On a constant search for 'Dangerous Grounds'

Watched by a Haitian grower, Todd Carmichael, cofounder of Philly's La Colombe, brews a first taste of the coffee. In a new TV series, he hunts for little-known bean sources. Travel Channel

It's rather amazing that Todd Carmichael, the cofounder of Philadelphia's five-star coffee roaster La Colombe Torrefaction, made it through eight episodes as the host of the Travel Channel's new series Dangerous Grounds.

Because his first 15 minutes on the job were sheer terror.

The show, which gets a special debut on Monday after the series finale of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations before settling into its regular slot of Tuesdays at 9 p.m. the following week, trails Carmichael to remote mountain regions in a few of the globe's 80 coffee-growing countries, in search of the perfect bean.

The quest began about a year ago in Haiti, with the TV newbie, his cameraman, and his field producer in an open-air market in Port-au-Prince, a situation that quickly became untenable.

"This is a Red Zone Class Five country," says Carmichael on the phone, a day after Sandy has given the Philadelphia region a few Third World issues of its own to deal with. "A German film crew got stomped there just a few hours earlier. One guy got shot.

"Suddenly, we were attracting the wrong kind of attention. Your survival method in a situation like that is to move quickly and don't retrace your steps. I didn't realize when you have a camera crew, everything takes longer. But when you see us running away from that market, we were really running."

Subsequent episodes find Carmichael in Madagascar, Borneo, Cambodia, and Papua New Guinea, none of them known as coffee capitals.

"Well, you don't see those names on the bags in the grocery store," he says. "You see Sumatra and Kenya and Jamaica. But if you're looking for buried treasure, you have to get off the beaten path."

Carmichael travels light on these expeditions. His pack is more likely to hold a field brewing kit with which to sample his finds than a change of clothes.

With a baseball cap perpetually jammed over his scant hair, weathered face, and dark eyebrows, he looks like R. Lee Ermey in his prime, a popular character actor best known for playing drill sergeants. And Carmichael's approach to life is certainly gung-ho.

When not scrambling around mountain ranges for his company, which has cafes in Philly, New York, and Chicago and supplies its gourmet roasts to high-end restaurants and hotel chains across the country, Carmichael likes to push his limits in even more hostile climates.

Making a local appearance in 2005 to promote a planned solo slog across Antarctica, Carmichael found himself smitten with the then-host of NBC10's 10! Show, Flyers' good-luck charm Lauren Hart.

Carmichael completed the march to the South Pole, the first American to do so, in a record-shattering time of under 40 days.

He married Hart shortly afterward, and the couple lives in Gladwyne with their four children adopted from Ethiopia.

His polar trek was the subject of a documentary film, Race to the Bottom of the Earth. During a screening for that film, Carmichael's spouse made an innocent comment, he remembers: " 'You should do the same thing with coffee, honey,' she said. The next thing you know, I have a television show. No one was pitching anyone anything. Everyone involved just got excited with the idea: 'Let's just follow you with cameras.' "

Carmichael is glad it worked out that way, because he's convinced a more formal approach would never have flown.

"I'm a coffee guy, not a TV host," he says. "If you gave me something to read, it would sound like Frankenstein was reading it to you."

But a free-range Carmichael? That, it turns out, is something to see.

"He's incredibly compelling, incredibly brave and authentic," says Nancy Glass, who created the show with her Bala Cynwyd production company. "How many guys with his level of success are out there in the field doing this themselves? He's not doing it for show."

So why would a wealthy 49-year-old man continue to push himself so hard in rugged conditions? Why not delegate?

"I have too much of my life and my love invested in this," he says. "Eventually, my body will break down, and I'll hand over the baton, but until then I'm not letting go."

But his TV career is definitely interfering with his second passion, as an extreme adventurer.

To mark his 50th birthday, he had been planning on racing nonstop across America on a bicycle, attempting to go coast-to-coast in 12 days.

"It's going to be hard to talk my wife into it," says Carmichael, with an uncharacteristic note of resignation. "I would have to cash in a lot of my husband chips. I might have to wait until I'm 52."

Contact David Hiltbrand at 215-854-4552, dhiltbrand@ phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @daveondemand_tv