Quaint and quiet Killingworth is not exactly known for celebrity residents or producing TV stars, and the town is certainly not known for glitzy pink or purple fashion and purple hotrods, but we can crow about one HK alum who's making it big-time in The Bronx and beyond on national television. Justin Fornal, known as Baron Ambrosia to the rest of the world, got his start here and is now creating and hosting his own show, The Culinary Adventures of Baron Ambrosia, on the Cooking Channel.
The Baron resides in The Bronx but returns to Killingworth to visit his parents about once a week. “I love The Bronx because it’s such a rich, rich community. It’s full of culture and people and action,” he said.
As a kid, he’d gone there for Yankee games but he didn’t really care about going to the game; what he did care about was going to The Bronx, and he was always curious about the place that was “like a different country to me compared with serene Killingworth.”
Today, Killingworth “is just my other home. It’s a nice balance and the best of both worlds. The Bronx is just the true New York experience. You’re surrounded by so many cultures and so many different people.” He believes The Bronx doesn’t get enough credit as a viable place to live and says, “That’s why it’s been so exciting to me to shed some light on it.”
Fornal started making films at Haddam-Killingworth Middle School and was curious about the media arts program at the high school but didn’t know if it would be limiting as an artist.
As a sophomore he made a Ballet of the Macabre, “a ballet with a real pig’s heads and animal parts and real chain saws,” he says and explains, “You had a great ballerina with a white porcelain mask dancing around with a chainsaw surrounded by a pig’s head covered in blood.”
Several teachers complained, “What is this thing on TV and why would you show something so gory?” he said. The kids, on the other hand, “were like how’d you make it and where’d you get all the blood?!”
This was Fornal’s first taste of controversy and he loved it. It was also his first taste of having an audience and all the excitement that went with it.
In his senior year, he joined the class and then knew he wanted to go to school for film. He created a four-part mini series called Shorty the Blimp.
“By that time I had a reputation for other things I did so they were a little careful with me and said I couldn’t say the word ‘pimp’ so I used the word ‘blimp,’” he said.
This forced him to be creative because he couldn’t say a lot of things he wanted to say. Instead, he said them in code.
He values the education he received from his teacher Mrs. Bombaci in the in the Media Arts program "as it gave me leg up on a lot of undergrads when I went to Pitt. It was also incredibly valuable to have an audience so early on."
“We had limitations. Mrs. Bombaci was cautious because she had to be – she let us be creative but also had to walk a certain line which taught me to be creative. It taught me to say what I wanted to say without saying it outright.”
Connie Bombaci recalled him as “an absolute delight.” She added, “He was always a gentleman in school and he always treated me with respect.”
Bombaci pulled out her yearbook in which Fornal had written:
Thanks for everything. You’ve shown me how to use my creativity and not be risqué or taboo while doing it. Your class was a great inspiration to me and I know the knowledge I’ve gained has put me a step ahead for next year.
Thanks for everything, Justin
P.S. Once the millions start pouring in, you can prepare yourself for a new studio.
Bombaci said Fornal “always worked hard and did whatever he was told – be careful with the equipment, for example.”
She also pointed out other students involved in HK's media program who've done well: “I had a young man go directly to a TV network editing, I had another working in California for major motion pictures, I have one that went to CNN and did Politics Today. It’s success after success coming out of that program.”
Fornal grew as a guerrilla filmmaker at the University of Pittsburgh. Guerrilla filmmaking, he explains, is “filmmaking with no boundaries, with very little budget, and really not following rules and regulations.”
Rules and regulations, he says, are the enemy to any artist and even more so to the filmmaker.
“I’ve really taken pride in breaking those rules and often breaking the law. Life is short and it’s hard to be a professional artist. To get into the arena with a national show you have to break the rules, especially if you want to keep creative control.”
While he wasn’t exactly robbing banks in Pittsburgh, he was breaking into abandoned buildings and setting up watches for police. He filmed in abandoned prisons and abandoned mental hospitals, for example. “We’d spend days in the bowels of these places and that’s what we were known for.”
Everyone in his family has always been both supportive and directly involved. “It’s always been what we do on the weekends – my father might be building a cannon to sit on top of a fur-covered car, or find a way for me to light my hands on fire without getting hurt. My mother makes costumes or doing the interior for the P-Rex [his purple roadster]. My sister was a huge star.”
“It’s what we enjoy doing – expressing ourselves creatively,” he says.
Food has always been a passion. “I had a subscription to Gourmet since elementary school,” he said. Fornal and classmate Jack Goldberg would have cooking competitions against each other. “The ability to cook always seemed important – it was a skill like the ability to dance and fight. It was always in the back, a hobby.”
When he first arrived in New York, he found so many different types of restaurants he had never been to – Trinidadian, Guyanese. He wanted to make documentaries, not just narrative fictional pieces, and went to Vietnam to film a documentary about giant waterbugs used to make a sauce.
“I became more and more fascinated with food and it became food and film, food and film, food and film.”
He felt his documentary pieces were too rigid and newsy so he tried to combine the fictional, narrative world with real-world food, and that’s where the idea of Baron Ambrosia emerged.
While on one level the show is entertainment, there’s also a deeper meaning. “Be passionate about everything. Look around you and see that there is so much excitement and fun and joy in places you never expected – places like The Bronx and Newark. There’s fun and adventure and no reason to ever be bored. We tell people to 'find your inner baron'. It’s more than trying a new food. It’s dress how you want to dress, go out, go to that place you’ve been driving by thinking it’s a dump. Try it out. You might find it to be a delicious place with fascinating people,” Baron explains.
He hope to film shows in town, perhaps serving an ox roast sandwich on Roast Meat Hill Road or having “Music at the Dump” on a Saturday morning in the summer.
He has filmed in Chatfield Hollow State Park, as well as chase scenes on Roast Meat Hill Road and Reservoir Road. Filming is also done at his parents’ property where they are constantly building projects, including a top-secret one in the works right now.
“It’s a new vehicle which I promise is the likes of which you’ve never seen. It’s going to be a masterpiece,” he says.
He loves all food and likes to explore different food when he’s with like-minded people. When he's in town, he frequents the Copper Skillet for the restaurant's great food and warm people.
“I made raccoon for Thanksgiving but we also had turkey because my mother said not everyone wants to eat your raccoon,” Baron said.
He consumes a large amount of spicy food every day. “It’s truly an addiction and people know not to touch my plate because the food on there is so spicy. It’s something my body desires on a heightened level. The power of the pepper – we joke about the pepper sauce I drink that gives me power but it’s not too far from the truth."
His wife is a “natural born Bronxite” who introduced him to The Bronx. They have a two-year-old daughter who knows to stay away from his plate. “She knows that’s what’s on my plate is very dangerous.”
Baron believes one of the reasons he continues to find success is that he’s out every day doing something and meeting everyone he can.
“You have to constantly engage your community, and your community has to be every community. That’s where I think we’ve gotten such a loyal following. We don’t separate ourselves from the audience.”
“You’re not going to be very successful for too long if you don’t care about people. I’m very appreciative for all the people who’ve supported me since the beginning – those are the people who liked your stuff when you had a shaky camera, when your work was blurry and poorly edited. You have to continue to appreciate those people who supported you when no one else did.”