I felt that it was my responsibility to shine a light where other people weren't doing it. I want to go, I want to find magic there, and share it with the world.
Right on! Just as an aside - is the Explorer's Club a, erm...figurative organization?
No, the Explorer's Club is a society of our nation's explorers, and scientists, astronauts - it's been (established) over a hundred years now, and they're based in New York. I applied last year and I was honored, so, so honored to be accepted in a club among the top anthropologists in the world, who do this great field research.
Congratulations! Speaking of greatness, I love that you're fearless in terms of where you take the show. Sure, you hang out with John Waters in Baltimore - chilling with the director of Pink Flamingos takes a certain level of fearlessness! - but you also travel to Haiti, a place best known for its intensely troubled history, and its poverty.
There are so many places across the world that people take at surface value, and we don't take the time to look beyond the poverty, or whatever it is - and find out that there is vibrant culture, and unique art and cuisine, that is unto that place, that is indigenous, that is there and it's pure.
I think that's the way to help a lot of these places, to embrace the culture and get involved in it, as opposed to just throwing money at it. No - go there, and savour it, and get on the ground, and be part of the rhythm. Dance, drink, party! And you'll find out that these are wonderful places.
Now, on a serious note - I've heard rumors of your attempts to bring back certain species of dinosaurs, for your own gustatory pleasure. Can you give us a progress report?
I was really getting close to finally making some major developments, and then we got the order for the new season. So my research is on a temporary hold. It's something that's very near and dear to my heart, and I would love nothing more I would love nothing more than a sweet tender Pterodactyl wing...can you imagine Triceratops loin, slow cooked...
It sounds delicious. Hence my keen interest in this issue!
Well, we do have a game dinner every year, which has been a major success.
This is for folks associated with the show?
I have a Bronx pipe-smoking society, which is a group of pipe collectors and eaters - and we have an annual small game dinner we try to diversify and let people know what other kinds of proteins are out there.
This year we had porcupine, raccoon, skunk, otter - and of course it's all legally caught and prepared by top chefs. It's to help people to reevaluate - we don't need to have our food off of a conveyor belt. You'll laugh at a steak when you taste the sweet tang of a porcupine hide.
*Changing lunch plans* Now, Baron, as a Bronx Flavor fan I need to know - are the rumors true, that there's a Bronx Flavor film afoot?
The film is done, and we're waiting for the right time to release it. It's called Baron Ambrosia is Dead, and it covers three great cuisines - Bangladeshi in the Bronx, Dominican, and the entire final third of the film was shot on location in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. We're going to be showcasing elements of Haitian cuisine people don't even know about. It's really exciting, and so you'll be watching for that to come out soon - we'll have it in some festivals. It's a very fun film.
Sounds tasty! So, Baron, the most important question of all, the one we ask all who are chosen as Craft Stars - when zombies attack the Bronx, which of your culinary implements will you use to fight back the hordes of the undead?
It's funny, I was just thinking of this - I think that a lot of people are going to run from the zombies. We're going to cook the zombies.
That's really all I need to say. The zombies - they will know the scent in the air, and they will turn around.
Thank you, Baron!
For more information on Culinary Adventures of Baron Ambrosia, visit the Cooking Channel - there are also loads of great recipes for meals devoured on the show. Also, check out episodes of Bronx Flavor, the show that made it all possible - - plenty can be viewed on the Bronx Flavor website.