No matter what else happens, the first line of Phil Rosenthal’s obituary will probably still be that he’s the creator of Everybody Loves Raymond, a sitcom so successful (from the days when success had a much higher bar) that he could surely retire comfortably. Instead, he went on to host the travel show I’ll Have What Phil’s Having on PBS, which Rosenthal likens to “Anthony Bourdain, if he was afraid of everything.”
True, Queens-born Phil looks like a guy who may have invented normcore, but now that he’s eaten swamp eels in Japan and cow’s udder tacos in Mexico City, and done countless other exotic things in far-flung places, I don’t know if he can get away with saying he’s “afraid of everything” anymore. It’s demonstrably untrue. There’s an adventurer underneath that polo shirt. Which makes his travelogues not just escapist, but aspirational. That he’s clearly not a born adventurer, but has sort of become one anyway, makes his adventures feel attainable.
Of course, Rosenthal also lives the charmed life of someone comfortably wealthy, who now gets to travel to exotic lands eating food for a living. Something he freely acknowledges, having originally pitched I’ll Have What Phil’s Having with the title “Lucky Bastard.” Despite winning a James Beard Award for the show, which is basically a foodie Oscar, PBS chose not to renew it (I like to imagine all their money goes to feeding Rick Steve’s massive cocaine habit). But continuing Phil’s charmed trajectory, the show was picked up by Netflix, where it was retitled Somebody Feed Phil, given a bigger budget (including shooting in 4K), and a catchy new theme song.
Full disclosure: I like Phil. I can only feign so much journalistic neutrality here. I interviewed him over tacos at the Original Farmer’s Market in LA a few years back, and he was the first interview subject I’d had who seemed like he was just happy to hang out for an afternoon. He ended up inviting me to his house a few months later, for a movie screening in his home theater, complete with pizzas from his home brick oven prepared by a cook from Mozza he’d rented for the purpose. The crowd was a collection of Phil’s delightful family, his old acquaintances and famous comedy types, along with a handful of other people he must’ve just thought were interesting for whatever reason.
Am I so easily bribed? Clearly. But moreover, the show feels like an extension of that evening. It’s the product of a guy who not only gets off on “collecting experiences” (as Phil likes to say), but feels compelled to share them. And so there’s a certain nobility to the gesture. Because sure, he’s a lucky bastard, but he could also surely afford to do all this eating and travel on his own dime, without sharing it. I think he does it partly because it’s nice to have someone else pay, but also because he thinks it’s important. And so do I.
The anti-foodie crowd like to paint foodie culture as an expression of capitalist excess, as over-privileged folk sniffing corks at gentrified food stalls while the world burns. There’s certainly some truth to the privilege part, and misguided food trends can be a terrible thing if misapplied. If a dumb trend means, say, flying 3,000 miles so someone can eat overfished sea bass (the poke trend, for instance, makes me very uneasy). In another way though, genuine appreciation of local produce and regional styles is one of the few checks we have on industrial agriculture and monoculture. If no one around remembers what a good tomato tastes like, we’re going to get sold big colorful ones that don’t bruise and taste like cardboard. It takes a vanguard of snobs to wake people up to tastier food, which is usually more nutritious food. Which is to say, we need the so-called snobs to keep from getting fed cheap, tasteless (and often unhealthy) crap.
Even beyond food, there’s a basic idea underpinning all of this: which is that with broadened horizons comes better decision making. It’s easy to think the way you’ve always done things is the best way or the only way if you never experience anything else. With new horizons comes new ideas, and often, better ones. And that, more than anything else, I think, is Phil’s raison d’etre.
I spoke to Phil over the phone about his new (sort of) show.
I am ready. Can you hear me okay?
I can. Yeah, you sound great.
I sound great? Very nice. You were one of my favorite interviews last year when we did it, and so that’s why I reached out to you because I liked you.
Hey, I appreciate it. Yeah, you’re the only interview subject I’ve ever had invite me to his house, so that was nice.
Aw. Well, you’re welcome back.
My first question was going to be how do you pitch a different food show, but then I read some interviews and it sounds like it wasn’t so much a different show as you were trying to get your last show back on TV basically.
Pretty much. The show is almost identical. The difference is it’s shot in 4K ultra-high-definition. The budget is much bigger just to accommodate that. The crew is bigger and I get a theme song, which I love.
That was going to be my second question was about the theme song.
It’s a huge step up to me to have a theme song. I just think it’s wonderful, and I love those guys. Do you know them, Lake Street Dive? What a great band. I would tell you, just as a human being, go listen to them or go on YouTube and look at some of their stuff. They’re just fantastic.
I think you had a theory about the value of theme songs.
I think it adds a lot. Suddenly, you think of the show, you think of the song and that’s something that is in your head. And once that song is in your head… I keep thinking of “Friends.” It brands the show with a feeling and, if the song is good, that’s a good thing to have.