How Cooking in Conflict Zones Changed LA Chef Michael Voltaggio

Michael Voltaggio is no stranger to television cameras. The Los Angeles-based chef/owner of Ink and InkSack won the sixth season of Top Chef, which involved cooking in a moving train car and over a fire pit among its various challenges. But his latest television project — the upcoming Travel Channel series Breaking Borders — is nothing like Bravo’s reality competition, even though he sometimes found himself cooking in difficult settings. “The challenging aspect of it was very similar, but in Top Chef that was purposely staged to be that way,” he tells Eater. With Breaking Borders, they’re not trying to set me up to fail, they’re not trying to create some weird challenge to go through.” He clarifies: “This is real, it’s not a reality TV show.”

“This is real, it’s not a reality TV show.”

As previously reported, Breaking Borders brings Voltaggio and Peabody Award-winning correspondent Mariana van Zeller to various “conflict zones” around the world, including Belfast, Cairo, Cuba, Rwanda, and more. As the show’s website explains, van Zeller “digs deeper into the issues” while Voltaggio “goes on a culinary adventure, collecting ideas and ingredients to create an unbelievable meal inspired by the people he has met.” Voltaggio and van Zeller then gather people from both sides of the conflict around the table to talk and to enjoy the meal Voltaggio has created for the occasion.

Voltaggio says cooking this meal is, for him, the most challenging part of the show. After experiencing the local cuisine and ingredients, he sets about devising and executing the menu. “I don’t have my staff, I don’t have my kitchen, I don’t have my equipment,” he says. “I have a few knives rolled up in canvas bag, a pen, and a piece of paper. I just go and I use my instincts as a cook.” But sometimes the conditions aren’t exactly ideal for cooking a large meal. “When I got to Egypt, the economy was so bad that the guy’s restaurant that I was cooking in had been out of business for years,” Voltaggio says. “The only piece of equipment that I really had to work with in his restaurant was a chimney on the rooftop and a couple of burners that I bought in the street… That’s what was available to me, and that’s a real part of the journey.”

“We’re not creating world peace. We’re out there just helping people have an opportunity to tell their stories.”

Voltaggio has high hopes for the show’s ability to make a meaningful impact on viewers. “I hope people watch the show, start their own conversations, and it gets bigger than that one dinner table,” he says. “We’re not creating world peace. We’re out there just helping people have an opportunity to tell their stories.”

These stories have certainly left an impact on Voltaggio. Despite the occasional hardships setting up a working kitchen, the chef says the biggest surprise during filming was not the cooking conditions. “The most memorable surprises that are embedded in my brain, the ones that I won’t ever forget, are the stories that come out of people’s mouths,” he says. “The biggest surprise is, a) their ability to tell these stories and b) their ability to forgive one another for what’s happened in the past… The guests that are sitting at the table, in some cases, were once told to kill each other. And [they’re now able to] sit down and have a meal with each other and be able to look at each other in the face and say, ‘I forgive you’ or ‘We forgive the situation.'”

Voltaggio has also brought these experiences back to his restaurants. From a culinary perspective, Voltaggio says his exploration has been wonderfully educational. “You often get stuck in your kitchen and obviously research is a big part of learning, but going out and experiencing other things is even a better way to do research,” he explains. He has also taken “little tricks and pieces of equipment, flavors, and ingredients” from his travels around the world into his kitchen — for example, a dish of shawarma-spiced beef cheek with eggplant mutabal on the current Ink menu was inspired by Voltaggio’s trips to Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, and Egypt.

There’s another key lesson Voltaggio has learned from filming: patience and forgiveness. “I’m learning a lot of qualities that chefs might not necessarily have, because we do work in stressful environments,” he says. “But my stressful environment in the kitchen doesn’t compare to the stressful lives that these people I’m meeting around the world are actually going through every day.”

Breaking Borders premieres Sunday, March 15 on the Travel Channel. The episode takes Voltaggio and van Zeller to the West Bank and in the exclusive preview below, Palestinian and Israeli settlers gather around the dinner table for Voltaggio’s location-inspired menu.