Can candid conversation over a good meal mend deep-seated feuds? Maybe not, but it's a start, and it's the premise of the new Travel Channel series "Breaking Borders," which brings dinner table diplomacy to 13 political hot spots around the globe.
Journalist Mariana Van Zeller and chef Michael Voltaggio journey to locations notorious for civil war, territorial disputes and ethnic conflicts including Belfast, Beirut, Sarajevo, Kashmir, Rwanda, Sri Lanka and in the March 15 premiere, Israel's West Bank, where they bring together Israelis and Palestinians. Van Zeller provides the historical context while "Top Chef" champion Voltaggio meets local restaurateurs and shops for ingredients for the dishes he'll prepare for the guests. For the owner of the popular Los Angeles restaurant ink., it was an entirely new experience, but one he'll never forget.
"I've taken something away from every single trip that we've gone on," says Voltaggio, who didn't hesitate to go despite the possible danger. He wasn't afraid, but admits that the ubiquitous military presence unnerved him. In Kashmir, for example, there were "troops everywhere, with guns. There were bodyguards with guns standing over me while I was cooking."
He was given carte blanche to devise his menus, and never having been to any of the destinations before, he did research online before the first few trips, "but stopped because I found it restraining," he says, explaining that it worked out better when he could talk to locals and sample ingredients for himself.
His first challenge was preparing his first-ever kosher meal in Israel, but there were bigger challenges to come. There were no state-of-the-art kitchen facilities; in fact, the kitchens were rudimentary at best "over 65 percent of the time." In Lebanon, he set up in a borrowed apartment but the oven conked out, and he had to knock on neighbors' doors to find another.
Voltaggio relied on his skills in running a restaurant, dealing with stress and thinking on his feet. But cooking in a conflict zone where he didn’t speak the language upped the ante.
Then there was the issue of getting representatives from opposite sides of the issues to participate. Local liaisons recruited the dinner guests. "We wanted to find people who have stories, but also who have a real opinion on what the political and social climate is where they live and how their culture has been affected by a conflict," Voltaggio says. In some cases, candidates agreed, then bowed out when the realized they'd be on TV, and got cold feet about speaking out.
"In some of these countries there's still control over what you're allowed to say. It's illegal to speak out against your government. They were nervous" about repercussions.
But for the people who did participate, there was a lavish feast and plenty of food for thought.
"One of the first challenges that we face when it comes to communication is just getting everyone to agree to communicate. Food brings people to the table, stay at the table and you have a conversation that’s more personal," says Voltaggio, who is happy to have been a part of encouraging such a dialog and hopes that will continue as the episodes air.
"I think there was progress made in every single dinner. We gave them the ability to communicate with each other. Even if they only have that one opportunity in their life to tell the other side how they feel, and listen to the other side and hear how decisions that they have made or told to make have changed other's people's lives, then for me it's worth it," Voltaggio says, eager to do a second season if the series is picked up.
"When we screened in Israel for a small group of people, at the end of the show, they were talking about the conflict; it really sparked up conversation and got people talking, and I hope that's what this show does."
Related on MNN: