Phil Rosenthal is the co-creator of Everybody Loves Raymond, and in addition to that, he’s a delightful man. His new show I’ll Have What Phil’s Having, airing Mondays on PBS, allows him to showcase the food of other cultures, meet up with new and old friends, and just be funny while eating. There’s a moment in the second episode of his show where Phil is in Italy and they stop while on the way to the next food location, so he can enjoy a glass of wine on a balcony overlooking one of the most gorgeous views I’ve ever seen. He tells the crew to go on ahead without him because he’s not leaving for a long time.
Clearly this guy has figured out the right way to make a television show.
How would you describe the show for people who haven’t seen it?
This is a show for anyone who hasn’t traveled and for people who haven’t had the opportunity to yet. I’m trying to motivate those of us who haven’t seen the value in it yet to get off the couch and go. It’s not like one of these food eating contest shows, it’s not a crazy reality show, I’m not much an adventurer. My line is that I’m exactly like Anthony Bourdain if he was afraid of everything.
So, I feel like I’m the guy on the couch watching Bourdain, saying I love that guy, but I can’t do that. I’d like to be slightly comfortable when I spend my hard-earned money on a vacation. We’re not professional travelers. Right? If we travel, it’s going to be on our time off and I think more than a few of us see our time off as a break from work. A break from danger. A break from stress. And you can explore the world that way too.
Have you always been a foodie or is this something new for you?
It has been. I grew up without a lot of great food. It just wasn’t a priority in our house as I was growing up. And then I left and then I had spectacular opportunities to try new things. They weren’t new things, they were just spectacular to me because I hadn’t had them before. Like, I never had garlic before I went out and that blew my mind. It’s like I had never seen the color blue!
You grew up in New York and then you moved out to Los Angeles. Was that where you first experimented with garlic or did that happen earlier?
Earlier. College. I moved to LA when I was 29 years old. And at first I didn’t like LA at all. The food scene in LA was bad. A lot of fast food. That was 25 years ago. And over the years, it’s grown and grown into, I feel, one of the best food cities in America.
And that’s one of your episodes coming up, right?
Absolutely. I wanted to show that it was the best food city in America, I can prove it, and I wanted to show that you can travel in your own town. Not everybody can afford to go travel overseas at the moment, I know that, but you can go down the street into a place that you’d never set foot in before and that can blow your mind and widen your experience. And that happens to me in LA, I had a guy take me into a part of town that I’d never been to before that I didn’t know anything about and I was a little afraid of even, but there was nothing to be afraid of. In a food truck that I never would have stopped at because it’s nondescript and who knows what the hell is going on in there, I had one of the best bites of food in my life.
I noticed that between Raymond and then from watching the Florence episode, you have a bit of a history with Italy…
You’re dead on! It actually all comes from that. When we were wrapping up the first season of Raymond, I asked him what he was going to do on vacation and he said, “I’m going to go to the Jersey Shore.” And I said, “Have you ever gone to Europe?” and he said, “Nah.” And I said “why not?” and he said he’s not really interested in other cultures; even his own. So a light bulb went off and I thought we’ve got to do an episode where he goes to Italy as Ray Romano and comes back as Roberto Bonini, after he’s been transformed by the magic of Italy. And we did it! I wrote it, we went there, filmed it, a special hour-long episode of the show, and what I saw happen to Ray the character happened to Ray the person. He was transformed, and that’s when the other lightbulb went off, and I thought, “Wow! This is powerful stuff. His life is now better. What if we could do this for other people?”
So, this has been in the back of my mind ever since, so when PBS called after they saw the documentary [Exporting Raymond, which just showed up on Netflix, in which Phil travels to Russia to help them turn Everybody Loves Raymond into a Russian sitcom], they said they liked the idea of me going places, and I said, “So does my wife.” They asked me, “What would you like to do? Do you have any ideas?” How about a show where every episode I go to another great place on Earth and I show you where to eat as a way to get you to travel? And they said yes! They gave me six episodes on the air, here I am.
How do you feel your experience as a sitcom writer affected this show?
I understand how to tell a story because of that training. I get how to use a sense of humor to get a point across. I understand that a sense of humor helps connect us to each other. You know, the show really is all everything I’ve distilled out of my years on earth and what I think is important, so for me it’s: food, family, travel, friends and laughs. And that’s it. To me, these are the values, and they’re all here. We have to eat together. It’s primal. We eat together if we killed the bison a million years ago, or we eat together now at a white tablecloth dinner. What binds us further, and I think this might be our most underrated trait, is our appreciation of each other’s sense of humor. That’s who we pick to be close to, to be our friends, and I’ll go one step further, I think that’s who we marry. I think it’s a very valuable thing to recognize. Because if you just value what the media tells us to prioritize, and we know what that is: looks, sex appeal. We all know, in the real world, that fades. Even if you’re great looking, by the way! But the sense of humor is what makes the other person stick around. I think when the laughs go, you go.
So for me, this is for me, looking the way I look, is how I’ve been able to connect with people. Through good food, by knowing about it, offering it out, seeking it out with other people, and hopefully, laughing with other people. There’s nothing I can do better to connect with other people.
In one episode I saw you eat an eel skull and in Italy you ate a stomach. Do you have a line? Something you don’t think you could ever eat?
Well, I always think there is… I don’t seek this out, the weird stuff, it’s really not a show about that… Eel is just grilled fish. I’ve had it a sushi bars, and it’s delicious. If nobody said eel you’d just say it’s good fish. I was in this one eel shop in Tokyo and I bite down and all of a sudden I’m pulling hard bones out of my mouth. Hard, like rocks! And they say “Oh! You’re supposed to chew those! It’s considered very manly to chew those up.” And I said you can say I’m not manly then. What do I care? I can’t do it. I don’t want to do it. I tried it. And by the way, there’s things in our culture that they find weird. But the trying of it was worth it to me. Nobody’s going to like everything. We’re not children who have to like every bite we put in our mouths. I’d rather be the guy who tries it because once in a while the thing you’re gonna hate? You love.
I have a quick comedy nerd question for you.
That’s great. I’m also a comedy nerd.
This isn’t a super deep cut reference, but I know you’re a Woody Allen fan, and I felt that the talking head portions of your I’ll Have What Phil’s Having, in both framing and even the color of the background reminded me of Annie Hall. Was this intentional?
Completely inspired. Nobody knows who I am. They might have heard the name. They might have seen the credit. Suddenly I’m on the show, on camera, so how do I get them to know who I am? Well, how about talking to them? Well, who did that well? Woody Allen in Annie Hall. Talked right to the camera. Let’s do that.
Well, I’ve really enjoyed the show. I think it’s really cool that before you were injecting your real life into comedy and now you’re putting comedy into reality. It’s a really nice extension.
I was trying to connect with you when I was writing the sitcom and now I’m just trying to connect with you in a more direct way.