The Spool / Interviews
Phil Rosenthal spreads joy with joyful spreads in “Somebody Feed Phil”
The acclaimed sitcom writer and food traveler talks about cultivating joy and hunger during challenging times.
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Welcome back to the Spool’s weekly interview podcast, More of a Comment, Really…, where editor-in-chief Clint Worthington talks to actors, filmmakers, composers and other figures from the realm of film and television.

You’ll hardly meet a more ebullient man than Phil Rosenthal. He’s got good reason to be happy: he’s a multiple Emmy winner for creating, writing, and producing Everybody Loves Raymond, he’s got a lovely family, and a Netflix show where he gets to run around the world trying new dishes and meeting new people.

Somebody Feed Phil returns for its third season this weekend, featuring another five stops on his never-ending tour to eat everything on the planet. From Seoul, South Korea to Marrakesh to Chicago, it’s a consistent delight to watch Rosenthal greet each new destination with a combination of wit, whimsy, and trepidation. Part of the joy of watching Phil go about his travels isn’t just experiencing the sights and bites he does, but watching Phil throw himself into these new experiences with a trepidatious enthusiasm. “I’m like Anthony Bourdain,” he told me once, describing his initial pitch of the show to Netflix, “but I’m afraid of everything.”

Granted, the world has changed quite a bit since the last time we saw Phil scarfing down exotic treats in far-flung locations. The COVID-19 pandemic has closed down much of the world, and the same restaurants and chefs he showcases are particularly hard-hit right now. (Click here to find places where you can donate to funds and tip jars helping Chicago restaurants and food workers in need.)

And yet, as Phil explains in our interview, that might be the best reason of all to watch: in a time when we can’t eat or go places, Phil can do it for us, and show us the world we can come back to once all the dust settles and we can return to some semblance of normal.

Together, Phil and I talk about his relationship with food, how the pandemic is affecting the way we eat and order meals, and what his trip to Chicago revealed about The Spool’s hometown.

(More of a Comment, Really… is a proud member of the Chicago Podcast Coop. Thanks to Overcast for sponsoring this episode!)

It’s a very weird time for this show to be coming out a food travel show in a time when we can’t eat out and we can’t travel. What have you been thinking about in terms of the timing of the season premiere?

PHIL ROSENTHAL: At first, I thought, “Oh, no.” Then I thought, I get a lot of DMs and very nice connections with people out there. It’s my favorite part, you know, of the whole thing, hearing from the people and then telling me — and showing me, even — that they go to the places we go on the show. That it even inspired them to go.

So I was getting these messages: “We can’t wait. We’re gonna travel vicariously through the show.” And I thought, “That’s nice.” But beyond that, I thought, why shouldn’t you keep planning for the future? Why not use the show, as you always have, to plan your next trip when this is over? Because it’s going to be over. We all know it’s going to be over. They’re already working on vaccines, you know, and as soon as they’re tested and available, and we know that they work, I think I’m gonna start traveling again, aren’t you?

We all can’t wait to live life. We just want to be nice and safe before we go out there. So I’m telling people, “Don’t watch the show with a melancholy attitude — ‘oh, look how the world used to be’.” By the way, the world used to be what I’m showing you in this past year. We finished filming season three and four in mid-January. So we got in just under the wire. Now these shows are there for you. And they’ll always be there. And you can always use them as a resource.

Phil Rosenthal Somebody Feed Phil
Courtesy of Netflix

One of the concerns I have is obviously we’ll be able to travel again, restaurants and businesses and chefs, they’re really struggling right now. You had an interview somewhere where you were talking about the ways that you were supporting local businesses and restaurants and your philosophy for dealing with takeout and delivery during all this. What’s your approach?

ROSENTHAL: Well, this is a subject near and dear to me, obviously — the show wouldn’t be anything without these people. But also, my life wouldn’t be anything without these people. I don’t know about you, but I live in restaurants. That’s my social life. It’s where we go with friends. It’s where we go with family, where I go on my own. And when I get to the local coffee shop on our little Main Street Art town, it’s where I see the neighborhood. It’s where community is. Same with the diner. Same with the local Italian place. Same with the look. So these are the things I miss actually the most.

People are asking you, “Where will you go as soon as you can get out?” It’s actually the coffee shop and the diner, the thing that is part of our daily life. That’s what I want the most. Short of that, I know restaurants are struggling. So it’s my pleasure — and I mean this selfishly, even — to support them wholeheartedly. We’re living in a terrible time. But at the same time, it’s a golden age of takeout. Isn’t it? Where do you live?

I’m in Chicago, actually, so moving ahead to that episode, thank you for picking Pequod’s as the deep-dish pizza place to highlight, because that is the correct answer.

ROSENTHAL: I knew it had a certain artisanal quality, right? You know, the way the cheese crusts on the side and gets crispy like that. On my own, I visited Lou Malnati’s and I thought that was excellent, too. I like a lot of it. I love Pequod’s. I really did. But I can’t say that I didn’t love the others. I’ve had ’em all. I don’t subscribe to picking one.

You’re Switzerland on this.

ROSENTHAL: I’m more than Switzerland. I love them all. Here’s my one requirement: does it taste good? Why are we fighting? One is thin, one is thick! Would you rate, like, best sandwich? What exactly are we judging — a BLT? Are we judging a meatball here? These are different animals.

Another thing I loved and appreciated about the Chicago episode was that, in a lot of food travel shows that talk about Chicago, the North Side tends to be more represented. I love that you went down to the West and South sides. Chicago is a very segregated city, and you were able to open up the culinary eye to a lot of places that (white) people in Chicago don’t visit very often.

ROSENTHAL: I was thrilled to do that. I believe in doing that. I want as much diversity in the show as I can have, because that’s what makes life worth living. I celebrate it. I love it. It’s the good parts. Look at these people over here; I never met them. Maybe, you know, I was stupidly naive or afraid even to go. “Oh, well, you don’t go to that neighborhood.”

And then, of course, you go. I’m not saying go 2 in the morning. And I’m talking about LA and anywhere in the world. I don’t go in my very, very safe neighborhood at two in the morning. But in the middle of the day or dinnertime, everybody’s out, everybody’s having a good time. And I love the people that I meet. You could tell from the show how beautiful they were. How about Shawn Michelle’s, the ice cream place? Have you been there yet?

I haven’t, but I’m planning on making it one of my next stops once civilization reopens.

ROSENTHAL: It’s so good, and it’s so easy, and it’s so — it’s beyond. I just loved it. I loved everywhere we went. I think Chicago is the most handsome American city. I really do.

Phil Rosenthal Somebody Feed Phil
Courtesy of Netflix

One of the lynchpins of why this show is so endearing is your infectious enthusiasm for food. I’ve always been interested in your history and background with food. Have you always been this enthusiastic about it? Have you always been able to try new things like your whole life? Or is this something you picked up?

ROSENTHAL: Well, where I grew up and in my house, and you know, my parents work, they both worked, and we didn’t have a lot of money and food just wasn’t the priority. The cuisine in the house was cheap; [we got] whatever piece of meat was the cheapest, and it was not cared for. My joke in the first series was in our house, meat was a punishment. Because it was gray and tough and, if you’re six years old, and you get a piece of meat like that, and you’re told you can’t leave the table until you finish, it really truly feels like you’re being punished in some way. Because it hurts! I would store it in my cheeks, excuse myself, and then go spit it out.

But to answer your question, because I didn’t have a lot of delicious food, the moment I did, my head exploded. The moment I had garlic — I think I was 18 in college before I had that flavor in my life.

Really? Not even in powder form?

ROSENTHAL: Wasn’t in the house. So I was having this well, kinda crappy pasta looking back on it, very cheap also. But I said, what are these little white bits chopped up? What is this flavor that is so fantastic? And they were like, “What, garlic?” I said “Yes!” Garlic. I never had garlic. I was living like an animal. Okay? It’s like in The Wizard of Oz when she opens the door and now the movie’s in color. That’s what flavor is! Exactly. Like in Ratatouille, when you see the colors expressed as he’s eating something — which is I go on record saying that’s the best food movie ever made.

One of the things that has always been very, very endearing about the first two seasons and this season, especially, are the Skype convos that you would have with your parents. Obviously, the dynamic is different this season because your mother was ailing at the time and has now since passed and my condolences to you…

ROSENTHAL: Thank you.

How different did that feel this time around, having that slice of home change a little bit?

ROSENTHAL: Well, obviously, when you lose a parent, it’s not easy for anybody, but I do accept life. You know, it’s not a tragedy when an 86-year-old person passes. It’s kind of okay, I guess, that’s what life is. You don’t like it, of course, but it’s not like now where people are dying before their time. This is a real tragedy, what’s happening now, because it could have been a little bit prevented. I’m not going to sit here and say that, you know, my mom’s passing away was a tragedy: of course it affected me, but it affects every human being on the earth. We all lose someone.

But I think what you’re getting at is, how different is it Skyping home with only Dad there? I’m very proud of him. I’m proud of all of us for adjusting. And I think if you since you’ve seen all the episodes, you see that he enjoys doing it. He’s got a joke. Every episode that’s a new thing. My wife is usually with him because she was actually there, helping take care of them while I was, you know, the happy idiot running around the world eating. So my wife is a saint. She’s in a couple of episodes also with me, but she is I think in every other episode with my dad, and that’s very sweet. And and they have a great relationship.

And my dad’s doing good. He’s since gone to a retirement village where he has friends. So that’s wonderful for him. Of course, it was like a month before the virus hit, so he has to stay in his room.

Phil Rosenthal Somebody Feed Phil
Courtesy of Netflix

In addition to the Chicago episode, I really loved your London episode because it reunited you with perhaps the closest thing you have to nemeses on the show: the Happy Pear guys. They’re these beautiful foils for you, just this bundle of energy.

ROSENTHAL: You know why, you know? They tell you, it’s their whole lifestyle, it’s the exercise. Right? It’s really annoying. They say God gives with both hands, he gave with four hands on those two. My wife sees them in the show and says, “I don’t know why they’re not the poster for the show.”

I did see the poster for the show that has your head skewered on a sandwich.

ROSENTHAL: Yes, I think that was my wife’s idea. You know? “I’ve always wanted to put a pike through his head.”

“Can you do that for me, Netflix, can you please?”

ROSENTHAL: And Netflix was happy to oblige.

Speaking of spouses, my wife is obsessed with your new dog Murray on your Instagram.

ROSENTHAL: Murray is now the star. Murray has taken over. He’s not only the star on Instagram, but he’s also the star in our lives. We got him the day — literally the day — we went into lockdown. But I advise people during this time to not only watch my show and make your plans: rescue a puppy. Rescue a kitten. You’re never going to have this time again to bond with them. We’re already worried that, when this is over, the dog is going to be like “Wait a minute — you’re with me every minute, where are you going?”

How else have you been keeping busy during quarantine?

ROSENTHAL: I write things, I do some videos. Some are political, some are not. I try not to be overly political. I think the majority knows how I feel. And I feel like I’m in the majority. I don’t need to push it. The show is for everybody — the show is not taken as a political statement. Even though I embrace other cultures — why should that be a political statement?

It’s funny how in this time, something as simple as that has to become a charged thing.

ROSENTHAL: Yeah, who knew that caring for others would be like, “I’m sorry, that’s not right. I don’t do that.”

If you could give people one dish from season three to be able to try, what would it be?

ROSENTHAL: Have you been to Monteverde in Chicago? Did you see that dish that was the centerpiece? The lamb shank surrounded by sausage surrounded by pasta. I mean, it would feed eight people. I think I ate the whole thing. One of the most delicious dishes I’ve had anywhere. And I’ve been everywhere. I’m telling you, you have it in your backyard. I’m telling you.

Somebody Feed Phil Season 3 Trailer: