Phil Rosenthal, the creator of Everybody Loves Raymond, also is an investor in many L.A. restaurants. We asked him, “Why food?” at his favorite spot in town, the Original Farmers Market. Here are excerpts from the conversation.
On working in a deli
Right after college I worked at P.J. Bernstein's, on 70th Street and Third Avenue in New York City. I took the phone orders, worked the register and was even the bartender.
It's in the heart of the Upper East Side, so people had strong opinions about deli food. One time I picked up the phone and this man said, “You son of a bitch! I'll fucking kill you!”
“Excuse me?” I said.
“This is a fucking pastrami sandwich? It's like two pieces of meat! Hardly any mustard! I can't believe—”
I said, “Sir, sir, sir. It's a sandwich.”
That was the wrong thing to say. “What the fuck! I'll be right there.” I thought, “Oh. I'm going to get killed now.”
The guy comes in furious. But, and I guess he was so upset he forgot to realize this, he's about 4-foot-2. He was one of the few people in the world I could physically intimidate. I guess I sounded like a little kid on the phone. But when he saw that I was twice his size, he calmed down.
I've never threatened a deli manager, but I can see how a pastrami sandwich can arouse such passion. Having never been exposed to wonderful food while growing up, my adult life has been spent on a quest for the most delicious of everything: the best burger, the best pizza and, yes, the best pastrami sandwich.
On food and the writers' room
A television writer's main preoccupation is, “Where's lunch?” First: “Where's lunch? Where are we going to order from today? Because we have a lot of work to do, so we're going to be working through lunch.”
Then the moment you order it, you wonder: “Where's lunch? Didn't we order that two hours ago?” Because you're dying. Lunch is the only sunshine coming into the room. You care inordinately about lunch.
So when I created Everybody Loves Raymond, I decided to call my production company Where's Lunch?
Some shows get stingy. On one hit show we got a memo saying, “Please do not put milk on your cereal. The milk is for coffee. The cereal is for a snack. We do not provide breakfast for you. Do not put milk on your cereal.” Meanwhile, the show is making untold millions. And I thought, “If I'm ever lucky enough to have my own show, we're going to have milk on the cereal.”
And we did. On Raymond, I said to the craft service people, “I'd like to have the best craft service in town.” And for our nine years, I don't think any other show could come close. The studio didn't really want outside food, but we would sneak in contraband. In-N-Out burgers and hot dogs from Pink's were regular staples. A couple of times we flew in cinnamon buns from Ann Sather in Chicago, deli platters from Katz's in New York, crab claws from Florida. This was my way of showing love, of creating a happy family.
Food was also the glue on the show itself. Marie, Ray's mother, played by Doris Roberts, was good at cooking, and she knew that the men would do anything to have her food. So she had the power. Meanwhile, Ray's wife, Debra, played by Patricia Heaton, was great in every other department, but she couldn't cook.
You want the main character trapped between his mother and his wife. Grown men don't always call their mothers. But if she's right across the street, and she's a fantastic cook? You want her in your life, especially if your wife can't deliver in that department.
On restaurant investing
During the show's run, Los Angeles was growing into a world-class restaurant town. Chef Suzanne Tracht was a mom at our kids' school. She approached my wife and asked if I'd be interested in investing in her new restaurant, Jar. I said, “Sure.” She makes the best pot roast in the world.
But only a year after it opened, the building was sold and the restaurant was going to go away. So I said to my business manager, “What can we do?” He said, “You could buy it.” So I did, and it was a wonderful experience. But with that comes certain headaches of ownership that I didn't have time to handle. So at some point I sold it back to Suzanne. I took that money, started investing in restaurants and now have all the fun of ownership with none of the headache.
At Jar, Nancy Silverton would do a night of fresh mozzarella dishes. It turned out she was practicing for Mozza, a place she was going to open with Mario Batali. They weren't going to take investors. But I grabbed her leg and I wouldn't let go until they let me.
A few months before Mozza opened, she had a few people over for a pizza tasting. From the first bite, it was the best pizza I've ever had in my life — New York, Italy, wherever. My daughter, who was 7 at the time, said, “No offense to Naples, but this is better.”
When it opened, seeing the lines forming and happiness in the room — it was like hearing laughs at your sitcom. People I'd never met started calling me: “Can I get into Mozza?” My assistant had to take care of all the requests.
At one point I pitched a show at a network, to people I had been friends with for a long time. And I was surprised when they didn't have the courtesy to call me when they were passing on this show. Then, a couple of weeks later, I got an email from one of these people, asking if I could help them get into Mozza.
Eventually, I branched out to other restaurants. I visited this new place, Umami Burger, which was around the corner from my house. Two bites into the burger, I say, “Where is the chef?” Adam Fleischman, the creator of Umami, comes out. I ask him a million questions. The last one is: “Are you thinking of expanding?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “I'm in.” This was a 10-minute decision. Umami now is going to go international.
I'm now in Bouchon, Hungry Cat, Tavern, Providence, Red Medicine and the new pizza place 800 Degrees, among others. My investments vary from smaller to bigger, depending on what's available and how passionate I feel. I've been called “the investor of first resort.”
To me, food is an art form as valid as painting or music or anything else — it just enters you in a different way. So I'm supporting the arts. I'm supporting the quality of life in our town. I promise, it's not for the money — investing in a restaurant is as stupid as investing in a Broadway show, or a boat.
On playing a chef
I used to take my friend James L. Brooks, the director, to sushi and got him interested in food. Eventually he said, “You have to do this part,” as a sous chef in a representation of Thomas Keller's French Laundry, in the movie Spanglish.
While filming, I was a wreck. At one point I wiped my hand towel and put it over my shoulder. Keller, who was our adviser, asked the director to call “cut.” He took the towel off my shoulder and said, “We're not in a diner.”
But the best part was the research beforehand. I was in New York when I got the offer. Keller's Per Se was just opening, and it was the hottest ticket in America. I called over and asked if I could observe. They say, “We'll ask the chef.” Fifteen minutes later: “Sure, come on over.”
I had a million stupid questions for Keller. He runs it like a hospital surgery room. These people work on the food with pins and tweezers. I saw him physically take a man who was standing in the wrong position and move him to where he was supposed to be.
After observing for quite some time, I was going crazy. I asked, “Could I eat here?” “Sure.” Chef Keller even let me invite a friend. I said, “Get over here now.” We stayed for four hours and had the Per Se experience. Which I recommend, by the way.
You have to kill me. This is not a life you're supposed to have. I admit it freely — I'm a lucky bastard.
—As told to Zachary Pincus-Roth
Phil Rosenthal is the creator of Everybody Loves Raymond and the director/star of documentary Exporting Raymond. He is developing screenplays, sitcom pilots, a Broadway musical and a couple of food shows.