You may associate L.A. chef Michael Voltaggio with wagyu beef cheek and lollipop kale, but soon you'll see him trekking through the jungles of Cambodia chomping on spiders and cooking meals for people embroiled in political conflict.
Voltaggio — the former Top Chef-er who owns acclaimed restaurant ink. and its adjacent sandwich shop ink.sack. — is officially stateside after spending months traversing the globe shooting Breaking Borders, which will debut March 15 on the Travel Channel. The show, which he co-hosts with Portuguese journalist Mariana van Zeller, visits conflict zones around the world and brings together for a meal local groups with opposing viewpoints. Naturally, Voltaggio handles the food portion of the show. He walks viewers through the cuisine of the region and handles the cooking while Van Zeller provides an overview of the nature of the conflict.
The first episode, titled “The Mother of all Conflicts,” takes place in Israel and Palestine and culminates in a dinner on the West Bank that seats Palestinians across the table from Jewish settlers. The resulting gathering is, as one might expect, fascinating — and highly charged.
We spoke on the phone with Voltaggio soon after the show had wrapped filming on its current 13-episode season and asked what it was like as chef thrown head-first into international politics.
LA WEEKLY: Where are you coming back from?
MICHAEL VOLTAGGIO: I just got back from Cambodia — Siem Reap and Phnom Penh — and I was in Myanmar the week before that.
The first thing that struck me watching the dinner during the first episode was, "Wow, this is really tense."
Yeah, it’s true. It’s not made for TV. People ask me, “What’s the difference between this and the other stuff you’ve done?” And I say, “It’s not reality TV.” It’s real stuff and there happens to be a TV camera there.
Do you think your training prepared you at all for these kinds of situations?
I don’t think anything I’ve done in my life could have prepared me for these kinds of experiences. I mean, obviously the food and the cooking are things I’ve been doing my whole life. But the emotional roller coaster is the part that I wasn’t necessarily prepared for. Mariana is a journalist so she goes into these situations as a journalist [but] I just go in as Michael, the chef from L.A.
Our first episode, I was like, "What have I gotten myself into? Am I even qualified to be sitting at this table?" And that’s when I realized: That’s why I’m there. I’m the viewer’s representative. I’m there to ask the stupid questions, like, "Why are you guys fighting?" People don’t always get a chance to ask that when they’re watching the news on TV.
Sure, the average American just knows that they’re always fighting over there, but if asked to explain why, they probably couldn’t.
I’m not handed a script with a bunch of questions and trying to sound like a journalist. There’s a journalist there. And it’s been cool because they [Travel Channel] very easily could have handed me a script and said, “Make sure you nail these points,” and they don’t even do that with Mariana. So it really is about our journey together, too.
Is the idea of the show that you come to some sort of resolution at the end, that there’s some kind of understanding reached?
There’s a question we ask in pretty much every episode: “What are your hopes and dreams for the future?” And that’s the goal of every episode, to get an understanding of how people are being affected. We hear about how countries are affected. Israel is going through this right now, or Palestine is suffering. But now we hear how Yaakov [a Jewish settler and dinner guest during the first episode] actually feels. To me it’s about people and not just about faces. That’s the goal: to get a better understand of how people are affected, and what they would actually like to see changed in a positive way, moving forward. And not trying to create resolution, but trying to at least agree that there is a possibility for one in the future.
Is this your first move into the political world? Has this interested you in the past?
To be honest, no. The only thing that’s ever interested me is standing inside of a kitchen. I don’t have time to do anything. I work all the time. For me, if I’m at the gym and running on the treadmill, I get those little blips that stream across the bottom of CNN in the morning. So ... in the beginning it was no, but now it is. And I think we can capture other people the way it’s captured me.
Have any of these experiences influenced your personal life?
Travel changes you in every way. It absolutely changes you. I find myself listening to people more than I did, I find myself more engaged with every guest that comes into the restaurant, I find myself more compassionate than I ever was. And I’m not trying to sound cheesy, but yeah, it’s opened my eyes to a world outside of my own little world. And for me, [if you] turn the cameras off, I’d still want to go out and experience these things.
Was it different cooking in Middle East as opposed to somewhere like Ireland [featured in the third episode], whose cuisine doesn’t always get a lot of respect from the food community?
What’s interesting is that wherever I go, when I tell people I’m a chef, they’re so excited to show me something. So, there hasn’t been a trip where I haven’t seen something that’s really interesting. Like we went to this manor in Ireland and learned about this salt-aged beef that was grass-fed. So when we think about Ireland we might just think about meat and potatoes, but there’s really good meat, and really good potatoes. We ate a lot of really good food in Ireland.
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Will these travel experiences influence the menu on your restaurant here?
Absolutely. I’ve learned something on every single trip. Like in Cambodia, I learned to take jasmine rice and toast it in a pan, then grind it into a powder and use that to season stuff. Little tricks like that, I bring back and immediately start figuring out how to incorporate that into the kitchen. Plus, I want to bring something back for the guys and girls that are in the kitchen here while I’m away. It’s not like I can bring them all a gift back every time I travel — it’s a pretty large staff — so the only thing I can do is bring back a couple of experiences that will give them first-hand knowledge of some of the stuff I’m exposed to. Whether it’s a new ingredient, a new technique, a new flavor, they’re getting to experience some of those trips, too.