No one loves food as much as Phil Rosenthal. Or at least that’s how it seems when you watch Somebody Feed Phil, the food-travel show he created and stars in for Netflix. Shoveling morsels of haute cuisine into his mouth in destinations as far-flung as Saigon, Copenhagen, and Tel Aviv, grinning like an overjoyed toddler, he exudes enthusiasm for what he’s eating — and in the process makes you really, really want whatever he’s having. Although far from a traditional authority on the subject, he brings to culinary tourism the exuberant fanaticism of a hobbyist, gleefully sharing his affection for eating with unflagging excitement. It’s charming, delightful, and infectious.
The third season of Somebody Feed Phil, out today on Netflix, brings the zealous food-lover to London, Marrakesh, and Montreal, among other cities around the world, and he assures me he has another five episodes banked and ready to drop at a later date. That’s fortunate because as things are currently, there’s little chance that Rosenthal will be traveling for grub anytime soon. On lockdown in his home in Los Angeles, he’s yearning to catch the earliest flight out of America to check out somewhere more exotic and dreaming of all the great restaurants he’ll be eagerly patronizing once all this is over. On a recent afternoon, I caught up with Rosenthal in the midst of quarantine to talk about travel, the restaurant industry, and why he thinks this is the “golden age of takeout.”
Your Dublin episode made me so nostalgic for Irish butter. I thought, I can’t go to Ireland right now. Who knows when I’ll get to have Irish butter again?
I am exactly the same way. And when I watch it, I was literally there, so I feel that: a certain melancholy, a wistfulness, a nostalgia, a longing. But this is the trick: What we have to do is realize that we are coming back. The world has gotten over this kind of thing before, and we will again. We will get to travel again. Our lives will be back to something like normal again.
So that nostalgia can be hopeful?
What I’m hoping people who watch the new season will do is say to themselves, Let’s plan our next vacation. Right now, we’re so mired in what’s going on and the tragedy, and we can’t even think past it. What I’m saying is, “Think past it!” Have something to look forward to, because that is everything in life. We always must have something to look forward to. This is not some dream. It will happen. We know it will happen.
How can you be sure?
Only because it’s happened every single time something terrible has happened. Life has gone on, right? So we will get back to some kind of normal. We will certainly travel again. Watch the Marrakesh episode and, if you’re so inclined, plan a trip to Marrakesh. So many people have told me that they planned their trip to Ireland or Italy or wherever else because they saw that episode of the show — not because my show is so special but because you see places you maybe haven’t been or dreamed of going, and they look spectacular, and my gosh, you’ve got to go. Why should now be any different?
The same is true of cities I’ve already visited, too. I watched you in Mexico City, and your enthusiasm made me want to go back.
See, that’s great. All we can do is bring our own experience and the way we think to anything we write about. The artist is a combination of what’s happened to them in their lives and how it’s filtered through the way they think. That’s what makes me different than Samantha Brown or Anthony Bourdain. That’s what I can bring to it, my enthusiasm, which is genuine because I’m the luckiest guy in the world. I am who I am.
Was that enthusiasm how you pitched the show?
The way I sold the show is I said, “I’m exactly like Anthony Bourdain, if he was afraid of everything.” It’s not a character! It really is me. I don’t want to do what he did. I couldn’t, because he was a superhero. If I bring anything different to the genre, it’s my stupid sense of humor.
You do have a certain earnestness. I say this respectfully, but it’s almost a childish enthusiasm.
I get that! Going out into the world, I do feel like a kid in a candy store. That’s why I can’t wait for this virus to be over because I want to rejoin the world. Not just going to Singapore or anywhere else in the world, but my local coffee shop or the diner I love.
How are you holding up in quarantine?
I’m in L.A. with my wife and my kids. My daughter was finishing up her last semester of college, and of course that was canceled, so she moved back home. My son and his girlfriend live a mile down the road, and they are with us every night for dinner. I have this little troupe. My main entertainment is picking where we’re going to order in from.
You’ve been eating a lot of takeout?
What this tragedy has done is create a golden age of takeout, because restaurants have now focused all their energy and attention on the takeout experience. I’ve had some of the best meals I’ve ever had sitting at my kitchen table. The level of quality has been so high. The presentation of the packaging has been tremendous. And that’s everything from pizza to four-star restaurants.
What I’ve loved is ordering takeout from restaurants that don’t ordinarily do takeout — fine-dining as delivery.
Exactly right. These all-inclusive dinners that have appetizers, entrées, sides, but it will be like family style, so a whole roast chicken or short ribs or steak as a centerpiece for the meal. It’s large format, so the restaurant only has to do this one dinner and replicate it a few hundred times. When you do that, the quality is always really good. Listen, this might be the future for a while, this takeout thing. And I love the ingenuity and cleverness and artistry that people have brought to this.
What’s been the highlight so far?
There’s this Japanese place here called n/naka. Everybody gets two bento boxes filled with dinner. It’s fancy. It’s probably the hottest ticket in Los Angeles right now. They were on Chef’s Table.
Obviously the food is a big part of going to a restaurant. But it’s not the only part. What’s missing?
Certainly we all miss that feeling of going into a public restaurant that has atmosphere and lighting and mood and drinks and comfort. You’re not clearing or washing your own dishes. You’re paying for the experience of being taken care of! A restaurant — the word “rest” is in there, right? That’s why I love it so much. A good restaurant is like a vacation; it transports you, and it becomes a lot more than just about the food.
Have you been cooking at home? Learning to bake sourdough?
My daughter is making banana bread. My son is grilling on the grill. I am even making myself eggs in the morning. But I love the restaurant industry too much. I’m grateful that there are real cooks out there — and I’m the best audience they have! I should be their favorite customer because I love them so much. I want to support them. I want to eat what they’re making. I don’t have the talent, the temperament, or the patience to be a great chef. I’d much rather order from someone who can really do it. I love restaurants. They make my life better.
How have you been using your time in quarantine otherwise? Are you writing your King Lear?
[Laughs] You know what I’m afraid of? I’m afraid that everyone who’s writing something now, when all is said and done, they’re all going to be about the quarantine.
All the FaceTime rom-coms.
If I never see another show set on Zoom, that would be fine with me.
Have you been talking to restaurant owners about business? A lot of them are struggling right now.
You’re right. And I wish the bailout would cover them. I wish there was a special restaurant bailout, and not just because I love restaurants. It’s the second-largest employer in the United States. Eleven million people directly employed by restaurants, second only to the government. And when you factor in the farmers, the cheese-makers, the wine merchants, the suppliers, that number is like double. It’s a gigantic amount of employment and livelihood. Some of them won’t survive this. They just can’t, even with takeout. It’s not enough to sustain. They’re really going to need help.
You’ve been involved in fundraising with the World Central Kitchen.
We’re doing what we can. I love the idea, which is to employee restaurant workers and pay them to make food for the needy. My wife and I are matching all donations up to a million dollars. We’re doing it because we want to feed the hungry people, but also because the restaurants are so vital to our lives. I don’t want to live in a world without restaurants.
Do you think that’s possible?
Right now, the way it’s going, it looks like there will be restaurants for wealthy guys on expense accounts, McDonald’s and Wendy’s for the rest of us, and nothing in between. It’s like an analogy for the disappearing middle class in America. We’re losing the middle class of restaurants, which is where most of us want to live and eat every day. The mom-and-pop Italian place down the street won’t survive unless we help them. This isn’t a political issue. It’s a quality-of-life issue. A human issue. I mean, can you actually imagine a world without independent restaurants?
Honestly? No. It’s unimaginable to me.
Right! We don’t want to live in that world! It’s literally where we live. When you go out with your friends or celebrate with your family, this is it. It’s our entertainment. It’s our social life. Wouldn’t you rather eat at a great restaurant than see a bad movie?
When this is over, do you think people will be reluctant to dine out?
From what we’ve learned, if we listen to the science, it doesn’t make sense to just flip a switch and say it’s safe to go out. We have to start at the shallow end of the pool and wade out slowly until we’re comfortable. Other countries seem to understand that. We have examples of what to do and what not to do. But unfortunately, it seems our government isn’t listening to anybody. Here’s the scary part: You and I want to travel. When they say it’s safe to travel, we want to go. Guess who doesn’t want us?
Because we’re the worst! “Wait a minute, you’re from America? Your system is for shit — don’t come in here! Don’t be bringing that here!” Suddenly, we’re the ones who aren’t wanted. I don’t think Americans are used to thinking that way. This is where people like you and me, who want to go, are going to get hurt.
Supposing you’re not barred, where’s the first place you want to go after this is all over?
My wife and I just had our 30th anniversary. In April, we were supposed to go to Venice and Marrakesh and Paris. That’s the first trip on our list. That said, before this happened, we could go to New York whenever we wanted and visit with my dad and my brother and his family and our friends. That might be the easier, quicker trip to make. Europe may be out of bounds to us for a while. But wherever we can go, we’re going to go. I think there will be a travel boom after this.
You don’t think people might be fearful of travel?
We need assurances. The people who are so quick to get out there and protest that they should open the city back up and don’t wear masks, we’re going to see in a week or two whether it was safe to do that or not.
I’ll give you one guess.
In that case, I’d like to thank them for being the guinea pigs for the rest of the world.