Dining without borders

American chef Michael Voltaggio and Portuguese journalist Mariana Van Zeller visit strife-ridden areas in the new food and travel TV show Breaking Borders.
American chef Michael Voltaggio and Portuguese journalist Mariana Van Zeller visit strife-ridden areas in the new food and travel TV show Breaking Borders. PHOTO: TRAVEL CHANNEL

Chef Michael Voltaggio visits places of conflict and whips up a feast for guests from opposing sides

The axiom "food brings people together" is evident in new food and travel TV show Breaking Borders.

In the 10-part series airing on the Travel Channel (StarHub TV Channel 473), American chef Michael Voltaggio and seasoned Portuguese journalist Mariana Van Zeller visit places of conflict to learn about and cook local dishes, which they serve at a grand dinner to guests from both sides of the conflict.

Some of the places they visited for the show include war-torn Palestine and Israel, the border between Mexico and the United States, as well as Cambodia, where they hosted the former assistant to dictator Pol Pot.

Expectedly, conversations at the dinner table got very intense, but the food immediately helped to ease tensions, says Voltaggio.

"Food really does have the ability to connect people and affect them in a very fundamental way.

"Although there were heated moments, the ritual of coming to a table for a meal did help to equalise things as you're situated to face one another and share something," the 37-year-old chef tells Life in a telephone interview.

Overall, the guests' reactions to this social experiment of sorts have been "very positive", he adds.

"The guests who are sitting at the table, in some cases, were once told to kill each other. And now they're able to sit down and have a meal with each other, and look at each other in the face and say, 'I forgive you' or 'We forgive the situation'."

He admits it was hard for himself not to be swayed into taking sides during the fervent discussions.

"The conflicts that we explored run deep. It was our job to stay neutral, which for me, was sometimes difficult. But we tried our best to represent the local history in a way that would shed light on both sides," he says.

To remain as objective as possible, he interviewed each guest separately before each meal to get a sense of who they were.

"I wanted to feel confident that I wasn't going to offend or be disrespectful in any sort of way. I also wanted to have a better understanding of the situations so that I could participate in the conversation and feel like I was more than a wallflower."

Breaking Borders cannot be a more different kind of TV show for Voltaggio, whose TV experience comprises mostly cooking competitions.

He was first thrust into the limelight when he won the sixth season of popular cooking contest Top Chef in 2009, where he was famously pitted against his older brother Bryan in the finals.

Subsequently, he made an appearance on the show in a later season and was also a guest judge for Canadian spin-off Top Chef Canada.

Still, Voltaggio, now the owner of acclaimed Los Angeles restaurant ink., says Breaking Borders is similar to Top Chef because it sometimes felt like a competition.

"I never knew what sort of cooking environment I would have or the sort of ingredients I would have access to.

"We had so little time on the ground to meet people and learn about their stories. To have to cook a meal that would honour the occasion and to make it a meal that I would be proud to present was a challenge."

As much as his dinners sparked lively debates among the dinner guests, he says: "I hope people watch the show, start their own conversations and it gets bigger than that one dinner table."


• Follow Yip Wai Yee on Twitter @STyipwaiyee


• Breaking Borders airs on Travel Channel (StarHub TV Channel 473) tonight at 9.50pm.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 10, 2015, with the headline 'Dining without borders'. Print Edition | Subscribe