Phil Rosenthal validated his ticket to the Hollywood-bigshot table almost two decades ago, when he created Everybody Loves Raymond. The show went on to become one of the most successful sitcoms of all time — running from 1996 to 2005. Like many, I didn’t become aware of him as a person until 2010, when he directed and starred in a documentary called Exporting Raymond, chronicling his journey to adapt his famous show for Russian TV. At the time, I didn’t care one way or another about Raymond the show, but I found Phil-as-lead-character endlessly watchable.
And the doc was right in my wheelhouse: a story about the surreal process of creating television comedy (focus groups! executives! jokes by committee!), run through an exponentially more surreal translation to the culture of Russia. I’d been on a quick, but still surreal trip to Russia myself right around the time it came out — which only whetted my appetite for more culture-clash comedy spiced with ambiguous danger. And Phil was the perfect stand-in. Here was this neurotic worrier, forced to spend months trying to explain jokes to dubious locals and stone-faced bureaucrats (an unstoppable premise).
In one scene, Rosenthal asks his driver about the then-recent polonium assassination of Alexander Litvinenko. “Oh yeah, I went to military academy with that guy,” Rosenthal’s Russian driver, Eldar tells him.
“You knew Alexander Litvinenko?” Rosenthal asks.
“No,” Eldar says, with perfect unintentional comedic timing. “I knew the guy who poisoned him.”
Like I said, it’s pretty great.
These days, Rosenthal is hosting a six-part series on PBS called I’ll Have What Phil’s Having. Structurally, the show isn’t much different than No Reservations (the yardstick by which all travel/food shows are now measured, fairly or unfairly). The only real difference, and the crucial difference, is that Phil Rosenthal isn’t Anthony Bourdain. Where Bourdain spent his childhood summering with family in France, learning to appreciate foie gras and snails, Rosenthal grew up in Queens, where, as he says in What Phil’s Having‘s intro, “meat was a punishment.”
To say Phil Rosenthal was not descended from food people is probably putting it mildly. He was 18 when some friends took him to a red sauce joint out on Long Island. In the midst of having his mind blown by basic macaroni and gravy, he took a closer study of his plate and asked “what are these chopped up little white things in the sauce?”
Mystified, his friends slowly answered, “Uh… that’s garlic,” not knowing whether this was a set up for a joke, or if they were dealing with some otherwise well-assimilated North Korean prison escapee.
“Ah, garlic, I’ve never had it before!” he said, to more skeptical looks.
That he could’ve grown to his full adult height never having tasted garlic sums up why Phil isn’t Anthony Bourdain. And yet, he ended up in a similar place — traveling to far flung lands to sample exotic cuisine, wax philosophic, and commune with the locals, all while being filmed (often by his brother, Rich, a producer on the show, and previously an Emmy-winning producer on Children’s Hospital).
“Anthony Bourdain is the best there is. He’s a superhero. He does things that I would never, ever do.” Phil says. “I feel like I’m more like you [the average Bourdain viewer].”
Now, I love Bourdain. I’ve seen most of his shows and I’ve read a few of his books. A food superhero is a person I want to watch. And yet, a food regular guy, or more accurately, a guy who grew up with a palate less diversified than Jodie Foster’s character in Nell, who nonetheless came to value food and travel more highly than just about anything else… that’s also a person I want to watch. Watching Phil’s show, I had the sense that he’s just as important.
On my way to have lunch with him in LA, where I would literally have what Phil was having (tacos), I was trying to put my finger on exactly why.
Aside from settling into the Larry David phase of his career, Phil Rosenthal’s latest incarnation seems to have made him the living embodiment of that old guidance counselor game.
What would you do if you had a million dollars?
The idea behind that old chestnut was that you should ascertain what you’d want to do if money was no object, and figure out how to pursue that. As the creator of a sitcom that won 15 Emmys and was syndicated all over the world, I have to imagine that Phil has many (many) times a million dollars. And if I were him, I’d probably do… yeah, exactly what he’s doing. Traveling the world and eating all of the food.
As it turns out, that’s not quite how I’ll Have What Phil’s Having came about.
“End of season one,” Phil begins, as we wait for our lengua tacos and shrimp burrito. “I say to Ray, ‘Where you going for your vacation?’ He says ‘the Jersey Shore.'” (I get the sense Ray Romano is one of those guys who’s impossible to quote in passing without slipping into a full-on Ray impression, which Phil does seamlessly).
“I said that’s nice, you ever been to Europe? He says ‘nah.’ And I ask him why, and he goes, ‘I’m not really interested in other cultures.'” At which point, Phil makes a bug-eyed face of shock to punctuate his point, which is fast becoming his trademark.
The two of them have since become vacation partners, and while Ray’s perspective has broadened some, Phil still plans the meals (while Ray “mostly couldn’t give a shit”). Which makes them a perfect representation of that all-important foodie/non-foodie divide. This seems closely-related to my query.
What is it that creates that divide? I hate to even call it “foodie/non-foodie,” because I hate the word “foodie” in the first place, but whatever you call it, there seems to be a fundamental difference between people — like me, and Phil, and Anthony Bourdain — who go to sleep dreaming about food, and wake up thinking about what we’re going to eat that day; and people who don’t really care, like Ray Romano (or Hitler). It’s not a new thing either. In Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, The Bully Pulpit, there’s a memorable passage about Theodore Roosevelt and his vice president, William Howard Taft, who started their relationship as lunch partners.
Roosevelt did most of the talking, finding scant pleasure in his food, while Taft relished generous portions. Whether “absorbed in work or play,” one reporter observed, Roosevelt “would eat hay and not know it,” whereas Taft savored his meals with care.
One reason Phil Rosenthal interests me is that he represents an anomaly, a man descended from the proverbial hay eaters who nonetheless became a gourmand. I know why I turned out like Taft. I grew up in a family with food-based rituals, like making raviolis for holiday dinners and taking turns stirring the polenta in my great aunt’s huge copper pot (I’ve since learned that the stirring is largely unnecessary for taste, but is still useful for Festivus-style feats of strength). That Phil Rosenthal grew up in a house where “meat was grey, boiled to the consistency of shoe leather, and hurt your jaw,” and still became the type of person who plans his vacations around food… that alters the conception of what a food lover even is. Is it possible we’re just born this way?
“So a lightbulb goes off,” Phil continues, in his animated lilt that makes me feel like I’m speaking in a Ben Stein monotone by comparison. “We gotta do this show. Where we send Ray to Italy with this attitude, and he comes back with mine. Because I think traveling’s the most mind expanding thing in the world. And I know that the food alone is going to be mind blowing to him. Let alone the sights and the people. So we did that episode. It’s one hour, the family goes to Italy. It’s one of the best episodes we ever did. And the best thing about it is, I saw that what happened to Ray the character who I wrote, happened to Ray the person. He really was transformed by it.”
I don’t think I’ll be able to resolve nature vs. nurture in this food column, but one thing I do know is that Phil Rosenthal is an ideal persona for converting the non-believer, the closeted. It’s precisely because he doesn’t look like a stylish jet setter, because he reads more like a guy who complains a lot than an adventurous eater, that makes him so user-friendly.
“My joke is, I’m exactly like Anthony Bourdain, if he was scared of everything,” Phil tells me. “I feel I am you — that guy on the couch watching Bourdain going, ‘That’s great; I’m not doin’ that.'”
And if Phil is the ideal, non-threatening gateway foodie for Joe Sixpack, why do I care? Why do we, the food lovers, feel it so necessary to proselytize, to convert our friends like Ray (and Hitler)?
This goes to the heart of why I recoil at the term “foodie,” even as I Instagram pictures of my food, DVR six different food shows, and otherwise fit every stereotype. Aside from the fact that the term itself sort of sounds like (and is surely related to) “yuppie,” I think it’s because “foodie” describes someone trendy. Someone fashionable. A name-dropper, a social climber. Calling someone a “foodie” is tantamount to calling them a gentrifier. I don’t think it’s about that, and someone as blatantly un-trendy as Phil seems to underscore the point.
The other joy of watching Phil is that, however skeptical a facade he may put up, he’s always going past his previously defined limits. He’ll say things like, “I’m not doing that,” but then when it’s actually time to put utensil to plate, he does it anyway. He goes to Tokyo and ends up eating ants. He goes to Hong Kong and ends up eating the hundred-year-old egg†.
“I’m not doing that Andrew Zimmern thing, where it’s about eating weird shit. Partly because I don’t want to gross you out. I want you to come with me. However, I am going to eat what they give me.”
He proves that even an avowedly close-minded person will usually open up when stuck in a new situation. And in that way, maybe the joy of I’ll Have What Phil’s Having is that it isn’t even really about the food.
I tell Phil that I think the most important moment of his show comes in the Tokyo episode. He’d traveled out to a strange, family-run restaurant that specializes in a single ingredient: the pond loach, an eel-like fish that lives in muddy rice paddies (and according to Phil, tastes just like mud). As Phil and his crew sit there with the family, the women dressed in formal kimonos, the restaurant’s patriarch describes having “champagne night,” with his friends, as his main form of recreation. Phil cracks, “Back home, we have egg cream night.”
At which point, the gathered Japanese family looks on, wide-eyed, collectively asking “What’s an egg cream?”
Phil offers a breezy explanation of the east coast delicacy, which only further piques their interest. “And their faces,” he says, recalling the scene over lunch, “they actually went ‘Ohhhh.’ And I laughed so hard, because I couldn’t imagine anyone freakin’ out over an egg cream. And I said, ‘I would like nothing more than to make for you an egg cream.’ So the crew pulls me aside and says, ‘You know, we’re not in the jungle here. There’s a supermarket right there.”
And so Rosenthal proceeds to prepare for this family of fifth-generation Japanese loach mongers the delicacy of his people, the Queens leather eaters, chocolate syrup mixed with milk and seltzer water. The camera pulls in on the family’s faces as they take a sip. Do they like it? Do they hate it? Some of them frown slightly, then say how delicious it is, as if they’re just being polite, and secretly think it’s cloying and terrible. It’s hard to tell, frankly. But whether they like it or not is sort of immaterial. To that, Phil didn’t really like the pond loach either. In both cases, it was a joy just to have tried.
I think there’s something so beautiful about this, this “I will make for you an egg cream” moment, and tell Phil as much.
“I think it’s the quintessential moment of the series,” he agrees.
My theory: everyone has their egg cream. It makes me think of the time I stayed with an old friend and his wife in London, and cooked them California burritos (a San Diego specialty that involves carne asada and french fries, that I ate probably twice a week in college).
Phil brings up the scene in Ratatouille††, near the end, where Remy the Rat finally convinces the snooty food critic to take a bite of his food. The critic’s pupils dilate, and the camera swoops inside, flashing back to a scene from the critic’s childhood.
That, to me, is the rub. To me, the food obsession isn’t about being the coolest guy in the room (I don’t think it’s that way for Bourdain either, but the fact that he often is the coolest guy in the room may complicate the message). It isn’t about knowing all the hot spots, recognizing the up-and-coming chefs, or even having the most stamps in your passport. At its best, food becomes this strange, sub-verbal method of transmitting feelings and sense memories. Like telepathy for your nostrils and tongue. You can exchange entire childhoods in a way that isn’t all touchy feely. It could just be two bros sharin’ a brisket.
Like Ray Romano, you don’t even have to want to learn about other cultures. But you will, even in spite of yourself. I don’t have to like the same shows or have the same sense of humor as my family, let alone strangers in Japan. But in making food together or preparing it for each other, we’re sharing some core part of our experience on Earth, entirely un self-consciously. And that, to me, much more so than food alone, is deeply important.
“That’s when the other lightbulb went off: what if I could do this for other people? And for ten years, since that show, I was trying to put together this show,” Phil says.
I tell him that it’s funny, because I’d just assumed this new incarnation was the kind of job a person would pursue when money is not an object. The old guidance counselor game.
“It’s a total scam!” Phil says. “When PBS said yes, my brother asked, ‘Oh really, what’s the show gonna be called, The Lucky Bastard?'”
“I realized it can’t just be I’m a lucky bastard, there has to be a purpose to it. Even if you don’t have a lot of money, and I didn’t when I started out, the best experience of my life was when I was in my early twenties and I got to go to Europe on a cheap nothing flight… it was the best time of my life.”
“So, you don’t need a lot of money to travel. In fact, the point of the LA episode we did is, you could travel in your home town. But I do feel like your life will be better if you experience someone else’s experience. And beyond that, the world would be better if we all experienced a bit of someone else’s experience.”
†”Which turned out to be a big mistake. I put the whole thing in my mouth, and what it tasted like was really, really rotten egg. Followed by this overpowering wave of ammonia. It was awful. And I’m like, why do people eat this? ‘You ate the whole thing?’ I said yeah. ‘Would you go to a Japanese restaurant and eat the whole wasabi? Would you take a bite out of an onion? I said I’m supposed to take a little bit? Yeah, a little bit, genius.”
††The second time a food personality I was interviewing has referenced Ratatouille, FYI.
Phil on his first good steak:
Phil on the term “foodie”:
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.