In ‘Breaking Borders,’ a Chef Cooks for Sworn Enemies

Take a shopworn, simplistic concept, apply it in an unexpected way, and what do you get? An entertaining and informative travel program.

It’s called “Breaking Borders,” and it has its premiere Sunday on the Travel Channel, a blast of substance from an outlet whose shows (“Hotel Impossible,” “Ghost Adventures”) tend toward the frivolous.

The journalist Mariana van Zeller and the chef Michael Voltaggio team up to travel to parts of the world where intractable tensions dominate life. They bring together representatives of various sides of a festering conflict, and Mr. Voltaggio serves them a grand dinner featuring local dishes. The hope is that good food shared in a hospitable setting might help enemies find common ground.
This is a variation on an old idea that turns up a lot in feel-good documentaries and on the agendas of well-meaning foundations. If only Israeli and Palestinian children could play together in the same orchestra, all the differences would melt away. To apply the formula, substitute other feuding peoples for Israelis and Palestinians, and soccer team or spaceflight or whatever for orchestra.
It’s a lovely idea, and it often even makes a difference on a small scale, yet the world’s enmities keep right on boiling. So whether the breaking-bread version in this series actually accomplishes much is open to question. But it makes for a travel/cooking show that’s considerably livelier than most.

Ms. van Zeller is engaging and succinct as she summarizes the conflicts in the trouble spot of the week, and Mr. Voltaggio is amusing as he takes a crash course in the local cuisine and visits street markets to buy his ingredients. Their first stop is a gimme: The premiere finds them inviting a Palestinian book store owner, a two-state-solution advocate and several Israeli settlers to dinner in the West Bank.

That particular standoff has been so thoroughly scrutinized and has been the subject of so much outside arbitration that you get the sense that the guests are just sort of enacting their assigned roles. Certainly no one at the dinner is learning anything new.
But among the fascinating elements of “Breaking Borders” are the differences between the various places Ms. van Zeller and Mr. Voltaggio visit. If the premiere looks in on a well-established and familiar conflict, some subsequent episodes venture into far less certain — and more treacherous — territory.

In Egypt, for instance, in the March 29 episode, the pair and their crew are detained several times by the police while getting ready for what they hope will be a dinner that mixes pro-democracy guests with one who supports the current military leadership, and perhaps even a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. In some travel shows, you have a sense that moments of peril — a risky bit of hiking or a nerve-racking encounter with wildlife — are staged or trumped up. Not here.

“I swear by God three times, if we see you here again we will arrest you,” a police officer is heard telling their guide after he has apparently bribed his way out of a trip to prison.

Much is made of the dinners, but in truth, they tend to be anticlimactic and take up only about a quarter of each hourlong episode. But the tours of the city or country in preparation for the meal are instructive, full of moving interviews with people affected by whatever the local strife is. In places like Egypt, where the political situation is still evolving, the show enhances current headlines. In spots like Sarajevo that haven’t been daily front-page news for a while, it’s a useful reminder of how past trauma resonates in the present.

And in all cases, the episodes do what a good travel show is supposed to do: explain and illuminate a part of the world different from our own.

Breaking Borders on Travel Channel, Sunday nights at 9, Eastern and Pacific times; 8, Central time.

Produced by MY Tupelo Entertainment for Travel Channel. For MY Tupelo Entertainment: Gry Winther, Joe Townley and Michael Yudin, executive producers; Yon Motskin, co-executive producer. For Travel Channel: Brian Leonard, executive producer.