"The Culinary Adventures of Baron Ambrosia," which premieres tonight at 10pm on the Cooking Channel, isn't your typical food series — with all respect to Adam Richman and Anthony Bourdain, when's the last time either of them faced off in a game of crab roulette with John Waters over the love of a lady in a Baltimore BBQ joint the way the Baron does in the June 22nd episode? Baron Ambrosia is the alter ego of underground filmmaker Justin Fornal, who first came up with the larger-than-life character as a way to get comfortable in front of the camera as well as behind it. The Baron's magical-realism exploits in underexplored territory, such as Fornal's home borough of the Bronx, grew into a video podcast called "Underbelly NYC" and then into public-access show "Bronx Flavor."
His new Cooking Channel series finds Baron Ambrosia ranging farther afield, to places such as Bethlehem, PA, where he takes down a witch plaguing the town's restaurants using the restorative powers of a Syrian raw meat dish, and Compton, CA, where he battles a greedy land developer while sampling fried turkey soul tacos. Fornal describes the show as more like a series of short films — "fictional scenarios set in a real culinary world" — that use narratives as a way to explore off-the-map venues and unusual cuisines while involving the chefs and store owners in the stories. It's not always easy to explain Baron Ambrosia to a local restaurateur, admits Fornal, but "when they get the show, they just fall in love with that cinematic world."
Fornal's a big film fan — he cites David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick and his series' upcoming special guest Waters as some of his major influences. So Indiewire asked him to share a few of his favorite flicks dealing with food.
There's a scene in here that I think is so brilliantly done — it's wonderful. Dom DeLuise plays Dominick — he's an overeater, and his cousin just died of a heart attack at a young age because he ate too much. He gets into [a support group], he's trying to lose weight and get healthy and all these guys in there are these massive, very food-passionate guys. He starts to have a relapse and calls in his support network, and all these giant guys come in and sit down to encourage him. I love that they took their time with this scene — they let it blossom.
One guy asks for a cup of water, and then asks Junior for warm water, and then another asks for water with lemon, and then they start talking about food in such a sensuous way. One guy goes, have you ever had a jelly donut, and sucked out the jelly, and then put a peanut butter cup in there and put it in the oven for 10 minutes? The way they talk about food is how I approach food in the show, which is pretty much a sexual way, because delicious food is so pleasing — you can't deny it. The scene just builds and builds until they're ripping open the cabinets and ordering Chinese food and going crazy. It's such a fun build up, with these men who've been holding back speaking about food as if they've been in prison for 20 years and haven't seen a woman. I just thought that was so fun.
"A Boy and His Dog" (1975)
This is one of my favorite science-fiction films of all time, and one in particular that's about the hunt for food, about food being a part of survival. The film has such a great payoff in the last scene. I know they're only looking for canned goods, but it's about that hunt, just to survive. Watching "A Boy and His Dog" always made me hungry — I just want to go through the film, be hungry, and then have a payoff meal, you know? A lot of people think about food films as having all this great food in front of you, but this is a good example of a film that shows you the importance of food and makes you appreciate what's so accessible to you.
"Caligula" is the total opposite of "A Boy and His Dog," where you're seeing food portrayed in such an over-the-top way. No one has their iPhone out, everyone's at the table just devouring food, and it's put forth in the most glorified way possible. I love the idea of a glutinous feast where people are dressed to the nines and just indulging for hours. That's something that in some regard we've lost, and that I think we should get back to (for a bit).
"Naked Lunch" (1991)
I'm at my happiest when I'm in a Third World market. It's like Christmas morning, to get off a plane, to smell diesel fuel, for there to be dust everwhere, and to know I'm gonna check into the hotel and then go straight to the market for eight hours. I love in this film when they're in the market and what they're actually hunting down are these alien excretions, with mugwump jism and black centipede meat. It's a fantasy — those are the markets I want to go to, where there are things you can't even imagine there.
"The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover" (1989)
People had said this to me, "You're going to love this movie," and I set up a viewing for myself and of course, it had every element I could ask for — meal after meal of over-the-top food and all this drama revolving around it, the restaurant and the chef. It kept taking it higher and higher as the drama gets darker and darker, and then of course, another great payoff. [laughs] When I finished, I was like, that was a great movie — that film does not compromise.
Bonus Pick: "Groundhog Day" (1993)
There's a great scene where Bill Murray realizes he's going to remain in this cycle, and he takes an entire piece of cake and just shoves it all in his mouth, and takes the pitcher of coffee, and just drinks from the pitcher. I often find myself in that position. That's something he's saying to all of us — if we could, well, what is it that we would do? In a culinary sense, it's like, okay, tomorrow I'll be the same weight as I was, so I might as well devour everything. I love that. and I know we can't do that every day, but everyone needs to have that time where you take that entire cheesecake and eat the whole thing. Not every day, but once in a while, you have to embrace life, embrace the flavor.