A new Travel Channel show has come up with a unique way to resolve international conflict: by gathering people around the dinner table and having a very famous chef cook them a fabulous meal. The show, “Breaking Borders,” features former “Top Chef” winner Michael Voltaggio and journalist Mariana van Zeller traveling to strife-torn countries and trying to initiate some healing. In the course of 13 episodes, the show visits such places as Lebanon, Egypt, Israel, Northern Ireland and Cambodia, meeting with people on each sides of the country’s conflict and trying to promote an open, productive discussion over a meal cooked by Voltaggio.
That can lead to some intense dinner conversations. “There’s definitely been some emotion at the table. There’s been anger, there’s been crying. But there’s been laughter and there’s been forgiveness,” says Voltaggio. “We’re not trying to create world peace through the show, we’re not really talking about politics. We’re talking about people.”
His co-host had the sometimes challenging job of moderating the discussion. “It’s been tough. I’m not going to lie. There have been moments where we’ve had people want to stand up and leave the table, where we’ve had guests completely dominate the debate, and it’s a first for me. I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve been the moderator,” says van Zeller. “But I think the show has done a great job of being able to put it together in a way that you hear both sides really well and everybody gets their say. In almost every single place that we’ve been, the guests have been able to find some common ground.”
Filming in places that have seen violence comes with its own form of difficulty. “Egypt was incredibly challenging to film. I knew it was going to be difficult, because they have a military dictatorship in place,” says van Zeller. “Almost every time we put the camera out in public, we were approached by the police and they took our passports.”
Voltaggio faced his own set of difficulties. In each country, they would arrive a few days before the meal, and he would learn about the local cuisine and what kinds of ingredients and spices people used in order to create his version of their food, but when it came time to cook, there was a little problem. “In Egypt, there was basically a chimney and it overlooked the pyramids, which was cool and it made a good scene for the dinner, but when it was time to cook, I’m like, ‘Where’s the kitchen?’” explains Voltaggio. “We made arrangements to cook in this restaurant, but the economy was so bad that the restaurant had closed four years ago, so it was basically an abandoned restaurant. I had to go out in the streets and find like hot plates to cook on, and there’s power issues. So there was always a bit of a challenge in every place, but I think that’s what made it a little bit more fun.”
Voltaggio and van Zeller hadn’t met before working on the show, but luckily, they found their groove quickly. “We’re like brother and sister. We hit it off the minute we met. So that was a huge relief. We could be traveling around the world with people we don’t get along with,” says Voltaggio. “We purposely book our travel together so that we can experience that part of it together, so our dynamic is good.”
With all that time together, is van Zeller picking up any cooking tips? “My husband was so excited when he knew that I was going to do the show, because he thought, ‘Oh, finally, I’m going to have a wife who knows how to cook, and unfortunately I don’t,” van Zeller says with a laugh. Though she says she tried to be in the kitchen as much as possible to watch Voltaggio work, “At the end I’ve become really good at squeezing lemons…Such an easy thing to do, and that’s the only thing he trusts me to accomplish in the kitchen.”