Previously best known as the creator of beloved 1996 sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond, Phil Rosenthal is carving out a new space for himself these days as a food enthusiast, earning his 13th career Emmy nomination this year for his Netflix series Somebody Feed Phil.
A follow-up to Rosenthal’s PBS travel series I’ll Have What Phil’s Having—which taught the series creator how to navigate the foodie reality space—Somebody Feed Phil debuted in January of last year, with a “Second Course” of episodes released last July making the show eligible for Outstanding Unstructured Reality Program. Comedic, light and educational, the series follows Rosenthal around as he travels the globe, sampling the food and cultural traditions of some of “Earth’s Greatest Hits.”
In “The Second Course,” Rosenthal traveled to Venice, Dublin, Buenos Aires, and Copenhagen, sitting down with Nelson Mandela’s relatives in Cape Town, while crafting a love letter to his hometown of New York City.
Speaking with Deadline recently, Rosenthal was clearly rife with enthusiasm about this new chapter of his career, suggesting that when it comes to his duties as an ambassador to unknown lands, his job is far from done. While Somebody Feed Phil was recently picked up for two more five-episode seasons, Rosenthal also created a new YouTube channel just last week. Titled “Phil Rosenthal World,” the channel is yet another platform through which Rosenthal can share his fervor for food— in this case, with much more immediacy.
Below, Rosenthal discusses his episode on New York City, meeting Zondwa Mandela, and the life-changing magic of traveling the world.
Before Somebody Feed Phil, there was I’ll Have What Phil’s Having. What did you learn from making that PBS series that’s informed your approach to this one?
When you’re first starting a show, any show, you learn what works and what doesn’t work, and it’s a kind of trial and error thing. But I think we hit the ground running, even on the PBS series, because I had tried different iterations of it in short-form, things that people never saw. So, I learned that Skyping with my parents was going to be a good idea, and to not have a permanent guest host was a good idea—and maybe the most important thing was to not over-schedule meals, because I tried a week once of doing this for a company. They were going to use it for promotional stuff, and the producer of that booked us into 27 restaurants in seven days. That’s more than breakfast, lunch and dinner, and when the food comes, you want to say, “Oh, boy”—not “Oh, no.”
And I realized that the enthusiasm is a big part of it. If I’m trying to get you to travel by showing you the best places in the world to eat, I think enthusiasm goes a long way. Especially because I’m not a chef, I’m not an expert. I’m a tourist like you. So if I’m not excited, how can I expect you to be excited?
When I came over to Netflix, they asked me a beautiful question, which was, “Was there anything that you wanted to do on the previous series that you couldn’t do?” And [to] every creator of a show, every artist of any type, that’s the best question you could get from a benefactor. [laughs] “What would you like?”
Honestly, the only thing I could think of that I didn’t have was a theme song, so I called my friends at Lake Street Dive, and we wrote a song together, and it was nominated for an Emmy last year. I was thrilled.
How did you map out an itinerary for your first two installments of your new series?
Starting back with the PBS series, I knew that two thirds of Americans didn’t have a passport, and I honestly think that the purpose of the show is to inspire you to travel, using food and my stupid sense of humor as a way in. But knowing that a lot of Americans especially were not accustomed to traveling, I was starting with Earth’s greatest hits as a kind of jumping off point.
Listen, the jumping off point for most of us is getting off the couch. So, I’m trying to show you the places that I know will be somewhat comfortable for you, as they are for me. Places where many people speak English, where you’ll have a hotel with a bed and a pillow, and the food won’t be so crazy foreign to you, because you’ve all been to some type of restaurant that has an ethnicity, or is not completely meat and potatoes, like we’re used to here.
So, if I did six for PBS and then I did 12 more for Netflix so far, I still haven’t hit all of Earth’s greatest hits. I haven’t even done London yet—which is, I hear, the number one foreign city that people from America want to travel to. If we’re lucky enough to continue doing the show, you’ll see me step more and more out of my comfort zone, as I get more accustomed to travel.
Your first two seasons of Somebody Feed Phil featured one U.S. episode apiece, and in Season 2, you investigated New York City. What was shooting that one like? Was it very personal to you, as someone who grew up in New York?
It was very daunting because every travel show, every movie has done New York. So, I was like, how do I do the definitive New York? If I was putting all this time and money into making the New York episode, I wanted it to be the best New York episode. And I realized, I can’t make the definitive episode. How’s it going to be everything to everybody? It can’t be. The only thing that I can do is do my New York, and of course that’s the secret to everything. That’s the secret to anything we write. You have to bring your experience to it. Otherwise, how do you expect anyone else to connect to it?
The more specific you are in writing, the more universal something becomes. So for me, you’re seeing the places that I love, down to the pizza places. You’re seeing my parents’ actual apartment; I say, “Now, we’re going to the birth of the blues, my mother’s kitchen,” and we had a wonderful scene there. Then, I realized that all these places I was showing in New York, it’s really a tale of immigration and the power of diversity, and how it’s our superpower. It’s our strength.
That’s what the episode adds up to for me, so I’m very, very proud of it. Because in being very specific, I think I hit on something universal, and certainly uniquely American.
You engaged with a variety of great guests while shooting “The Second Course,” including Nelson Mandela’s grandson Zondwa, who taught you about his non-profit organization, Mandela Legacy. What was it like to meet up with him in Cape Town?
We don’t have an equivalent for Nelson Mandela in our country. We don’t have somebody who was in jail for so long, and then not only emerged victorious, but then became the president of that country, and became a spiritual and political leader for an entire nation. Now, there’s still a lot of work to be done in Cape Town, as there is here. But you see, when you’re in another place, the similarities of things that people go through all over the world. So, it was eye-opening for me, and to have the honor of sitting with his grandson and his granddaughter-in-law was a beautiful thing. They were lovely people. And listen: He does not carry the weight of a legacy. But he is trying to honor that legacy through the work that he’s doing, and it’s wonderful to see.
As Somebody Feed Phil makes clear, travel is one of the most profound human experiences, a way to connect with others and learn more about the world. How has the cultural education you’ve received through your travels impacted your life?
Even before I started working on this, when I first took a courier flight for free—which was all I could afford in the early ‘80s, when I was in my twenties—I saw it, and my mind was blown. It’s the most mind-expanding thing we can do in life. I tell everybody, if you have any extra money, it should be put towards these experiences. I think the world would be better if we all could experience a little bit of someone else’s experience, and listen—the way the world is right now, the way America is perceived, you will be doing America a favor by traveling, just by being a half-decent human being. You’re putting something good out into the world; you are an ambassador, and we need this.
We need this because we are not just citizens of our town, of our state, of our country. We’re citizens of the world. So, we want to get along with everyone. It makes sense to get along with everyone, and it’s nice get along with everyone. So, I’m trying to show that we can all be ambassadors. We all have something nice to offer, and it will make not just the world better, but selfishly, what happens to you when you travel is that your perspective on life changes. You actually come home with a new perspective on where you live. You can’t put a price on the experience of that, because it literally changes your mind.
It seems like one of the best things about traveling is the global web of connections you gain from it. Do you find that? Have you stayed in touch with people you’ve met while shooting abroad?
I love that you brought this up because it happens to be my absolute favorite part. So now, people who don’t travel, they have a lot of work to do, because not only do you have to go to a place, you have to make friends there. You will naturally, but then the next time you travel, you want to see someplace new—but now you also have to go back to the first place and visit your new friends, which is the best thing. It’s so great. Then, maybe they come and visit you, and there’s nothing like it. It’s like when you were a kid—I don’t know if you had this in elementary school, but pen pals. Now, it’s even easier because we can follow each other on Instagram. We can instant message each other, email each other, text each other from around the world. And I have friends all over the world, which is such a joy in my life. The show has been a gift to me, because of that very thing.
For you, have any major culinary discoveries come out of the show, which you’ve since incorporated into life back home?
In Chiang Mai, in Thailand, I had this bowl of Khao soi, which I had never had before. I didn’t know what it was, and a Thai chef took me to his favorite place that serves this. Here it comes, and it’s a bowl of coconut curry-based soup with hand-pulled noodles—the most beautiful pasta you ever saw at the bottom. Then, all these pickled chilies, and mustard greens, and peppers, and onions, and spices, and then crispy noodles on top. Oh, and either chicken or beef or pork or tofu, whatever protein you want in there. I tasted this, and it was the most delicious thing I’ve ever had. It was a dollar—a dollar. That’s my second favorite price.
So, I come back to LA, where we have plenty of Thai restaurants, and sure enough, here’s the Khao Soi on many of the menus. I never knew to order it. Now, I go around LA looking for the best Khao Soi in LA that’s comparable. The thing I had in Chiang Mai, it’s 10 times more expensive here.
Have you incorporated any new foods into your home cooking?
Oh, these, I’m just taking it in. I am a terrible chef; I’m not a good cook. I don’t have the talent, the patience, the desire even to cook the way these great artists that I meet around the world cook, and I’m very, very happy to support them. I invest in restaurants because I love them so much.
What has it been like to suddenly become friends with a number of world-class chefs? Few people can say they’ve done that.
I’m a big fan of Bruce Springsteen; to me, that’s my hero. But then I meet these chefs and they’re heroes too, to me. It’s an art form as valid as any other, and my wife and I support the arts. We support arts education in schools. A lot of schools’ arts programs, they’ve been cut. They find them disposable, and they’re not disposable. They’re the answer, in fact.
Have you recently discovered any foods that you’d like to tell the world about?
Well I’m going to start shooting [Season 3] in a couple of weeks. We have two seasons for Netflix of five episodes each, and the Emmy nomination was so encouraging and so unexpected, to be honest. I’m so thrilled, mainly because I think it’ll just get more attention for the show. Which means maybe I get to keep doing it, which is really a dream for me. And the love I get back from the audience has been life-changing for me. I’m just a happier guy. It’s a wonderful thing.
[But] the latest food discovery, I’m trying to think…Well, they’re doing amazing things with fake meat now, right? Like the Impossible Burger. I went over to Western Avenue, [to] Monty’s Good Burger—I’m not an investor in Monty’s, but it’s kind of the best veggie burger I’ve ever had, and it’s completely plant-based. Even the shakes are plant-based; it’s a completely vegan restaurant, and if I didn’t tell you, you would not know. In addition to being delicious, [fake meat] might also save the world.
Is there anything else you can share about what’s to come on Somebody Feed Phil?
I think I can say that there will be a few more domestic locations. Because I understand not everyone can afford to travel overseas, and I really want to just inspire any kind of travel. Again, just getting off the couch is a win. Just going to the next town, going down the street to the Peruvian restaurant that you were afraid to go to, because you don’t know anything about Peruvian food. You can travel in your own town even, so it’s my job, I feel, to turn you on to great stuff.