In the second episode of his new food and travel television show on PBS, the comedy writer who created the sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond is in a gelato shop in Florence, Italy, and he is weeping. He has just taken a bite of fresh gelato, a simple mixture of eggs, milk and sugar whirred together just so, made in front of his eyes only moments before. He takes off his glasses and kisses the master gelato maker — a woman who's the third-generation owner of the shop. The man who made a living writing funny television is speechless.
Emotional and approachable moments such as this abound in I'll Have What Phil's Having, the new PBS series premiering Sept. 28, starring comedy producer Phil Rosenthal, a funnyman who also happens to be a big fan of food. Unlike other travel food shows featuring celebrity chefs, famous thrill seekers or attractive personalities, Rosenthal is a normal dude — a self-described "nebbishy Jewish" guy originally from New York, who has lived in L.A. for 25 years and gets really, really excited at the idea of sharing his food discoveries with others.
In the past 15 years, Rosenthal has invested in dozens of local restaurants (he currently owns stakes in the likes of Mozza, République and Tavern). He'd been mulling the idea for a food-centric travel show for a while, especially after the success of 2010's Exporting Raymond, a documentary that followed him to Moscow, where he was attempting to create a version of the sitcom for Russian audiences. PBS — which, as the home of Julia Child's TV shows, is sort of an original Food Network — jumped at the opportunity and off Rosenthal went on what he calls "a tour of Earth's greatest hits."
We sat down for dinner with Rosenthal the day after the Emmys (which he says he still watches for entertainment) to talk about the importance of food, traveling and turning Ray Romano into Roberto Benigni.
You said that you already had the idea for a travel show before PBS approached you. Why?
The first time I had the idea was the first season of Everybody Loves Raymond. After the last show was done filming, I asked Ray, “What are you going to do this summer?” And he said he was going to the Jersey Shore. I said, “That's great. Have you ever been to Europe?” He said, “Nah.” I said "No? Not even Italy where your family's from?" He said, “Nah. I like the Jersey Shore.” I asked him why don't you go to Italy and he said, “I'm not really interested in other cultures.”
I immediately thought that this could be an episode. We send Ray over to Italy as Ray and we send him back as Roberto Benigni, after he's transformed by the magic of traveling – and especially to Italy, which is my favorite place. It took CBS five years to let us do an episode in Italy, and what happened to Ray the character happened to Ray the person. I saw it with my own eyes.
Why do you think that experience changed him so much?
There's no more mind-expanding thing we can do than travel. There's no more fun thing to do than eat in Italy, right? For me, food is the way in to the culture, the way in to people. For me, that's how I connect with human beings. I saw that change in Ray and I loved providing that experience for him. I love providing it for anybody. I love ordering for people. I loved ordering for you right now. I hope you like what I ordered. I'm not an expert. I'm a fan. I can only hope one day to become an expert.
So is that the goal of the show? To turn people on to new places and new food?
Even if you hate the show and you hate me, I hope that at the end of each episode you have two things. One, I want you to be inspired to go. I want to motivate you to get off the couch and travel. The world would be nicer. Two, you'd have a list of the best places to go. I understand not everyone can afford to go overseas. The L.A. episode of the show is for them, then. I believe that L.A. is the best food city in America because of our diversity: more populations from other countries and the biggest populations from those countries. The symbol of our city may be Roy Choi's taco. It's a metaphor in your hand — a beautiful thing. I'm very proud of living here. It beats New York, and I never thought I'd say that. New York has a lot, obviously. Still the greatest city on Earth. But right now, 2015, L.A. edges it out for food.
You moved here 25 years ago. What was it like then?
I hated L.A. It was a wasteland. First of all, I couldn't afford anything except fast food when I got here, but all that was here were these pale imitations of the four-star French restaurants in New York. Now, I'd eat a taco over a five-course dinner any day.
You've traveled a lot over the years, but did the show give you a chance to experience cities differently?
I've been to Barcelona once before, but I've never met Albert Adrià. He and his brother, Ferran, owned El Bulli. Albert said he wanted to make it more accessible to the people, so he wanted to build five restaurants in a single neighborhood — a gastronomical amusement park — and he did it. He took me to his tapas bar, which is a casual El Bulli, then we go around the corner to his Japanese place, and that's equally amazing. Then we walk to a place under construction. I said, "What is this going to be?" And he said very bluntly, “This will be the best restaurant in the world.” And he's probably right. In the morning he takes me to his favorite coffee and churro place. It's been there 150 years, down an alley you'd never walk down on your own. It takes this guy to take me.
What is the connection between food and emotions for you? There are a few times in the episodes where you're crying from a single bite.
Yes, there are moments where I get choked up from the food and from the person giving it to me. I get emotional. You're going to think I'm crazy, but one of the best moments in the history of food is the end of Ratatouille. The food critic tastes the dish — the whole fate of the restaurant depends on it — and when he puts it in his mouth, the film flashes back to when he was a child and his mom gives him her homemade ratatouille. That's what it's all about. It's not just content, it's context.
Most travel food shows are hosted by chefs like Anthony Bourdain or thrill seekers like Andrew Zimmern. What makes you the right person to do this?
I don't know if I am. I'm well aware that I live in a world that has Anthony Bourdain in it. I've taken to telling people I'm just like Anthony Bourdain except I'm afraid of everything. I'm a nebbishy Jewish guy, and he's a superhero. I watch him and say the show is fantastic and he is fantastic, but I'm not doing that. I'm not going to Beirut and getting shot at. I'm not eating the part of the pig that might make you die. I'm a guy that likes to travel and enjoy myself. I don't like when food is made into a game show. It's not a game show, it's an art form. It's not about who can eat the most or the weirdest. I'm not interested. We're going to eat some weird things along the way, because not everything is known to us. In Tokyo, I ate eels. But that's traditional.
Why do a food show and not a history or tourist kind of travel show like Rick Steves?
Food is my interest, number one. Number two, it's my way into the culture. We're literally taking in the culture.
And turning it into poop.
Yeah, it could all be poop, until it's something more. Then it's transcendent. I want people to not think of poop when they watch this show. How's that for a goal?
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Are you also trying to inject some humor into food? There's a lot of stuffiness and formality in the food world.
There is a lot of pretentiousness in the food world, just as there is in every artistic field. Some of the most pretentious moments of my life have been talking to quote-unquote “funny people.” You start proselytizing about what's funny as if it's important. Lighten up, people. Life is good. There are some things that make you stand up and say, “I can't even make a joke. This is too fucking great.”
So how did you approach the L.A. episode?
One rule: I couldn't go to any place I invested in. We went to Chengdu Taste, but only a few shots made it in. You know that you can visit every province in China by going to the different neighborhoods in San Gabriel Valley? That's what makes this city the best. We also went to the Original Farmers Market. It has history, it has charm, it has character. It has delicious Mexican food at Loteria. It's something unique to L.A. I go there at least twice a week. Coming from New York, I was looking for character, history, authenticity, something real, something where people walk, something that takes advantage of the weather. You can't have that in New York. I can sit there year-round. I take Ray Romano there, his wife and my wife, and we sit and talk. I go with Martin Short and take him to Roy Choi's restaurants at the Line hotel. He's never eaten Korean food, and it was the thrill of my life to turn the world's funniest person on to something I love — kimchi fried rice.