Phil Rosenthal is a talker. And when you get him going on his two biggest passions, food and travel, the conversation can leave you laughing, endlessly curious about the world, and really, really hungry. As the inimitable host of the hit Netflix food and travel show, Somebody Feed Phil, Rosenthal has taken his ever-positive persona around the globe in search of the best things to eat, and with a mission to get you off your couch and to explore the planet.
As the pandemic (hopefully) winds down and the wanderlust kicks into high gear, not only should you watch Rosenthal’s show for travel inspiration, but also as a tool to get you into a mindset to truly enjoy life.
I’ve been fortunate to have numerous conversations with Rosenthal, and this latest, like the others, unveils new nuggets about the man, keeps you smiling, and of course, makes you want to eat.
Was there an ‘ah ha’ moment for you to want to do this kind of a show in the first place?
Yes, it happened on Everybody Loves Raymond. It was between season one and season two of the show, and I asked Ray where he was going to go on his hiatus. And he said, ‘I go to the Jersey Shore.’ I then asked him if he’s ever been to Europe? And he said ‘no.’ I said, why not? He answers, ‘because I'm not really interested in other cultures’. Even his own culture, which is Italian.
So, a light bulb went off right there. Oh my god, we have to do an episode where we send them to Italy with that attitude that he's not interested. And he goes there as him and he comes back as me – someone very excited about travel. We wanted him to get woke during that episode.
We finally get him over to Italy, and the best part of that was watching what happened to the character of Ray happening to the actual person of Ray. He got it. He was like, ‘Phil, have you tried this pizza? Have you had this gelato?’ He was just ricocheting around the room. It was so much fun, that I had my real ‘ah ha’ moment – someday, I want to do this for other people because I feel I can show you the stuff that I love. That Italy episode expressed everything I love, not just specifically about Italy, but in the larger sense, how I feel about travelling. And personally, there is no greater high than turning people on to stuff you like.
But I also have a mission. I'm trying to get you to travel so I'm going to show you the best stuff. I learned this fromJonathan Gold [the famous, now deceased, LA Times food critic]. He had a weekly column, and he didn't waste his time with the stuff that wasn't good. If you only have one column a week, and there's thousands of restaurants in the Los Angeles area, why not just focus on the stuff you want to turn people on to and help people in the restaurant industry. That's why he's championed by everyone who's ever worked in a restaurant because he was a friend of the restaurant.
In the course of making this show, what were some of the happy accidents that happened along the way?
The one that pops out immediately is when I metIan Kittichai in Bangkok. He said, ‘I want to take you for Khao Soi.’ And I had never heard of Khao Soi. And he said, ‘we have to go to Chiang Mai.’ So, we went, and we drove these roads in the middle of nowhere and side streets and ended up in a shack, and I had one of the best bowls of anything I've ever had in my life. And that's not from our research that's not from googling it. It's from a chef who knows, who spends a lot of time in Thailand.
Another one was in the Lisbon episode where I heard about this famous ice cream. So, we go to this ice cream shop and it's run by Italian immigrants who moved to Lisbon to open a gelato store. And they told me that across the street they have the best sausages, and the guy who works here in the ice cream shop, he's in love with the girl that makes the sausages and she’s from Austria. I say, let's go see her, and we just take the cameras and go because there’s this human-interest thing if he's in love with her, right? So, you've got Austria, you've got Italy, all on a half a block in Lisbon. And that, to me is the most beautiful kind of serendipity when the whole world mashes up together and they share each other's cultures and literally fall in love.
What were some of the most memorable fine-dining experiences on the show?
I went to Bangkok, and there's a guy named Gaggan Anand. I read about his restaurant and it was like the number one rated restaurant in all of Asia. And he's making a kind of hybrid food in Thailand, like a Thai/Indian cuisine. It's unlike anything you've ever had, and it's very artistic, and very fun. Now, he wanted us to be familiar with the food before we filmed, which I don’t really like because I want to be surprised on camera, but he insisted, and it was spectacular. But now it’s time to film – and I’m thinking, how can I make this fresh? So, our fixer in Thailand was a woman who would never, ever have the opportunity to eat in such a place. And we found out that it was her birthday that day. So, I said to my crew, ‘tell her to dress nice, because it's her birthday’ and maybe we’ll go for a drink with the crew after we shoot. Then I had them secretly film me asking her about her birthday. I then asked her to come over to me, and she’s very shy and looks like she’s going to cry, and I tell her that she’s going to eat with me today. And she says, ‘in the show?’ And I said yes. So, we sat at the counter, while Gaggan prepared the whole dinner right in front of us. We got to experience the meal through her, which was one of my favourite scenes we've ever done. Look, I'm the lucky slob who gets to eat everything in my stupidly privileged life all the time, but to see it through the eyes of a person, who has never even had sushi before, you get to see her first bite, and that was thrilling for me.
What about Tokyo?
We go to Tokyo, and I don't know what to make of it, because it's like being in a pinball machine. I was at that Shibuya Crossing, with six lanes converging into one and I was like, I don't know, maybe I should just stay in my hotel like Lost in Translation because this is unnerving. And I didn’t get it until our very first shot in a restaurant calledNarisawa. He uses nature in such a way that every course is an element of nature. It's an insanely beautiful, transporting meal. And you start to understand, not just the artistry of this guy, but the kind of nature of the Japanese people. How, yes, outside can be a cacophony of noise and uncertainty and chaos. But what he controls, he can make perfect, and that's beautiful. That seems to me to be a Japanese philosophy. It's a gorgeous culture to me, and I just really loved that feeling – it was spectacular.
Narisawa was just so was artistic and beautiful and it was like a museum exploded on the table. The coolest dish ever is they give you like a cross section of a tree trunk – that’s the plate. And on the plate is a recreation of the forest floor with different elements of nature with little trees and bushes and whatnot and every bit of it is edible. Then, all of a sudden, you hear a running stream of water, and it’s coming from the wood and I'm like oh my god, you've recreated the forest in this wood. I’m thinking this is very clever, they must have a little speaker and it plays this sound. But no, it's a live transmission from the forest in northern Japan to your wood. How do you top this?
Of all the amazing places you’ve dined, where would you want to go back?
I think Narisawa because not only is it exquisite, it's also manageable and light enough to really enjoy without feeling like you were shot with an elephant tranquilliser. But, I've had a lot of these meals, and to be very honest, I prefer to eat way simpler now. Yes, if it's the best in the world, and I'm in that neighbourhood, and it’s a once in a lifetime place, then of course. But I'd rather go back for that Khao Soi That's what calls you back. Or the herring sandwich I had in Tel Aviv which is one of the best things I ever ate.
What's a real standout from the most recent season of Somebody Feed Phil?
Well, if we’re talking about a fine-dining element, let’s take lobster. This guy at Jim & Samella’s in Memphis, chicken fries the tail. And when it came to the table after eating the greatest hits of southern soul food barbecue, here comes a chicken fried lobster tail. And I’m thinking, ‘people, do we have to chicken fry everything? Are we not fat enough? This seems completely unnecessary.’ That’s until I took a bite. First of all, it had the best fried chicken coating ever. But the other thing it does is it seals in that meat so that it steams underneath while picking up some of the seasoning. I'm telling you it was the most delicious lobster tail I’ve ever had in my life.
What is your current bucket list of places you want to visit?
I can't wait to go to India. I'd really like to eat at the best restaurant in India. I think that would be fun. I would like to go to Australia on the show. You know the great thing about the world, Covid aside, is that you can get a great meal practically anywhere. And I attribute that to the internet where the kid in Peoria can see what the chef in Paris is doing and emulate it and maybe even surpass it. We live in that world of possibilities, which is wonderful. So, no matter where you go on Earth, you can find it. I want to go back to Japan, because I've only scratched the surface there by going to Tokyo. I can't wait to go to Kyoto. I've never been there, but I'm sure there's a meal of a lifetime waiting for me there. And what about Oaxaca? I’ve never been there, and I love Mexican food. And that's like one of the great centres of cuisine in the world.
When you’re thinking about dining at the higher end, what kind of places do you prefer?
Dan Barber’s Stone Barnsis my favourite restaurant in the United States. Why? Because you get up and you move. You start at your beautiful table and then you go out to the courtyard next to the fire, where they’re doing stuff. Then, they take you to the compost shed for your next course. And the compost has a lid on it, and it generates heat where they put eggs in there and they soft boil them because it’s the perfect temperature. And then it comes out and they put it over the greens that have been picked from the garden. Now we move to the kitchen. And you're going to have this course literally in the kitchen at one of the counters. It's not made for dining, but they put you there. And they want you to try this food right from the pot. Oh my god, how fun is that?
You know as we get older, my back hurts, right? If I sit there for three hours, who wants that? And you better really like the people you're with because you're going to be there a long time. And if it's just like a white tablecloth with stuffy service, stuffy everything, with a long languid meal – I mean, I’m not Henry the Eighth. Let's go.
These are tough times for chefs and restaurant professionals around the world, but there has never been a better time to seek advice and help around a number of topics affecting hospitality workers. Here's a round-up of some of the most useful resources for chefs.