As a Top Chef champ and proprietor of LA’s award-winning ink., Michael Voltaggio is quite used to hot kitchens. But his latest gig gives new meaning to the term “trial by fire.”

As the co-host of the new Travel Channel series Breaking Borders (Sundays at 9/8c starting this weekend), Voltaggio travels to conflict zones like Belfast, Sarajevo, Cambodia, Rwanda and Kashmir (above) with journalist Mariana Van Zeller, inviting opposing factions to a meal he prepares. In the premiere episode, he cooks his first-ever kosher meal for Israelis and Palestinians at a Jewish Settlement in Israel’s West Bank.

Now a firm believer in the diplomatic power of a good dinner, he told us all about the genesis of the show, adding to his own ink and what he learned cooking under pressure around the world.

“In Kashmir there were bodyguards with guns standing over me while I was cooking. I’m sort of getting used to it, but at first it was weird to step off an airplane and everyone’s holding a gun. You’re wondering, ‘Did I just walk into a war?’ ”

How did you get involved with Breaking Borders?
The show was created in Norway by a lady named Gry Winther. She brought it to the U.S. Travel Channel was interested and started casting for both the correspondent and the chef. It was important that they have chemistry and get along because they’d be sent all over the world together in stressful situations. Mariana was cast first and they tested a bunch of chefs. They left a voicemail at my restaurant, my agent called back, I did a Skype call and a month later I was in Israel.

Did you hesitate at all about going to conflict zones?
No. When I heard the concept of the show, I jumped on it. I had no hesitation.

You went to 13 places. How long were you gone?
About a year to put the whole show together, two weeks on and two weeks off more or less, with a month off in the summer.

How did you choose where to go?
Gry, who is a journalist, selected the first 13 countries. Hopefully there will be another season. Selfishly, I want to do go to places where I want to see the food, but a lot of these places have disputes over land. Hong Kong would be a place I’d love to see us go, and countries in South America that I haven’t had a chance to visit.

Which places were most memorable?
I loved Sri Lanka. I would love to go back and just hang out. I had a blast there. Northern Ireland, I made a lot of friends there. The language barrier wasn’t a problem, so it was a bit easier to communicate, but everywhere we’ve gone, I really want to go back. Cambodia was amazing, Cuba was awesome. I’ve taken something away from every single trip that we’ve gone on.

Did you bring back any souvenirs?
Some of the souvenirs are the things that I learn about the food. I’m not really a tchotchke guy, but my house is full of tchotchkes right now. I’ve managed to grab all sorts of weird stuff, like a hand-blown glass snake that I got in Israel that I hand carried back. I got a Charlie Chaplin statue in Cuba. I got a teapot in Kashmir. I got a lamp in Asia. In Myanmar, I think, Mariana bought me an antique tattoo kit.

Did you add to your ink over there?
I got one tattoo in Israel. It’s the archangel, Michael, fighting the devil. I went to what I was told was one of the oldest tattoo shops in the world. I got it tattooed on my arm from an old wooden carving that was at least like 300 years old.

grocery-shopping-jerusalemVoltaggio shops for groceries in Jerusalem.

Did you have carte blanche on the menus? Did you do any research on each local cuisine before you went?
I did some research in the first couple of episodes. I stopped doing it because I found that it was restraining. Reading stuff online doesn’t give you enough information. It’s not like getting on the ground and meeting and talking to people and tasting things personally. I got all my inspiration when I actually got on the ground.

What were the most challenging aspects?
I’d never done a kosher meal before in my life, but the biggest challenge was the fact that I didn’t really have a fully functioning kitchen. That happened 65 percent of the time at least. In a majority of the episodes I was cooking in challenging places. In Lebanon, I cooked in somebody’s apartment. I put my fish in the oven and the oven broke or it turned off, so I started knocking on other people’s doors, running up and down the stairs inside this apartment building trying to find an oven. It’s no different than what I do in the restaurant every day. It’s just now in a different country where I don’t speak the language and I don’t really know my way around. You add the idea of conflict to that and it’s a little bit more stressful.

Did it get to you?
Yeah, every time, but it gets to me in the restaurant too. When the doors open at 6, the same stress hits, you know? I’ve got up to 200 people walking through the front door and they expect a great meal.

Were you also affected emotionally by the experience?
Yes, it’s not like seeing it on TV or whatever. We’re sitting down at the table with people that are affected by it and hearing their stories firsthand. You can’t comprehend the emotion that comes with that. You see how it affects people and their families, their children, their friends, their relationships, their daily life, and it’s a little bit overwhelming.

Were you afraid at any point? Any close calls?
Not so much fear, but I was definitely anxious. In Egypt, they took our passports away for like an hour, and there were guys with huge guns. And in Kashmir there are troops everywhere, with guns. There were bodyguards with guns standing over me while I was cooking. I’m sort of getting used to it, but at first it was weird to step off an airplane and everyone’s holding a gun. You’re wondering, ‘Did I just walk into a war?’

Did any of the dinners get explosive, where people walked out?
Not once we got them to the table, but there were a couple of times where we had some challenges getting guests to show up. I think there’s a fear to speak and say certain things, especially when there’s television involved, because 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. People were nervous about that in certain areas.

Did you feel you made progress with these dinners?
Absolutely. Food brings people to the table. It’s a reason for everyone to sit down and communicate. When you’re having conversation at a dinner table, you have a tendency to be a little more honest than, say, around a boardroom table. It’s more personal. Even if they only have that one opportunity in their life to tell the other side how they feel, then for me it’s worth it. It was their ability to listen also to the other side and hear how decisions that they have made or decisions that they were told to make have changed other’s people’s lives.

I hope that the dinner table that we created in each country becomes a global dinner table. I hope that these conversations go past just what we have at those tables and get people talking.

Photos courtesy of Travel Channel