For the first time since Michael Voltaggio edged brother Bryan in “Top Chef” Season 6, the inventive L.A. chef behind ink. and ink. sack returns to TV with “Breaking Borders.” In the Travel Channel show, the Maryland native joins journalist Mariana van Zeller in conflict zones around the world, soaking up local culture before preparing a meal for people who wouldn’t normally be at the same table. Learn more about what appealed to Voltaggio about the show, and how “Breaking Borders” is shaping his vision for future restaurants.
You’re known for keeping your head down in the kitchen. What convinced you that “Breaking Borders” was the right show to mark your return to TV?
I’m still keeping my head down in the kitchen. The kitchen is just all around the world at this point. It’s for a different audience. Taking myself out of my comfort zone and going out of my own kitchen and learning about food. To do a food and travel show is like a dream for a chef. Take the word show out of it and you’re left with food and travel. Add the word conflict to it and you’re getting exposed to some of the most important situations all over the world. For me, this is an education that I can’t miss.
In what ways has “Breaking Borders” made you a better chef?
Anytime you get a chance to travel, you’re exposed to things you haven’t seen before. As far as cooking, I’m getting exposed to all sorts of new techniques. I’m discovering new ingredients and figuring out new flavor profiles. I’m talking to people who are making things, whether it’s the guy who taught me to make laffa bread, or going to see how the best falafel is made, or trying different techniques with coconuts in Sri Lanka. Whatever it is, I’m getting to see these things first hand. In Cebu, we pulled over to the side of the road and I had some of the best lamb I’ve ever had in my life. It was just these machines that had these cranks, and the lamb was spinning over these open charcoals. It was just unbelievable. Every trip, even though we’re there to use my food to bring people together around a table – people that wouldn’t normally sit together – I’m going on a journey myself and learning about the local cuisine of that region.
What are some specific dishes or ingredients you can you point to that you experienced overseas that have influenced what you’re doing at ink. or ink. sack?
The beef cheeks on the menu right not at ink. have muttabal – roasted eggplant – baba ghanouj – on it. The cheeks themselves are shawarma sliced. Some of the other stuff, I’ve been packing away and keeping in my arsenal for the next project, where the dining experience is going to be a little more intimate. I’ve gotten some tools that I’ve been saving at my house that I definitely want to use for that, different tea pots and things like that. In Kashmir and Sri Lanka, learning how to roast all the spices that are the foundation for a curry and creating a paste and building layers on top of that. Little tricks, while you’re there, it’s like, “Oh, that’s why that happens.” Or, “That’s why that tastes so good. That’s why I love Indian food so much.” There’s a certain way to put things together. It goes back to the same philosophy, “Don’t just follow a recipe. You need to understand the recipe.” Anyone can read a recipe and produce what a recipe tells you to, but it’s those little tricks that you learn in between the lines that make the dish come together.
Moving forward, how has “Breaking Borders” influenced your vision for the restaurants you plan to open in the future?