Jazz Tangcay Talks With Emmy-nominated Phil Rosenthal about food, memories and the first great pasta dish he tried.
For years, Phil Rosenthal was the man behind the laughs, creating the award-winning comedy Everybody Loves Raymond. But, Rosenthal was also a foodie. He liked going to restaurants and discovering new dishes. Growing up Rosenthal had “inexpensive” food. He discovered garlic in pasta sauce as a Freshman in college and it was the best thing he’d ever tried. “That flavor,” Rosenthal says.
A trip to Europe on a cheap cargo flight would change his tastebuds forever. And so, Rosenthal is now traveling the world, and America sharing his food experiences in the Netflix show, Somebody Feed Phil. In the series, Rosenthal travels to Venice, Mexico, Denmark, and he sits down with Nelson Mandela’s family when he travels to South Africa. What makes Somebody Feed Phil a standout food series is Rosenthal’s personality. Rosenthal’s personality appeals as much as the dishes he’s served. You want more! He facetimes with his parents. He provides humor. And he makes our mouths water when he’s going through the markets of Thailand trying street food.
I caught up with the Emmy-nominated Rosenthal to talk about food, memories, and eating ants…
We all have this first great memory of a dish you tried as a child that stays with you forever, what was that dish for you?
We didn’t get a lot of great food growing up. It just wasn’t a priority. We didn’t have a lot of money, and my mom worked outside the house. The cuisine in our house was inexpensive, that was the cuisine.
We used to beg to go to McDonald’s and I loved it all. I loved all the fast food; I loved pizza, hamburgers, and hotdogs. I was pretty crazy about it, but I was not crazy about my mom’s cooking, but she, to be fair wasn’t either.
It wasn’t until I went to college. I was in Hempstead, New York, and it was a cheap place. I’ll never forget this, but I was with other college freshmen, and we got some of the cheapest things on the menu. I ordered pasta and sauce. I remember thinking it was one of the most delicious things I’d ever eaten. Everyone was looking at me like I was crazy, it’s just pasta and sauce. I said, “No, there’s a flavor to it. There’s so much flavor. What are these little white bits chopped up in here?” They said, “What? Garlic?” Yes. Garlic. I never had garlic. I never had that flavor. For me, it was like in The Wizard of Oz and when Dorothy opens the door and the world is in color, it was like that.
The next big revelation was when I went to Europe. I got a cheap courier flight. It meant you went on DHL and you flew as “excess baggage” and that’s how I went to Europe. That’s when my head exploded. That’s when the simplest thing became revelatory. Not just the food, but the setting, the people and the travel itself. It got in very deep.
I love all aspects of the show. There’s so much of your personality to this show, face timing with your parents and I feel it’s genuinely you who we’re watching as you’re trying these dishes. How did you conceive this idea and make it different?
The way I sold the show, and this was to PBS, I said, “I’m exactly like Anthony Bourdain if he was afraid of everything.” I feel there are plenty of people like me out there. People who are not chefs, not adventurers, not superheroes, but regular people who watch him and say, “he’s amazing. I’m never doing that.” So, what about a show for the people who are travel beginners. I felt this was a worthwhile endeavor because I feel the world would be better if we could all experience a little bit of someone else’s experience. I knew what might differentiate my show from the others might be this attitude combined with whatever stupid sense of humor I could bring to it. A lot of the other shows are wonderful, but they maybe don’t have the humor element. I thought with my sitcom background, having done Raymond, I could bring that point of view. That’s the only thing I could bring to the genre. I can’t offer much else. I’m not much to look at. I’m not so adventurous. I will tell you, the more I do it, I’m getting a little more adventurous the more I do it. And that’s the lesson. The more you step out of your comfort zone, the more willing you are to step out of your comfort zone.
A lot of your stepping outside of your comfort zone is trying something you never thought you’d eat. Was there something you thought you’d never try?
The ant in Japan. I didn’t want to eat the ant. Who wants to eat ants? Certainly not where I’m from. I thought the restaurant had an exterminator problem. My dining companion said I had to try it, and the chef said I had to try it. Maybe because the cameras are on you, you get braver, and so I did it. I thought, “Wow, I’m glad I did it.” It’s not that I’m going to go looking for ants to eat. The chef had said it was going to taste like lemon and I said, “In that case, could I have some lemon?” It took all the courage I could muster to bite down on this thing, and damn, it was as if someone put a drop of lemon on my tongue. Right away I started asking if they baked them in lemon, and the chef said, “These ants from this particular part of Japan, these ants taste like lemon.” That was fascinating. If you go to a restaurant like Noma in Copenhagen, they have lots of ants. They have a beef carpaccio covered in ants. It looks disgusting, but I hear it tastes good. It’s like a crunchy salt thing which I had in Mexico City. I had pulverized ants. If you pulverize anything enough, you don’t even know.
This is true. It’s best not to know.
That’s right. Sometimes it’s just best.
How do you pick the destinations you visit?
I use the phone. You can Google best restaurants in Barcelona, and then you cross-referencing and you can see the classics or the new hot spots. I also have the website now and see where we went.
Beyond that, I have experts at the production company. I have fixers all over the world, and they tell me what’s new and great. I’ll Google and compare and see what looks great and where I want to go.
I figure, if I want to go there, someone else will too.
Ha, I used your show and the site to figure out some places when I went to Barcelona.
Oh, it’s a big responsibility. God forbid you have a lousy time because of me. I couldn’t live with it. Imagine if someone writes to me and says, “We went to that place and it was closed.” I’m sorry. Should I refund your trip?
You had some amazing places too, going back to New York and sitting down with Nelson Mandela’s family.
That was so thrilling. We don’t have an equivalent for Nelson Mandela. He was imprisoned for 29 years and not only emerges victorious but becomes president of the country. We don’t have anything like that. He’s practically a mythological figure. I met his descendants and got to see the work that they’re carrying on. I thought what a giant legacy to carry. If I had to live with that legacy, I couldn’t function. At the end of the day, everyone is a person.
So, is there going to be more feeding Phil and what can we expect?
I’m going to add a few more American locations because I understand the way it is for most people. They can’t afford to go overseas. The point is, you can travel in your own town. There are so many different worlds all around us. If you just take that baby step off the couch, your world opens up. There’s that Filipino restaurant we haven’t been to yet because we don’t really know Filipino food, and so, what do they have there? You have your phone, look at it, look at the menu. They have chicken and rice, right? Oh, I like that. So, go. The next thing you know you’re in the Philippines.
It’s so great to always try something different. I’m always looking for new restaurants and new dishes to try.
Isn’t that the greatest feeling? To find something new that you love. What’s better than that? It’s like you’ve traveled for the night.
I also understand that you want the same stuff, but don’t have it every night. Shake it up a little!!!