Ellen Gray: Coffee adventures from La Colombe's Todd Carmichael

Todd Carmichael uses a portable lab to taste farmers' coffee on his new show, "Dangerous Grounds.
Todd Carmichael uses a portable lab to taste farmers' coffee on his new show, "Dangerous Grounds.
Posted: November 01, 2012

* DANGEROUS GROUNDS. 10 p.m. Monday, Travel Channel. New episodes will be at 9 p.m. Tuesdays beginning Nov. 13.

EVEN OVER the phone, Todd Carmichael sounds caffeinated.

The co-founder of Philly-based La Colombe Torrefaction probably doesn't need his own high-end coffee to stay awake, though. He's an adrenaline junkie, having set a world record for a solo, unsupported trek to the South Pole and twice tried to do the same with Death Valley. And that's just what he does for fun.

"I can't deny the fact that I like to kind of move outside my own comfort zone and outside the kind of traditional path," said Carmichael, who, starting Monday, will be letting Travel Channel viewers in on the dicier parts of his day job as his new show, "Dangerous Grounds," premieres after the series finale of "Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations."

Just as Discovery's "Deadliest Catch" taught us not to take Alaskan king crab for granted, "Dangerous Grounds" adds an element of intrigue to every cup of coffee. The show's first eight episodes follow Carmichael up mountains all over the world as he tries to find - and then acquire - coffee in places where the welcome mat's not necessarily out for a tall, fast-talking American.

Starting with Haiti, where Carmichael quickly learned that traveling with a camera crew can be more dangerous than going solo.

"One of my techniques of really avoiding any kind of problems is to be moving quickly, particularly in crowds," he said. "Once you add a camera guy, things slow down. 'Oh, wait a minute, I'm not getting your audio. The feed's off.' The next thing you know, you're surrounded."

That happened early in the Haiti shoot, when "the guys were being pushed around so hard they couldn't film it," he said, noting that carrying "$5,000 worth of equipment" on their shoulders made them targets.

"I just pushed my way out of it and I said, 'Follow me.' They were just being pushed and pulled and they got away . . . I saw a U.N. truck, so I just ran alongside the U.N. truck. And I thought, 'Wow, that's the first 45 seconds of TV and already I'm in trouble.' "

More excitement lay ahead in the mountains, but the episode barely scrapes the surface of Carmichael's involvement in Haiti, where he wants both to do well - he recently signed a deal with the Four Seasons for 33,000 pounds of Haitian coffee a year for four years - and to do good.

"Haiti is in my teeth now and I'm not letting it go ever," he said. "It's an agriculture-based country that's lost its agriculture and you know, giving them an opportunity to actually sell coffee to an international market is a major game-changer. I've seen it work in Rwanda, I've seen it work . . . all over Africa. It's a model that works."

How many coffee magnates put themselves in situations where they're forced to sleep under trucks, as Carmichael does in Monday's episode?

"If you're the first guy, you have to get there the hard way. You get a truck, you drive up. That's pretty much how you do it. And that's the case for like Angola, for Burundi, the work that I did there. Still, in Colombia, if you want to move outside the coffee federation, you'd better raise up your boots and get on the ground. Borneo is a great example of that," Carmichael said.

"But most coffee guys don't want to take that risk. They want the classic coffees. Like Guatemala. But easy Guatemala. Peru, but easy Peru. Not outside the normal areas. And I'm saying, 'Well, if you're really looking for treasure, why look where everyone else is? You look in new areas.' "

Coffee isn't the only treasure Carmichael's brought back.

Over the past few years, he and his wife, singer-songwriter Lauren Hart (who's working on the music for the show) have adopted three daughters and a son from Ethiopia, a place he revisits in the show's Dec. 11 episode.

Though he credits her with the idea for the show, "Lauren is more of a mint-on-the-pillow traveler," he said. Still, he did take her along on one coffee-buying trip, a six-country African tour, "and she was a stud."

It "was coming back around to [the Ethiopian capital] Addis Ababa that I sprung it on her: I said, 'I think our children come from here.' And she agreed. And that's when we started adopting."

So he knew their children had to come from a coffee-producing region?

"It's kind of like you fill in logic after," he said. "Hemingway had his Paris . . . for me, it's Ethiopia. It's just a thing I can't explain. I like to think it's because that's where humans evolved to become humanoids and that's where the first coffee plant came from. It's kind of like the birthplace of everything I love, people and coffee."


Contact Ellen Gray at graye@phillynews.com or 215-854-5950. Follow her on Twitter @elgray. Read her blog at EllenGray.tv.

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|