Roasting sauna sausages in Helsinki, dodging iguanas in Oaxaca, and stepping back in time at the Palace Diner in Portland, Maine—legendary foodie and funnyman Phil Rosenthal kicks off the fifth season of his James Beard award-winning series Somebody Feed Phil on Wednesday, May 25. His first podcast “Naked Lunch” debuts this week, and in October a companion book to the Netflix series with recipes from world famous chefs comes out.
But according to the kind, self-deprecating creator of the Emmy award-winning show Everybody Loves Raymond, not everything he touches turns to gold.
“There have been a lot of swings and misses,” Rosenthal tells us over a roasted vegetable frittata at his favorite L.A. restaurant, Republique. “After Raymond, you never saw another sitcom from me. It wasn’t for lack of trying. I wrote a pilot or two every year. Nobody wanted them. The business changed drastically in the nine years we were doing the show to the point where I don’t think Everybody Loves Raymond would have gotten on the air the year it went off the air.”
In fact, it was the famous two-part episode when the Barones traveled to Italy with a reluctant Ray that sparked Rosenthal’s passion for a future in a food and travel series.
The Somebody Feed Phil idea originated after Rosenthal came up with the premise for Ray Romano to travel to Italy for a few episodes of Everybody Loves Raymond. Romano was hesitant to travel overseas—much less beyond the Jersey shore—which was written into the story. He witnessed both Romano and his character fall in love with Italy in real time, and ventured that the eye-opening experience might inspire others to fall in love with new places, people, food, and cultures.
“So I’m writing this episode, and it took me three years to convince him to get on a plane,” Rosenthal says of his fellow Queens, New York native. “It happened in season five. I had to ask CBS for the money to do a special two-part episode in Italy, which wasn’t cheap. But we had become the number one show, so you get what you want if you’re that lucky. I took full advantage. I had to scout locations—this was some scam! During the scouting, the locations started to dictate the stories. It’s a very simple premise. A guy who’s not interested goes and becomes interested. So what happens? Your family wants to go and decide they don’t like you when you’re not into it and now, how do you get the family back? That’s probably my favorite scene that we’ve ever done.
“He’s taking a walk with his mom, played by Doris Roberts,” Rosenthal recalls in his trademark childlike exuberance. “She’s complaining about stuff at home and her husband as we pass the most gorgeous things in the world—Lago di Bracciano, the florist on the lake. Boys are playing soccer. He sees two beautiful Italian girls go by and he’s had a cold all this time, which is symbolic. You’re not using your senses. If you open your senses, you’re going to see what a beautiful world it is. His cold went away in time for him to have a bite of a real Italian pizza, which became a life-changing moment. Is it the best pizza in the world? Probably not, but what I’m trying to say is, you can have the meal of your life at some corner place you just happen to walk into by accident.”
That was the year 2000 and since then he realized he wanted to spark that inspiration in everyone. “There’s nothing better than turning people on to stuff you like,” he says.
Rosenthal is a zealot when it comes to how travel changes your perspective on life, and illustrates that in his current show with the help of ZPZ Productions, the late Anthony Bourdain’s production company, and just sees himself as a lucky shnook exploring the world.
“Many of the same cinematographers who worked with Bourdain are on the show,” says the Somebody Feed The People founder, an initiative of the Rosenthal Family Foundation that supports food banks and building community through food. “Now they have to focus on a monkey. I’m exactly like Anthony Bourdain, if he was afraid of everything. He’s a superhero, and my show wouldn’t exist without him. The whole idea of this show is that it’s about a guy who would never do the type of stuff that he did. I’m not going to Beirut to get shot at and I’m not getting tattoos on my chest by some drunken Borneo tribesman. Are you crazy? I thought there had to be a show for the people who watch Bourdain and go, ‘he’s amazing, I’m never doing that.’ But if they see a shnook like me doing it, they might be willing to give it a try. I’m old enough where I like to be a little comfortable. I won’t show you anywhere you can’t get a hotel room with a bed and a pillow.”
His passion for travel goes back to when he was a 23-year-old college student who worked as a courier for DHL, before they had their own cargo planes. He’d get a free coach ticket to travel anywhere in the world.
“Flights were going every day. I’d take luggage tags and hand them off to the guy in Zurich who was holding a DHL sign. Then I had two weeks to do whatever I wanted. I did that about three times, and the third time I took my new girlfriend, who I had been dating for three months. I took her to Paris, and the rest is history.”
That history is his wife of an unprecedented 32 years by Hollywood standards, Monica Horan, who played the bubbly Amy MacDougall-Barone on Everybody Loves Raymond and pops up in the Maine episode of Somebody Feed Phil’s new season, along with their kids.
So, what’s the secret to that marital success?
“That’s easy,” says Rosenthal, who comes from a long line of admitted lousy cooks. “It’s the same thing that attracted us to each other—a sense of humor. It’s the most underrated human value. I say that it’s not only the friends we make with a similar sense of humor or at least an appreciation for others’ humor—I say it’s who you marry. As marriage goes on, that’s the bedrock. If you can’t laugh at all the frustration, problems, and tragedies that come up, you don’t have a connection—when the laughs go, you go. Unless of course you make the wrong joke.”
While family has always been the core of Rosenthal’s humor, sometimes the marriage jokes get him into hot water.
“I hear from a lot of people who watch the show not to make so many wife jokes,” says Rosenthal, who co-produces the culinary travelog with his brother, Richard. “They know I don’t mean it and do just as many husband jokes, being a walking husband joke myself. I don’t care if you’re a straight or gay couple—when we have to live together, things happen when you live with another human being. You should be able to joke about it, without getting hit.”
Rosenthal doesn’t cook at home and admits he inherited his lack of cooking skills from his parents, Max and Helen.
“I’m terrible,” he says. “Delicious food was just not a priority in our house. Both my parents worked and cuisine had to be cheap. The priority was our education and just paying the bills, and you’ll eat what’s available. When I went to college and went to a restaurant for the first time, a cheap Italian place us freshmen could afford, and all I got was pasta and sauce—it changed my life. They thought I was crazy, ‘wait, what are these white bits?!’ They said garlic? YES! Garlic! I was 18 and had never had garlic before. I realized right then that with any extra money I have, I’m gonna travel.”
All joking aside, the father of two is excited about his first podcast, “Naked Lunch,” with David Wild that will welcome friends like chef Nancy Silverton, the legendary Elaine May, Patton Oswalt, Susanna Hoffs from the Bangles with husband Jay Roach, and a very special reunion show with Romano and TV brother Brad Garrett.
Somebody Feed Phil The Book: The Official Companion Book from Simon & Schuster comes out on October 18, and will include behind the scenes photos, stories, and more than 60 of viewers’ most-requested recipes from international chefs and local legends featured in the show, like Thomas Keller’s fried chicken, Alice Waters’ peach crisp, Dan Barber’s roasted honeynut squash and Michael Solomonov’s duck stew.
“Food is not the whole point,” says Rosenthal, who is never too shy to share plates with anyone. “It’s a combination of that and my silly sense of humor to get you out there because it’s about people. Food is the great connector and laughs are the cement. We like to laugh around the table. Even at home, every meal can be a vacation.”
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