How Comedy Writer Phil Rosenthal Became the Unlikely Heir to Anthony Bourdain
The former “Everybody Loves Raymond” runner is now eating his way around the globe on "Somebody Feed Phil"
Phil Rosenthal is a lucky guy. The show for which he’s best known, Everybody Loves Raymond, ran for nine seasons, entering rarefied air for television sitcoms, and continues to be a favorite in syndication to this day. It is the kind of success that comedy writers only dare dream of, and a feat that would be virtually impossible in the streaming era.
Perhaps even more enviable, though, is Rosenthal’s current gig, hosting a hit travel show for Netflix where he journeys all over the world to sample local food and drink. Somebody Feed Phil is now on its fourth season, filled with joyous human interaction and cultural curiosity, energy that the entertainment media landscape desperately needs these days.
Don’t worry, Rosenthal knows he’s lucky — saying it no less than seven times during our interview — and is now using his platform to help the hospitality industry in these trying times.
InsideHook: What was your goal for the series Somebody Feed Phil?
Phil Rosenthal: My whole drive is to get people to travel, and to get them out of their comfort zone. For a lot of people, their comfort zone is the couch. Of course I looked to other travel programs, for example what Anthony Bourdain did, but that is never going to be doing what he did. I am not as adventurous as him. I am not going to Borneo, sleeping in a tree, getting drunk with the local people and having them tattoo me in the chest with painted nails. I envy that, but I am not that guy. I wanted to do a show for the people like me, who might be uncomfortable the moment they get onto a plane. Those are my people.
Do you have an episode that comes to mind where you felt wildly uncomfortable, but ultimately benefited from moving forward anyways?
There was an episode like that we did in Saigon, Vietnam. My brother, who produces the show, came up to me and told me that the next day we were going to get up at 4 in the morning and we were going to a little local shop on an island in the middle of a river. There they help you catch your own fish and also gather lotus stems and snails. So basically they wanted to send me out to the middle of a swampy lake in hip waders to catch fish and pick snails while the sun was still rising.
I said, “You lost me at 4 in the morning.” Then we fought about it for a little while and eventually I gave up arguing. I was completely unsure of myself at first. The mud at the bottom of the lake was insane, it was like a giant was trying to pull me down. I asked the owner if there were snakes in the water, and he said, “Of course!” There I am already in there, with my boots on, and he is walking around barefoot. But I ended up getting the snails, catching the fish, and then sitting down to dinner with the family. And to this day it is one of my favorite things ever.
How about for this season? What was the moment that you didn’t expect?
Being in Rio during Carnival was just such a unique experience. Looking at me, you wouldn’t think, “There’s someone who can dance.” And I don’t! But try not to dance when you are in Rio in January. They will pull you in, and they don’t care how you look doing it. That is an experience that I normally wouldn’t look for in my regular life, but because I was there it opened up to me. And I had a lot of fun, so I decided that I should dance more at home. For that purpose I am doing a little dance challenge for my Somebody Feed The People charity.
What is the challenge?
It is on social media, and anyone can enter, they just have to post themselves dancing and donate to the charity. I want people to know that I’m matching the donations that go to the World Central Kitchen if you go through a portal I have set up on the site somebodyfeedthepeople.org. I want people to give, and I am going to match whatever comes through there. I’m going to pick a winner who I am going to have a little Zoom dinner with.
What destination from this season do you think surprised you the most?
I loved every place that we have gone for the show, but I would say that the Mississippi Delta was the biggest surprise for me. For those who don’t know, it’s the stretch between Memphis, Tennessee and Jackson, Mississippi. You could do the whole trip in a day. Going down Highway 61 you hit these amazing little spots. I was blown away by this area. I thought that I was stepping into the movie Deliverance. But what I found was the nicest, sweetest, warmest people out there. And the most delicious food.
How has it been getting to know the chefs that you meet through the show and outside of the show, now that you are in the biz?
I am very lucky to be doing what I do, and to have met the people that I have. They welcome me in restaurants, because I am “the restaurant’s friend” kind of guy. I am an advocate for restaurants, and they especially need them now. I am one of the ones working to get that bailout for them.
Being on Netflix, you are in good company when it comes to food shows. Have you gotten to know any of your colleagues in that world?
Roy Choi has become a buddy and he is one of the great geniuses out there. That man reinvented the way people eat. The whole food-truck scene really took off because of his work. I have become friendly with Andrew Zimmern. I have gotten to know David Chang and Jon Favreau, who has his own cooking show now on Netflix. He is wonderful and such a genius. The fact that he can do everything that he does as a creative person and still cook is impressive. But I want to stress that I am not on the same level as these guys, I am just a fan. I can’t cook! Nobody wants to eat my cooking. But they like me, because I love them. I just have great respect and love for what they do.
Where would you like to go for a fifth season?
I really want to go to India. I have never been there in my life, let alone for the show. I know I would have an amazing time. I am guessing I have to start with Mumbai, because that is the city, but I hear that the north part of the country is also beautiful. I only been to Sydney in Australia, so I would really love to explore that country more. I think that is another one that I have to do. I don’t feel like I have scratched the surface at this point.
On that note, do you know if you are getting another season with Netflix?
I haven’t heard anything from Netflix. They have just told me that they haven’t decided yet. I mean it is doing well, but that doesn’t mean much, because they like new things. They don’t run their series for a long time. They only renew about five percent of their existing shows. I hope they will let me do more, because I love doing it so much.
Well if it’s not on Netflix, you are going to do it somewhere, I hope.
Oh I am going to do it somewhere! I will do it any way I can. Because this experience has truly affected me and introduced me to an incredible batch of people. I could go on for hours naming all of the incredible chefs and people that this show has allowed me to connect with. Getting to meet these people is the best part of traveling, in my opinion.
Since the show has been going for awhile now, have you found yourself getting recognized more often now?
The last time I was in an airport was back in March. I was waiting to pick up my luggage and a guy comes up to me and said, “Hey, you’re the food guy!” I am absolutely fine being known as “that guy” or “the food guy,” which I get a lot. Nobody needs to know me more than that!
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