Peabody and Livingston Award-winning journalist Mariana van Zeller has a new show “Breaking Borders,” which debuts tomorrow at 9pmET on the Travel Channel. The show gathers people around the world from different sides of on-going conflicts, and puts them at the same table to search for common ground over a meal. We caught up with the Fusion contributor and former Current TV reporter to discuss the new show, her favorite foods and even which on-going conflict she would especially like to end.
TVNewser: So, “Breaking Borders” allows you to travel the world with celebrated Chef Michael Voltaggio and try to solve conflicts over an amazing meal. Do you feel that good food helps bring people together when trying to settle major issues? It doesn’t seem to help my family during Holidays.
van Zeller: The bar for loud family meals is set pretty high when you come from Portugal. In many ways, I’ve been preparing for this opportunity all my life!
But more to the point – as a journalist, I’m used to interviewing one side and then going over to the other side and getting their point of view. I still do that in “Breaking Borders,” but now I get to bring them both to the table. Without a doubt good food is a great way to start a conversation, especially when it’s prepared by Michael. He really pours his heart and soul into every one of these meals. So that’s something all sides can immediately agree on – how incredibly delicious his food is. Once people realize they have something in common, the conversation becomes easier. I wouldn’t say that our goal is to solve conflicts, but we have captured some pretty amazing moments at our meals that we hope will impact and inspire not only those at the table, but those at home watching our show.
TVNewser: If you could have any two groups in the world settle their differences over a meal, which would you chose?
van Zeller: All conflicts are different, and yet the victims are always the same. They are people, just like you and me, but whose lives are deeply affected by violence and war. And that’s what this show is about. Brave and strong people who want to speak up and share their stories, in order to start a conversation. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned from covering conflicts all around the world is that they always begin when communication fails. So this show is about getting the conversation started again. And with some of the conflicts we cover in this series, we learn how peace was achieved, which gives hope for all the others. But if I had to pick one conflict, I would say Israel-Palestine. The idea of reaching peace in the heart of the world’s three major religions would reverberate far beyond the Holy Land.
TVNewser: You’re well-traveled and fluent in Portuguese, English, Spanish, Italian and French. Which is you’re preferred culture when it comes to food?
van Zeller: I’m obsessed with trying new and different food. Always have been. My dad loves retelling this story of me throwing a fit after seeing lobster at a restaurant and not being allowed to order it. I was two years old. But till this day, whatever is on the menu that sounds weird is usually what I order. If I have to choose one cuisine though, I’d go with Portuguese because it’s the least discovered on the list, but incredibly good. Best fish in the world by far. And there are some really hot young chefs there now doing amazing new takes on traditional food. All my husband wants to do when we go there is eat.
TVNewser: Who came up with the concept for “Breaking Borders?”
van Zeller: Gry Winther is a Norwegian journalist who created this show for a TV station in Norway. They called it “Dining with the Enemy” there. The Travel Channel then bought the format and hired Gry to become the series’ Executive Producer, so we’ve been lucky to work directly with her. The Norwegian version had two men as the correspondent and the chef, so I’m happy they changed the format a bit and picked me. There have been several meals where I’m the only woman at the table. I believe it was Margaret Thatcher who once said, “In politics, if you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman.” I’d say, cheers to that.
TVNewser: What advice do you have for young journalists who hope to eventually travel the world?
van Zeller: I always tell young journalists to leverage what you have. If you have a particular language skill or access to a particular place or culture in a way that others don’t, that’s your advantage. That’s where you should start. And then you have to just go out and do it. Don’t wait for someone to buy in on your great story idea. Fortune favors the bold.