On an October night last year, in a junkyard in New York City’s South Bronx, I watched a bizarre scene unfold. Hissing flames burst from a pile of wrecked cars. Jamaican carnival dancers in sequined bikinis gyrated. And a pomaded man in a white tuxedo held a flaming leg of jerk chicken while gazing maniacally into a video camera. Then he took a swig of grain alcohol and blew a cloud of orange fire. Some of the flaming liquid dribbled onto his collar and was doused frantically by an assistant. “That’s a wrap!” the man in the tuxedo announced.
The man was Justin Fornal, a 32-year-old filmmaker who calls himself Baron Ambrosia. He was shooting an episode of Bronx Flavor, his hugely popular public-access cable show. I’m a devoted fan. (You can watch archived episodes at www.bronxflavor.com.) In the show, the Baron—part Edwardian dandy, part 1970s pimp—traipses through the Bronx, acting out wild story lines that center on one or another of the borough’s many immigrant cuisines. The first episode I saw was about the Puerto Rican fried-pork snacks known as cuchifritos; it was titled “Cuchifritos of Love” and chronicled the Baron’s quest for a long-lost paramour named Desperado, played by a real-life cuchifritos counter server. The pyrotechnics I witnessed in the junkyard were for “The Bling of Fire,” an episode about jerk chicken.
I’d tracked down Fornal a few months earlier, determined to find out more about the creator of my favorite food program. What interested me the most wasn’t his showbiz antics, in fact, but his sincere curiosity about food—he manages to weave an education into the drama, using maps and cheesy video graphics to trace the provenance of, say, a Garifuna root tonic back to Nigeria. I also admired his love for the Bronx, a largely working-class enclave where one in three residents is foreign-born. Fornal, I realized, is not so much a self-promoter as he is a civic booster, perhaps the most spectacular ambassador the borough has ever had, aside from the Yankees. He wants you to know that the Guyanese, Dominican, Albanian, Haitian, and other kinds of restaurants on his show are the city’s purest expressions of immigrant cuisine. “These restaurants have to be the genuine article,” Fornal told me when I met him, “because these are not people saying, ‘Let’s do Thai tonight.’ “
That first encounter with Fornal—one of several visits we made to restaurants he was scouting for future episodes—began in the parking lot of a Burger King near Van Cortlandt Park. When I arrived, he was dressed in a purple satin waistcoat, purple silk shirt, and white fedora and was leaning against his car, which I recognized from the show: a replica of a 1923 open-top Mercedes roadster painted mauve and outfitted with a small chandelier that he’d rigged to hang over the backseat. As Fornal drove us to our destination—a Guyanese joint featured in a Bollywood-inspired episode called “The Roti Express”—he chatted with me and waved at pedestrians who’d stopped to stare at his ride; at one point he got out to talk with some curious teenagers and hand out flyers for his show. As he told me about his life—he is the son of a schoolteacher and a dental technician—Fornal sounded nothing like his onscreen persona. “It’s just being curious about other people’s cultures,” he said matter-of-factly when I asked him what motivates him to be the Baron.
On one of our last outings together, Fornal took me to a Jamaican steam-table restaurant called the Best of the Best, where he wanted to interview the co-owner, a matronly woman named Yvonne, about her jerk chicken for “The Bling of Fire.” As I breakfasted on ackee (a Jamaican fruit) and saltfish, Fornal flirted with Yvonne, trying to cajole her into appearing on camera. “You’re beautiful,” he said in his campy onscreen voice. “You can’t hide from the camera! Talk about the jerk. The essence of the jerk!” He got his interview.
Exploring the Bronx with Fornal, I started to see magic and beauty in a part of the city I’d generally thought to have little of either. And that’s really the point of what the Baron does. “It’s about making people take a second look at where they live,” he told me one day, “and realizing that there’s excitement all around.”