Nowadays I almost never watch food shows on television. When your entire workday involves thinking and writing about, cooking with, and taste-testing food, you just want to lay on the couch at night and watch kookaburras mate on Planet Earth. But I’ve made one exception: The Netflix series Somebody Feed Phil, starring Phil Rosenthal, the Everybody Loves Raymond creator-turned-travel host. I deeply love this show.
Its template is no different from other “guy eating his way through a city”-shows of the ilk: Walking segments through street markets, interactions with locals, plentiful slo-mo shots of noodles tossed skyward in a wok. What makes Phil Rosenthal’s show—a follow-up to his PBS series I’ll Have What Phil’s Having—is something those other shows don’t have: Phil Rosenthal.
When you say you enjoy these travel shows, you’re really saying you’re emotionally invested in the guy showing you around. Anthony Bourdain has a filmmaker’s soul and CBGB cool. Rick Steves leans on the academic and exudes Lutheran-nerd appeal. Andrew Zimmern is just a lovable lug and it’s fun watching him eat sea squirts on camera.
Phil Rosenthal is a 12-year-old boy in a 58-year-old man’s body. He doesn’t speak with the authority of a worldly traveler, because he’s not, and so everything is a virgin experience. A sitcom writer by trade, Rosenthal can’t help but defuse awkward situations and language barriers with G-rated one-liners. And even if his cracks fly over the locals’ head, Rosenthal emanates impishness and joy, and that translates in any language. When he tasted some life-altering crab omelet at a Bangkok food stall, his blue eyes bulged, his arms punched holes in the air, and he’d bounced up and down in silent, unbridled delight—as if he and his junior high pals stumbled upon a stash of nudie mags.
When you watch Phil Rosenthal eat food, you really root for him to want it be the most delicious thing he’s ever tasted. The Takeout spoke with Rosenthal about his six-episode Netflix series.
The Takeout: Growing up in Queens in a Jewish family, what was gourmet food for the Rosenthals?
Phil Rosenthal: Gourmet food for the Rosenthals didn’t really exist. My mother is a wonderful woman, but I think she’d agree that cooking isn’t her strong suit. Our joke in the house was: “Mom had a setting on the oven for shoe.” We used to beg to go to McDonald’s. That was gourmet for the Rosenthals. Sometimes she’d make a steak, and you thought, “What did I do wrong to deserve this?”
TO: Surely there was one dish she made that was delicious.
PR: She actually made good matzo ball soup. Very good. She still makes it!
TO: Were there any exotic locales your parents took you as a child?
PR: Atlanta, Georgia. I was 9 years old, I went for a family bar mitzvah. I remember they had this exotic place there called 7-Eleven, and you could get something called the Slurpee that I thought was unbelievable.
TO: Your parents appear on every episode via a Skype call, and they’re such a big part of the show’s charm. Did they instill in you a love of culture?
PR: I got plenty of culture from them. They love art, music, the opera; they took me to theater. But food was not held in the same esteem as the visual arts or music. Now, I think it’s just as valid, the culinary arts. And why not? Why is your sense of taste any less than your sense of sight or hearing? When I left that house, that’s when I realized what was out there. It’s like when Dorothy opens the door in The Wizard of Oz and suddenly the world was in color. I had flavors that I’ve never had before. But now that I’m old enough and I have a little money, I actually invest in restaurants as a way of supporting the arts.
TO: You do?
PR: I’m in over 20 restaurants. I think it’s a valid art form. I think selfishly, when I invest in places in Los Angeles, it makes my town better, and it makes my life better because I get to go there and I really love it.
TO: You’ve written for the sitcom Coach and created Everybody Loves Raymond. How did you get into the food television racket?
PR: We did an episode of Raymond in Italy that changed my life. Because I saw it change Ray Romano’s life. He didn’t want to go to Italy, and I convinced him to go. I told him we should go there and shoot an episode about a guy who doesn’t want to go, and have his life transformed by the magic of travel. What I saw happened to the character I wrote, I saw happen to the person. I saw him light up! He got woke! I thought there’s no greater kick than turning people on to what you love. And I thought right then and there—and this was the year 2000—I wanted to do this for other people.
TO: And that’s how you sold the show to execs.
PR: The way I sold the show was a one-line pitch: I’m exactly like Anthony Bourdain if he was afraid of everything.
TO: Are you really afraid of everything?
PR: I am the normal guy who sits on the couch and watches Bourdain and thinks: “He’s amazing, I’m never doing that.” I feel like maybe there’s a few more people out there like me who’s watching and living vicariously. I want to get them to travel. Two-thirds of Americans don’t have a passport. I think if they look at me and say: “If that putz can go outside, maybe I can too.”
TO: So you had to get over some hesitation and fear to do this show. It’s almost like Netflix is paying for your therapy.
PR: That’s the greatest byproduct of the show for me. It’s me growing as a human being. You’re 100-percent right. It’s conversion therapy, where I’m converting into somebody who tries thing. I started from a place of, “please if I’m not flying first class, I can’t possibly go.” I’m changing into someone who’s dealing with real life and real people now. The absolute best part of the show are the people I meet, people who are truly brave and wonderful and great. And when you’re around such people, it makes you better. The whole show could be seen as my therapy.
TO: Those people you encounter—you say they are the best part of the show—is there one question they ask about the country you’re from?
PR: You think you’re gonna be a laughing stock, but the world is so connected now. They have their phones, they get the same CNN alerts that we get. They know everything when we know it, and they feel the same way: Totally scared, totally terrified, maybe a little more scared if they lived closer to Russia. Nobody is laughing, nobody is doing anything but feeling the same things that most of us are feeling.
TO: How do you assuage their fears?
PR: I can’t! You know what assuages my fear? It’s that most people, from what I’ve found, are so much better than their government. And that makes me feel better.
TO: I just finished watching the Thailand episode. On two separate occasions, you said a dish was one of the best things you’ve ever eaten. Now that you’ve traveled the world with your shows, can you definitely say what is the legitimate best thing you’ve ever eaten?
PR: It’s like trying to pick the best movie. There’s lots of amazing movies and they do different things to you. There’s no better movie than The Godfather I or II. But what about Casablanca? That’s the best movie too. There’s many foods, you don’t have to pick just one. That crab omelet is one of the best things I’ve ever ate. That khao soi in Chiang Mai is one of the best things I’ve ever ate. A Nathan’s hot dog is one of the best things I’ve ever ate. I’m thrilled with so many foods and so many cultures and so many flavors, I celebrate all of it. And it’s not just for me. This is what I’m trying to get out there—it’s for you. You literally don’t know what you’re missing.
Full disclosure: The author of this post has directed a film that’s currently streaming on Netlix, but is wholly independent from the production of Somebody Feed Phil.