TAMPA – If you are looking for edgy, hip comedy, Phil Rosenthal isn’t your guy. His bent is more heartwarming and positive, bordering on goofy. After ending his Emmy-winning run as the creator of Everybody Loves Raymond, he hit a wall in Hollywood, where his earnest love of people just didn’t fly.
So Rosenthal made an unusual pivot after 10 years of getting his scripts rejected. He pitched a travel and food show to PBS, called I’ll Have What Phil’s Having. It ran for two seasons, winning the 2016 James Beard Award for Best Television Program, on Location. Then Netflix pounced and has had one of its biggest hits with Somebody Feed Phil starring Rosenthal, which was recently renewed for a eventh season.
Lucky Bastards productions
He named his production company Lucky Bastards, because that was his brother’s comment when he told him about the Netflix deal of getting to travel and eat his way around the globe. As the host who eats and drinks all over the world, Rosenthal’s rubbery face explodes with joy when he tries some noodles in Thailand or licks gelato in Italy.
He makes friends along the way at each of his stops, but admits to being squeamish about certain foods like live insects. He jokes that his hosting persona is “exactly like Anthony Bourdain if he was afraid of everything.”
We talked to Rosenthal, who had just returned from a European tour of evenings with shows in support of his recently released book, Somebody Feed Phil: The Book. It’s the companion cookbook to his show with recipes and stories behind the scenes from the first four seasons.
I actually used your recommendations for Florence when we went to Italy pre-pandemic.
What did you think?
That hole-in-the-wall place to get a sandwich was great, and Vivoli’s gelato was the best I’d had all week and I ate gelato every single day across the country.
That’s terrific. Did you know it was the very first gelato place in Florence? They are the best.
Does it surprise you that your career took such a different turn in its second act?
I worked really hard for that second act. After Raymond, it took me 10 years to get the food and travel show. The business doesn’t really embrace you when you are thinking of changing lanes.
I like hip and edgy stuff as long as it’s well done. I’m just not very good at doing it because that’s not who I am. I’m a kind of, you know, I was born an old Jew really. It’s a personality and sensibility that was in Raymond, that is the same. It hopefully is a loving embrace of life as seen through a sense of humor.
Do you have a pet peeve when it comes to food or restaurants?
I do. My number 1 pet peeve, and again this is the old Jewish man talking – I can’t stand when it’s too loud. Because if I go somewhere, believe it or not, I want the food to be good, but the number one reason I’m going somewhere is to talk to you so we can have an evening. I don’t need to hear their music. I’m here to eat and talk and it’s a social occasion. By the way, do you know why? I just learned this a few years ago, why do you think they turn the music up?
To turn tables?
That’s it. Wow, you got it right away. It took me a while. They want you out. But it’s antithetical to the whole concept of hospitality, isn’t it?
Have you noticed the places you visited have had a big influx of tourists?
It’s kind of wonderful, that’s one of the great side benefits to see, that where we go on the show then becomes popular. I take the responsibility of presenting the restaurants and places very seriously. If you are going to spend your hard-earned money on something that I suggested, that’s a lot of pressure. I don’t want you to have a bad vacation.
Is there any food you don’t like?
I will always be polite. Always. And I think you can tell when I like something and when I love something. But I like everything I put in the show. Of course you like some more than others, but that’s life.
You’ll see on the show there are rare occasions where I’m afraid to taste something, like an iguana or a bowl of living beetles moving around. I’m not an adventurer that way. That’s how I sold the show. I said, “I’m exactly like Anthony Bourdain if he was afraid of everything.”
Didn’t this have its origins in an episode of Raymond when he went to Italy?
Yes, it did. Ray Romano didn’t want to go – the real Ray, not the character. I asked him where he was going on his hiatus between seasons one and two and he told me he was going to the Jersey Shore. I asked if he had ever been to Europe. He said no and I asked why not and he said, “I’m not really interested in different.” I said, “that sounds like an episode to me.”
I figured we’ll do this episode where we send you to Italy as you, with this attitude, and you come back as me. It took me four years to convince him and then we went and that episode called Italy won some awards even. But the best part is what happens to the character – he goes, he gets woke to how beautiful travel is and how beautiful Italy especially is – I saw that happen to Ray Romano the person. Now he goes all the time.
When I saw that happen, I thought what if I could do that for other people? Then I got tired of getting rejected in the sitcom world after Raymond, so I focused on this.
Now it’s the most-watched food and travel show on Netflix.
People like our show, but the bigger part is the reach of Netflix. It’s in like 190 countries. Everywhere I go people seem to know me. It’s unbelievable, at this age I’m suddenly Harry Styles.
What is your advice to people who are afraid of trying new things or visiting far-away places? How do you help people get over that?
If someone gave you a house, just as a gift here’s a whole house, would you stay in one room of the house? So we have this gift, we all do, it’s called the world. And you’ll never be as young as you are right now. So go. And go before you regret not going. Go before things start to not work.