Life

‘Somebody Feed Phil’ Star Phil Rosenthal Makes The Case For Spending Money On Experiences Instead Of Things


Netflix

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.

Did [Netflix] suggest that or did you have to fight for that?

I didn’t have to fight, but the way Netflix operates is, they said, “Maybe just put it on the first one because we like to encourage people to binge,” which is totally foreign to me. I understand binging if it’s a serialized show and, oh, my God, who’s going to get killed next week? The spoiler alert for my show is: I’m going to be fine. Don’t worry. I’d rather you don’t have to binge. “Don’t hurt yourself” is what I say to people. Every show takes months to make and we put a lot of time and effort into it. I’d rather not it go by in a flurry of six at a time. I’d rather you watch one and then take a little break and digest it like a great meal and then go to the next one. But they said, “If you have the theme song, we’re just telling you that we’re going to put the skip intro button on it because they get through it faster.” I’m like, “Why do you care if people get through things faster?” I don’t understand how it works.

I don’t either because that doesn’t seem like a behavior that has anything to do with [profit]. As long as people are subscribing and they get their money, if they watch it more, they don’t really get any upside from that. It’s not like there’s more ads to see, right?

It’s like a giant buffet, Netflix. In a great way, that you can come and you can just take your time and eat as much as you want once you pay that entry fee.

Yeah.

The day we premiered, there were three other shows that were premiering that day and so I was a little worried about it. And then a few days before that premiere, they surprise announced another show that was going to premiere that day and it was: David Letterman’s return to television with Barack Obama. And I’m like, “Whoa, what are you doing? You’re killing me.” But it doesn’t matter because, like I said, it’s a buffet. So if somebody puts lobster out on the buffet for the same price, it gets more people to the buffet and so they’re going to eat your potato skins if that’s what you are, so it’s okay.

Oh, you’re not potato skins. Come on, don’t sell yourself short.

Well, I think people like potato skins.

Sure. Yeah, that’s true. That’s a good point.

But that’s a very high ticket item, the David Letterman return. It’s a fantastic show, by the way. Did you see it?

I haven’t seen it yet. I’ve been meaning to.

Oh, it’s so good and the production is so good and it’s just a joy to see him back and unconstrained by commercial TV. That’s the plus of Netflix. There’s no interruptions. There’s no commercial. If your show is 45 minutes or an hour and 10 minutes, it’s fine. The content dictates the length of the show, which is very, very unusual for television.

Well, all right, you’ve done a great job selling David Letterman’s show. Let me talk about yours. I don’t think I’m selling you out to say that you have a decent amount of money. You could theoretically do this show without filming it, just as a fun thing for you to do. What makes you want to share it with the world and make it a TV show?

That’s a great question. I’ve said this now a few times, so forgive me, but the genesis of it was when we did the Raymond episode in the year 2000. That’s 18 years ago. We did an episode where we went to Italy. Ray Romano did not want to do an overseas episode. He didn’t want to travel overseas as a person. He had never done it. He was a little afraid. He actually said, “I’m not really interested in other cultures,” and that’s when I actually got the idea to do the episode. I said, “We got to do that episode where we send you to Italy as you and send you back as me, someone excited about traveling, and Italy, especially the food in Italy.”

And we did. It took a few years to get that, but we did it. It’s one of our favorite episodes. And, beyond that, I saw that what happened to Ray the character that I wrote happened to Ray the person. I saw him get woke and that’s when the light bulb went off for me. I want to do this for other people. I had this vision of a show that could be a fun take on a food and travel show, because Bourdain already existed, I believe, and, of course, he’s the godfather of these shows and he’s phenomenal. But here was my one line pitch, which you may have heard before too, this was it. It was, “I’m exactly like Anthony Bourdain if he was afraid of everything.”

Yeah, it’s a good pitch.

And that kind of sealed it because people get it right away. It’s a Bourdain for the rest of us who aren’t Bourdain, who are watching Bourdain going, “He’s amazing. I’m never doing that.” I feel like I have my crowd that I almost represent of people who are next to me on the couch sitting and watching, and I actually think the world would be a little better if we all traveled and experienced other people’s experiences. And, beyond that, it’s the best thing you could do for yourself. I don’t have to tell you. You know, if you travel. There’s no more mind expanding thing in life we can do. And so that’s why.

And also, by the way, selfishly, you ask why do I want to do it, beyond the social good I feel like we can do, it combines everything I love in life. I love making television shows. That’s number one. I love every aspect of show business: writing, directing, editing, producing, performing even. I was trained in theater years ago. It’s in me. I get it. I like it. And then, beyond that, the subject matter of the show is then everything else I love in life: travel, food, family, friends, laughs. It’s all in there. It’s almost like the pinnacle of my stupid existence is to do this.

Well, it’s a good pinnacle.

I feel like we knock our heads against the wall going for jobs that maybe we don’t even really want, but need. And so if I’m going to do that, why don’t I do it for this thing I love?

You make a strong case for travel and I’m totally with you. I try to go somewhere every year at least. But then, every once in a while, I hear one of these cable news baby boomer commentators in my head criticizing Millennials for spending their money on travel instead of saving for a house. What do you… how do you–

You know what? They may be smarter than us as evidenced by the news. I’m thinking, rather than buying material things, I’m not saying don’t save up for a house, but any extra money, rather than buying the newest technological crap, have yourself a life experience that carries with you the rest of your life and changes you in a fundamental way, makes you better, I think. It’s great, I think, if the kids are getting it, and I get a lot of response from young people, nothing could make me happier.

What was the biggest surprise from your travels this season, maybe food-related specifically?

Lisbon is a very underrated place, I think. I hadn’t really thought of Lisbon as a top tier European destination and I want to tell you that it is. I don’t know if you got to see that episode, but so many people are telling me that they’ve booked trips to Lisbon from that show. And what you see in that episode is a guy, me, who didn’t really know much about Lisbon, getting it completely and showing you what I’m learning as I’m there, as with every show. But for some reason, this one, it certainly seems more accessible, let’s say, to Americans than the Far East. It’s a little closer than the Far East for people on the East Coast, I think, at least. And it’s as good as Paris. It’s as good as Barcelona. It’s as good as Florence. People are going nuts over it.

When you’re making a show, how do you keep your wife from wanting to murder you? How do you get away with doing so much amazing travel without her there?

It was her idea! She’s like, “Why don’t you get out of the house once in a while?” No, she actually comes along for the cities that she wants to come along and she takes a little bit of vacation for herself. And I think you saw her in, let’s see, was it, “I’ll Have What Phil’s Having,” you saw her a couple times. And if we are lucky enough to keep going, you will see her again.

I guess she has it even better than you because she can just be there without having to make TV.

Absolutely. Pick and choose. Yeah, yeah.

What do you think the best and worst things were that you ate this season?

Let’s see. There’s always something amazing in every city. There’s always something in each place that the crew and I look at each other and go, “Let’s come back here again off camera to have this again.” And so in Chiang Mai, in Thailand, there was this bowl of khao soi. I don’t know if you saw that one, but it’s this bowl of coconut curry soup with fresh pasta in it with big pieces of chicken or beef with pickled mustard greens and onions and shallots and cilantro and chiles and then on top of everything is crispy noodles. So, everything is working in that bowl. It’s just the best bowl of anything you can ever have, and it’s a dollar. It’s a dollar fifty if you want the chicken beef combo. He’s got a deal going. I’m telling people that the best things in life are free, or a dollar. That was one of the absolute best things I had, but I could pick something from each city that was almost worth the trip alone.

And then there’s the bad stuff, which is bad to me. I went with Bill Esparza to Mexico City, and I loved it. I loved it. We all have these preconceived notions of what it’s going to be like and is it safe, is it not. It’s perfectly safe. You go to neighborhoods that are 90% wonderful and you avoid the neighborhoods that maybe aren’t so wonderful just like here. There’s parts of San Francisco you don’t go to at night, right?

Right, yeah. Definitely not without good shoes on, that’s for sure.

Yeah. It’s the same. But he took me to this place in what he told me was not a great neighborhood, but it was perfectly fine when we were there during the day, and he gave me three tacos. He said, “I’m not going to tell you what’s in them.” Bill is a taco expert. He’s written books about it here in LA. And this is not my favorite thing, to have surprises that involve meat. And I took a bite of the first thing and it was, to me, not so good. Bill likes it, but, to me, I needed water right away. It was a cow’s udder taco. You can’t even get that in America.

First of all, what did it taste like? And, secondly, why can’t you get that in America?

I don’t know. I guess it’s not sanctioned for consumption. What did it taste like? I couldn’t figure it out. It was quite unpleasant to me and, as soon as he told me that it was an udder, the flavor, the idea of the flavor, came flooding into my head. And I didn’t say this on camera because I didn’t want to gross people out, but it tasted like there was some old milk left in that udder.

Oh, man.

That’s not something I look forward to having again.

What if they do it and they soak it real well beforehand next time and get it really cleaned out?

Maybe, but how do you know? And, by the way, the very same taco, Bill ate and he liked it, so there’s that kind of funky cheese thing going on, I guess, that is a delicacy. But everything depends on what you’ve been raised with, what you’re used to, in addition to everybody’s palate being different.

You liked the one that was lungs, right?

I did, because if you didn’t tell me … By the way, that one looked the worst. It was black. It was like God knows what part of the animal this is. I had no idea. That was the third taco. I was already taking much smaller bites and, that one, if you didn’t tell me, it just tasted like good roasted meat. And there are some things like that, like the ants in the sauce at Pujol. I’m not thrilled about eating bugs. I’m not like Bourdain or Zimmern or these guys who they want to try everything. I’m a little nervous. I am afraid of bugs, eating bugs. I don’t get excited about it.

And so here are these little black specks in this sauce, in this chipotle sauce, on the baby corn and the chefs I’m with tell me that it’s ants and it’s delicious. And I’m with them and I’m on television and I’m going to try it. I have to admit that the camera makes you maybe do things you wouldn’t do necessarily. But when I think about it, I think if I was with those people off camera and they told me to try it, I think I would try it.

Yeah, you don’t want to let them down.

Yes, and what’s the worst that can happen? You don’t like it. You don’t have to eat anymore. And, by the way, it was great. It was great. It added a saltiness that wasn’t quite salt.

I wondered about that baby corn. Is it like the Asian thing that’s in Big, where Tom Hanks gets the baby corn and tries to eat it like regular corn, or is it actually from the corn plant then it’s smaller? [I don’t know why I thought baby corn wasn’t related to regular corn, I mistakenly thought I’d read that somewhere]

It’s actually from the corn plant. I think the Tom Hanks one is from the corn plant as well. It’s just a little more processed in America when we see baby corn in a salad. This was certainly prepared differently even without the sauce. It was roasted til being soft and it was delicious. Baby corn, when we eat it, doesn’t really taste like corn in America, but it did there. And, by the way, so did those tortillas. You saw the homemade tortilla segment?

Yeah, that was one of my questions. I was getting infuriated at how easy they made tortilla making look. Not the grinding part because everybody knows that’s hard, but the actual combining the paste and grilling it. I’ve tried that so many times and it never comes out good and she was just tossing these on there and they were coming out perfect and I want to know what the secret is.

I think the secret is that, first of all, that overnight soaking and the soaking with the mineral, the stone, that kind of limestone that adds, not only it makes the water hot, which is mind-blowing, I never saw that happen before where you add a rock to something and the water gets hot. But as it breaks down, it adds this great nutrition to it. And so the Aztecs lived on this for years, years and years, centuries, and just tortillas had nutrition. We don’t even know what that’s like, like bread with nutrition in it unless it’s added after. We’ve lost something and what these guys at that place are doing are preserving these heirloom varieties of corn. And don’t you know that with the nutrition comes the flavor, which I didn’t know, until I think I read it in Dan Barber’s book, that the more flavor a vegetable has, the more nutritious it is. Didn’t know that.

Yeah. I’m not even talking about just grinding the corn. The part where they’re just combining masa and water and putting it on the grill and just pressing it…

You tried it by hand —

I haven’t tried to grind it, but I’ve tried to combine the masa and water and roll it out and grill it and it comes out too hard or it’s not grilled enough or it’s grilled too much. I don’t even know.

Maybe having centuries of built in experience helps.

Yeah, that’s what I’m guessing.

But, man, that tortilla, that tortilla was like somebody just picked you a fresh ear of corn, best one you ever had, and just rolled it out into a flat thing and that’s what it tasted like. Amazing. Anything would be good in that tortilla.

Going to a different episode, I was fascinated by Dr. Shakshuka from the Israel episode. I kind of want to see a spin-off about that guy. He seemed like he was maybe too fat to close his mouth or he had a breathing thing going on..

You know what? In Scarface, he has a line that I never forgot, which is, “Don’t get high on your own supply.”

Right. And then so he teared up a little bit. I guess he’d gone from going to jail to opening this restaurant?

He went to jail. He went to jail for not using the store next door, which was a shawarma place, he and his father were using it to change money in addition to selling shawarma, which turns out to be illegal. And while he was serving his, I think it was a short prison term, maybe less than a year, I don’t remember exactly, he made shakshuka in the prison and so all the inmates started calling him the doctor. “Dr. Shakshuka, I want to visit the doctor. Make me shakshuka.” Even the guards, I think, loved it. And he realized that this was his next venture when he got out and it became the most popular shakshuka place in Israel.

I would just say consider a spin-off with Dr. Shakshuka. That’s all I’m saying.

I think we said it in the thing. We’re like, “This is a great super hero origin story.”

And he’s just interesting to watch in general.

Absolutely. But I didn’t know that when we talked to him, he would start to well up, that he would get emotional. But why wouldn’t you? You miss your father. You had a very dark time in your life where you actually had to go to prison. But no prison, no shakshuka.

Tell me what it’s like to go to Israel as an American Jew. The way my Jewish friends talk about Israel, it’s like they simultaneously love it and then part of them is compelled to break its balls a little. There seemed to be a little of that in your show also.

I think that’s part of being Jewish is to question everything and to complain. I talk about that at the beginning. I talk about how I had this experience… [the line getting noisy in the background] I’m sorry. I’m walking outside. It’s so beautiful here. How is it up there?

It’s nice today, yeah.

I think these leaf blowers should be banned.

The audio is not too terrible, so it’s fine.

Speaking of old Jew, why do you need a leaf blower? There’s this new thing out now, it’s called a rake.

My first trip to Israel, I got almost kind of abducted by a fundraiser who had an agenda and his agenda was to show me the best possible time in Israel, which meant what he considered the best possible time. And under the guise of “everything is taken care of for you,” I was a captor and I was being led around to stuff that I did not care about or want to see and kept from the things I wanted to do. I couldn’t stand it. I came back another time to help the guy you see in the Dr. Shakshuka episode, those two guys. One was the executive producer/writer and one was the actor in the Israeli version of Everybody Loves Raymond, and I came back to help out because they asked me and I thought, “Okay. Here’s a second chance for Israel and I’ll go.”

And so I did it and, I have to say, I liked it much better. And then, this time, with the show, my third time, and I saw parts of Israel that I hadn’t seen before, like up north where it’s gorgeous. It was really fantastic. And what I wanted to do was not get political in any way because everybody does when they talk about Israel. It’s all about politics and conflict, and I wanted to do a show that avoided it. And so it was very easy, actually, to find people getting along, to find that bakery where I just happened to walk by, a bakery where an Arab gentleman behind the counter was wearing a t-shirt that says, “Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies” written in English, Hebrew and Arabic. And everyone who worked there had the shirt and they were Jews and Arabs in the middle of Tel Aviv. I love that, and the bakery was phenomenal, by the way.

And that town of Akko, this ancient port city where the Jews and Arabs not only get along, they celebrate each other. They’re friends and neighbors. There’s not even a visible police presence in the city. It’s amazing. And so it was a great privilege to be able to show that side of things that you don’t see.

Those shirts were like, on the one hand, you’re like, well, this is a great branding tourism thing, but it was hard not to be touched by it at the same time.

It’s a form of propaganda that I’m doing for a reason. Each of these episodes is truly a love letter to each place because the mission statement is, “I want you to travel. I want you to go there,” so I’m showing you the best parts of a place.

Do you get food poisoning on these trips ever? That’s like the one thing that I fear when I’m traveling because I like to spend most of my time eating and, if you get food poisoning, you kind of ruin your whole trip.

Of course. I guess it can happen at any time. But, to be honest, I did six of those, “I’ll Have What Phil’s Having,” I did six of these now, nothing, never, not once. And I’m eating street food and we’re not vetting every single thing. Here’s a personal way to vet something, if you’re in Bangkok and you’re where all the street food is in the Chinatown there, which is a very famous and huge street food scene, which I recommend. It’s one of the most fun things you can do in your life. Hey, there’s a little line here. That’s a very good sign. If they were poisoning people, I think the line wouldn’t be so long.

Sure. Do you have any precautions? Do you take any pills with you just in case or anything like that?

I do. I do. I’m not crazy. I have medicine, but I’ve never used it. I haven’t even used the Imodium, nothing. I tell you, I get more sick here from the occasional thing, really.

Sure. But if you get sick here, it doesn’t matter because you’re here all the time. But if you get sick somewhere else, you’re like, “Well, I only have seven days here, if I’m sick for three of them, I’m going to miss half of my food that I would want to be here for.”

I think that’s called an “occupational hazard.”

Yeah, I guess so. I wanted to ask about getting not renewed by PBS. Why do you think that was? They still have Rick Steves traveling around everywhere. Are you too hot for PBS?

I honestly have no idea. You’d have to ask them. But I can tell you we won the James Beard Award for that show and we were apparently their top-rated show of that year. I have to say that I love being on Netflix because when we handed in those six episodes, they pushed a button and we were on in every country on Earth.

When I first started watching the show, my first thought was that I thought the episodes were too long and then I sort of found myself… I watched a little more and then, at a certain point, I was talking to the TV while I was watching it alone. I said, when you were eating churros in Mexico City, I said, “Holy shit,” out loud, which is a really dorky thing that I do every now and then. That was–

–I want to say I want you to luxuriate in the show. I want it to be a little movie about that place. It’s not just a food show. It’s kind of a movie. It’s kind of a hybrid entertainment in that it’s a food show, it’s a travel show and it’s kind of, if you think about it, a sitcom.

My thought when I was watching it, was that it put me in the mindset that I’m in when I travel. Where I have to recalibrate my expectations. My expectations go out the window because I’m in a new place and I don’t have those anymore and then someone else is taking control and I’m just there to experience. Was that deliberate in some way to give the show, to make it feel like traveling does?

Yes, absolutely. I want it to feel like you took a vacation to this place, that you got the full… as much as I could stuff into an hour. We film over 10 days and I really wanted people to luxuriate in the place. It’s not just about the food.

Well, I think it worked. Hey, thanks for talking to me.

All right, my friend. Great to talk to you.

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. More reviews here.

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