Known for blending Los Angeles’ diverse ethnicities in his dishes at restaurants ink and ink.sack, chef Michael Voltaggio is expanding his palate overseas.
In the new Travel Channel series Breaking Borders, the Top Chef winner is teaming up with journalist Mariana van Zeller to travel the world and bring cultures together via food. Sounds simple, but here’s the catch: They are visiting conflict zones and inviting guests from both sides of major international issues to dine together.
Voltaggio’s challenge each episode, which airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET, is to use regional ingredients to create dishes that combine cuisines from each person’s heritage, without insulting anyone or starting a food fight.
Paste caught up with the award-winning chef to chat about the experience of filming the show, edible ants and suspicious knives.
How has working on this show changed the way you cook?
Michael Voltaggio: Any experience for me changes the way I cook, whether it’s going to a friend’s house for dinner or going to a restaurant. But certainly leaving the country and getting exposed to different cuisines and cultures—whether it’s spices, techniques, ingredients, flavor profiles—has changed my methods. I’ve taken something back from every trip I’ve gone on. The new things I’ve learned about food are the souvenirs I bring home from every trip.
What’s one food souvenir you brought home?
MV: In Sri Lanka, I found this coconut grinder. When you split a coconut in half, you push the coconut up against this blade and spin it and it spits out this couscous-like shredded coconut, which is used for a dish in Sri Lanka called pittu, a rice dish surrounded by light fluffy shredded coconut.
How has this show changed the way you eat?
MV: I don’t think it changed how I eat, but it provides an opportunity for me to eat new things. I ate rat in Cambodia. I cooked it too. I cooked and ate rat. I never thought I’d say that. In that regard, it definitely changed my cooking for sure.
How was the rat?
MV: I don’t know if I can say I liked eating rat. But I ate it and didn’t mind it. Let’s just say I’m not craving it.
What has been the most moving meal you’ve had on the show so far?
MV: They’re all moving in their own way. I’m moved when guests thank me for coming in and understanding them and their culture well enough to be able to give them back my version of what I’ve experienced while I was there. They are talking about food, but really they are talking about something more personal, and for me that’s been a very powerful compliment.
How have guests reacted to these culturally blended dishes?
MV: I think it provides a sense of comfort. When they sit down at the table with the group for the first time, they see something inspired by the conversation I had with them individually; it’s something that makes them feel comfortable about sitting down to an uncomfortable situation. Much like we’ve interviewed them along the way about their experiences, their conflicts and their lives, we’ve also gotten tidbits about food from them. If they can see what those conversations resulted in when they sit down at the table, I think they are also going to see the opportunity to share more about themselves. Those dishes serve as my opportunity to connect them with each other.
What’s your favorite foreign dish?
MV: I don’t know that I have a favorite foreign dish. I definitely fell in love with Southeast Asia and that cuisine. I was fond of it before I went there; eating it stateside and then going there and experiencing it from the source was amazing. I learned a new balance of flavor in Cambodia and Myanmar. In that part of the world, the food is delicious.
What snack do you always pack in your bag when traveling?
MV: One of our stills photographers, his wife makes granola and sends it with him every single time we travel. While cruising from location to location there isn’t always time to stop for food, and he always pulls out this big bag of granola. That’s what we’ve been getting by on.
What’s one food you haven’t tried but want to?
MV: I feel like I’ve gotten pretty good global exposure to a lot of different foods. For me, it’s about that moment when I am shocked by something that is put in front of me. Like ants in Cambodia, really spicy foods in other countries we’ve gone to, the best saffron in the world in Kashmir. It’s about going to these places and discovering little things that I didn’t know about. I went to a place called Cinnamon Island and actually cleaned cinnamon off a tree, and the guy who forests cinnamon there made tea out of that cinnamon and gave it back to us. We had octopus right out of the Mediterranean Sea in Cyprus. I didn’t even know where Cyprus was before we went there and when we got there I realized, here’s this pristine island in the Mediterranean surrounded by warring countries. It’s almost like this diamond in the rough. They have some of the best seafood in the world because the area is under-fished. People aren’t allowed to go out and fish in some of the waters there because of who occupies those areas. Those are experiences that I’ll never forget.
What’s one thing you would never eat?
MV: Anything that I want to pet I don’t want to eat.
What about rabbit?
MV: I will eat rabbit, and I guess I would pet rabbit. You got me there. Dogs, cats, horses, those animals I’d stay away from. But then again I never thought I’d eat ants, a snake or a rat but I did. I even ate a tarantula.
What was the tarantula like?
MV: Like a furry spider.
What’s one kitchen tool you always travel with?
MV: I travel with four or five knives, a spatula and a vegetable peeler. Anything else I need, I get on location. I always have knives with me. Worst case, if I don’t have anything, I can still make something if I’ve got a couple of knives.
Have you had any weird run-ins with security, traveling with knives in your luggage?
MV: Yes. One of the places we went, either Egypt or Lebanon, I checked into the hotel—a lot of the hotels we go to have been attacked so there are security and metal detectors in front. I checked in and within three minutes-this was like 1 a.m.—there was a knock at the door and guys outside in suits and I’m like, “oh great, they’ve come to take me away.” It was because the guy doing the X-ray notified them that there were knives in my luggage, so they came and took them away from me. I had to check them in and out from the hotel every time I used them. It happened in Rwanda too. I’m the guy who always gets interrogated because I’m rolling in with a bag full of knives. Meanwhile, the guy with three video cameras and recording devices breezes right through.
What’s your guilty pleasure food?
MV: I’ve been eating a peanut butter cookie the whole time we’ve been talking. I have a sweet tooth. Ice cream, cookies, any of that stuff … yes.
What differentiates your cooking from your brother’s [Bryan Voltaggio, Top Chef and Top Chef Masters finalist]?
MV: We both have the same discipline and technical skills. I think the biggest difference is now the exposure I am getting to foods from all over the world that I am going to apply to my cooking here, which I hope to share with him. Our technique is very similar. We are different based on the experiences we are both having right now.
Maggie Parker is Paste Magazine’s assistant travel editor and has written about food for USA Today and Men’s Fitness Magazine.