Phil Rosenthal was once best known as one of the names that popped up on the screen at the beginning and end of a little show he created, wrote and produced called Everybody Loves Raymond. As you might imagine, the sitcom’s success treated him well. So well, in fact, that Rosenthal developed an elevated taste for food, as well as friendships with some of the great chefs who served dishes to him.
Then, in 2010, he made a documentary called Exporting Raymond (now available on Netflix) about adapting the sitcom for Russia. His turn in front of the camera, and his love of food, eventually led to the new food and travel show I’ll Have What Phil’s Having, which premieres tonight on PBS. The series follows Rosenthal to six of his favorite culinary destinations around the world: Paris, Rome, Barcelona, Hong Kong, Tokyo (tonight’s premiere) and his adopted hometown of Los Angeles — which he attempts to suggest is the most exciting food city in America in the interview below (read on for the debate). He’s more of a casual traveler than an earnest or intrepid travel-show host, and the hour-long episodes have a breezy air about them that that lives up to the show’s title. Certainly, you could eat extremely well if you joined Rosenthal on adventures in which he calls upon culinary stars like Albert Adria, Roy Choi and Alain Passard and gets taken into their worlds.
Still, why would a guy who gets royalty checks that would make your own paycheck look like lemonade-stand money want to traipse around the globe with cameras in tow? We asked him that and more during his visit to the offices FR shares with the show’s production company, ZPZ. (This interview has been condensed and edited.)
Before we get to the show, I have a question: Can food be funny?
Anything can be funny. Everything is content and context, right? So in the right context, food is funny. What do I mean? My mother, who I love dearly, is not the greatest cook. Not everyone has to be great at everything. She would make for Passover matzo lasagna.
See, you’re laughing. Instead of sheets of pasta, she took matzo. It was like a cardboard napoleon of shit. Even the cat wouldn’t eat it. If you watched [Everybody Loves] Raymond, a lot of fun was made of the fact that Debra couldn’t cook. She was a terrible cook, and the mother held sway over the family because of one thing — that she was a great cook. So we used that as a source of comedy through the whole nine years of that series. So, yes, I would say food can be funny.
Yet I’ll Have What Phil’s Having doesn’t set out to be comedic. I mean, it has comedic moments in it, but you really seemed to want to share your experiences.
It’s only good if you can share. So the idea came from an episode of Raymond based on the fact that I asked Ray, “Where are you going on hiatus?” This was after the first season. He said, “I’m going to the Jersey Shore.” I said, “Have you ever been to Europe?” He said, “No.” I said, “Why not?” He said, “I’m not really interested in other cultures.” Even his own culture, Italy. Then a light bulb went off like, “Oh, what if we did an episode where we send him to Italy as Ray Romano and we sent him back as Roberto Benigni after he’s been transformed by the magic of Italy?” Well, it took five years to get the money for that episode from CBS, but we did it. This won awards for us, but more than that, I saw that what happened to Ray, the character that I wrote, happened to Ray, the person.
That was your first experience as a travel advisor.
[Yes], then another light bulb went off: What if we could do that for other people? So for 10 years, I’ve been trying to get this ultimate expression of myself out there. Raymond was a pretty good expression of who I am based on Raymond and his family, but I put a lot of myself and my family into the show. So the way Curb Your Enthusiasm is an extension of Larry David, this is an extension of me. Still the same voice, but now I’m there. I believe that we connect as human beings over food as we have for millennia, but I also believe that we connect even further and deeper through a similar sense of humor. Maybe our most underrated value. I believe it’s who we become friends with by having a similar sense of humor or at least an appreciation for each other’s senses of humor. I believe it’s who we marry, then a marriage lasts because of the laughs. When the laughs go, you go.
What specifically made you want to get in front of the camera and be a host like this?
I studied theater in school. When I was a child and watching TV, I didn’t know there was writing, directing, producing — I just wanted to be funny, that’s all. I like that. The only way to do that as kid when you don’t know about writing, directing, producing, is to be in the school play. So that’s what I did. I was used to performing somewhat. To me, they’re all branches of the same tree — writing, acting, directing, producing. I tell people I love every aspect of the business except the business. Who better to express what I want to express than me?
I think the episode that’s going to get the most attention in the food world will be the L.A. episode, where you introduce old friends like Ray Romano and Martin Short to the city’s dynamic food scene. It leads to some funny interactions, like Martin trying out Roy Choi’s cooking —
Martin Short never had Korean food! How is that possible? You’re thinking this is a worldly person. How have you not had Korean food? You live in L.A.! The biggest Korean population outside of Korea.
Yeah, he was on Saturday Night Live for years, a couple of subway stops from Koreatown in New York.
I find this to be typical. Two-thirds of Americans don’t have passports! And that’s including the people who came to America with a passport. Imagine the people who were born in this country who never ventured outside their own experiences. That’s what I’m trying to do with the show. The world would be better if we all experienced other people’s experiences a little bit. Just a little bit. Those boys from ISIS, if they just sat with me and had some chocolate cake, everything would be OK.
I don’t know about that.
Yes! I want to try it. Sit me down with them — with people protecting me — let’s have chocolate cake, and let’s see if they’re not a little sweeter by the end.
OK, back to the show. Did you intend for it to get deep into food culture, like when you visit Alain Passard’s garden and get your mind blown by plums?
I’m learning. If you’re inquisitive at all, how could you not? The point is to ask the question. You ask a question and it leads to an answer, an answer that sometimes is illuminating in a way that you didn’t expect. You know, I’m a friend of Dan Barber. I wrote to him and said, “I’m going to Alain Passard’s farm.” He said, “He’s everything” [Passard was a big influence on Barber]. The garden, nature is dictating what it wants you to have. We are not telling nature what we want. That’s the whole point of [Dan’s] book, The Third Plate.
That’s what made me ask you about your segment with Alain. Watching that episode and thinking about Dan and what you experience when you go to his restaurant.
My favorite restaurant in America is Blue Hill at Stone Barns. I could do a whole episode there. If we do season two, we’ve got to do a New York episode, and I want him to take me to some of his favorite New York spots. Who doesn’t want to see that?
How did you not do a New York episode yet?
[PBS] let me do one American city, and I picked L.A. Why? Because I think — don’t get mad at me — L.A. at this moment, not that it’s never shifting, is the best food city in America.
It’s in the running, I would say.
I have reasons. The biggest reason is the ethnic diversity. We have the biggest Chinese population in the world outside of China. It’s not New York. The biggest Mexican population — can’t compete with the tacos. Korean, huge. I live in Koreatown. Every week there’s another spot you want to go.
It’s definitely one of the most exciting food scenes in the world right now. Especially when you consider all the young chefs there. I would argue that you’re wrong because New York has an unfair advantage with Daniel Boulud and Eric Ripert and some other extremely accomplished chefs, where L.A. maybe lacks such figures.
One hundred percent right. I guess the word “best” is qualitative and subjective. Does New York have the best four-star French restaurants in America? Yes. I’m talking about how I want to eat at the moment. I want delicious food casually. That happens to be my favorite genre of cuisine. I don’t want to put on a suit and tie every day, I don’t want to sit four hours at a white tablecloth. I want delicious food — I don’t care if it’s from a truck, I don’t care if it’s from a stand, I don’t care if it’s from a sit-down restaurant. I want to wear what I’m wearing and I really want to have a great experience with my friends at the end.
You don’t love everything you eat in the show. Can you talk about the scene in the Hong Kong episode where you bite into something called a century-old egg?
My brother’s never laughed harder. They love when I suffer, my family. There’s nothing funnier to them. But this scene, the agony, I get it. It’s hilarious. But if there was something disappointing, generally, it’s not in the show. I’m not out to disparage anything. Jonathan Gold has a very great way in which he operates with his reviews. He can do one a week, [so] he doesn’t bother with the [meals] that are disappointing. He wants to turn you on to what’s good in town. So do I. If it’s in the show, it means I liked it. It doesn’t mean I liked every bite, and I’m honest about it. When I’m eating an eel head and the bones are inedible to me, not to the people around me, you have to be honest. This is not for me. Not everything is going to be for you, but isn’t it worth trying it?
If you continue the show and do another season, do you think you want to get more broad? Or do you see this as being purely just about food and enjoyment?
That’s the primary goal. Just like the primary goal of Everybody Loves Raymond was to make you laugh. All the other stuff, the points we’re trying to make, that’s being slipped in underneath. You should get the points without us hitting you over the head with them. The first thing you should do is enjoy yourself. If you’re not enjoying yourself, you’re not watching. So, a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down, that’s the idea. The moment we become unentertaining, the show’s over. That said, I have no idea what the show will evolve into. We just started. Maybe it evolves and I evolve as a human being and the experience I get, the more out there the show may go. There’s a reason I picked these six places on Earth; it’s because the show is for anyone who ever traveled and for people who never traveled. I want to entice you, to motivate you to come. So why not go with Earth’s greatest hits?
Did it ever occur to you that there’s a weird dichotomy where for so long you were associated with big network television, and now you’re going to a channel known for educational programming and on public broadcasting?
[PBS was] the original Food Network when you think about it. They’re the people who put Julia Child on television. It’s an honor to be there, and there’s a freedom of being there. I’ve dealt with a lot of network notes. They have notes, too [at PBS], but it’s only making the show better, not making the show appeal to more of a mass, young audience, which is the death of everything. When you try to hit everybody, you miss everybody. So who am I trying to hit? People who love travel or who haven’t had the opportunity to. Yes, there should be a crossover — people who like to laugh, people who like documentaries, people who like travel, people who like food. I’m hoping to hit all those people, but it’s very specific. It’s my view on it, it’s my take on it, it’s my interest. Yes, there will be people who hate this, who say, “He’s no Bourdain.” You’re right! I’m not; I’m not trying to be.