In less-skilled hands, this might have been little more than a food fight.
The ambitious, borderline-explosive formula for “Breaking Borders” lands a journalist and a chef in a global hot spot, where they host dinner for guests locked in conflict – and hope newfound understanding is an item on the menu.
“Breaking Borders” is a travelogue, cooking show and dining-table summit all in one. And somehow it works, with each component of its cultural, culinary and political mission enhancing the others, at least to judge from the first of its 13 episodes, airing 6 and 9 p.m. March 15 on the Travel Channel.
On this premiere, Peabody-winning journalist Mariana van Zeller and acclaimed chef Michael Voltaggio travel to Jerusalem and the West Bank where van Zeller (who is also chief investigative correspondent for Fusion) gives viewers a personal look at a wondrous and troubled region, while Voltaggio (a “Top Chef” winner and owner of Los Angeles’ ink restaurant) prepares a mouthwatering feast tailored to local tastes (while he faces such challenges as never having cooked a kosher meal before).
Their guests (who ordinarily would never share a smile, much less a meal) include a Jewish winemaker who lives with his family in the West Bank, a Palestinian bookstore owner, and an Israeli activist who advocates separate states for Israel and Palestine.
Will this glorious feed and some fine kosher wine help pave the way to a bit of common ground?
“There was a very heated debate,” van Zeller acknowledges. “But at the end of the meal, when the cameras were off, they all stood up and hugged each other, and hugged us. That’s when Michael and I realized that so much could happen with this show.”
The season’s itinerary also takes the pair to Belfast (for a gathering of Catholic Republicans and Protestant Nationalists), Cairo (in the chaotic aftermath of the Arab Spring), Sarajevo and Cuba, as well as the divide between Arizona and Mexico.
In Rwanda, where hundreds of thousands of Tutsi were slaughtered by the Hutu in the early 1990s, a meal is shared by the two peoples.
And in Cambodia, a man who once was close to savage dictator Pol Pot breaks bread with a man whose father was killed by the Pol Pot-ruled Khmer Rouge.
“The show is very much about going behind the headlines,” says van Zeller, “so it was important to us that these were conflicts we’ve all heard about. And though the conflicts are obviously different, they have one thing in common: There are people who are deeply affected. That’s what the show is about: their stories and their willingness to share them with the other side.”
But that happens only after the show’s audience is acquainted with the region, the issues at hand, the native cuisine and, on a very human level, the people.
“Then we sit down at the dinner table,” says van Zeller. “And there’s tension. But as soon as the food arrives, the guests realize that it unites them, and that it’s really good. They think, ‘Let’s start by talking about food – it’s something we can agree upon.’”
With van Zeller gently mediating, the discussion builds on that.
Production on “Breaking Borders” began a year ago and kept van Zeller and Voltaggio hop-scotching the world for eight months.
“We have a good time together,” says Voltaggio. “We share every part of the experience together. She even shows up in the kitchen to help me cook, which she doesn’t have to do.”
“I was trying to learn something,” says van Zeller with a laugh, “and I have learned nothing! He’s making 10 dishes at the same time, and it’s fast-paced and complicated. So I’m just there to squeeze lemons.”
“I’m learning from her,” says Voltaggio. “From her ability to make people feel comfortable, I’m becoming a better listener. And I’m becoming a better person, I think, from being with her on the road and from the people we’re meeting.”
On future episodes, van Zeller says, “We’re going to see some very tense moments. But we’ve always been able to keep everybody at the table. And afterward in most cases, the guests hug each other and exchange emails and phone numbers.”
The partners hope for future seasons of the show, joking that Washington, with its warring parties, would be the ultimate challenge for their dining diplomacy.
In the meantime, they have no grand illusions.
“At the end of each meal,” says Voltaggio, “we don’t pretend we’re leaving our guests with some recipe for peace.”
“We’re not changing minds,” van Zeller agrees. “We’re giving them an opportunity to hear the other side. Maybe then they’ll get a better understanding of the conflict overall, and not just their own viewpoint.”
What the audience gets is food for thought.