[Photograph: Netflix. Khao soi photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]
Back in the day, we used to say that Serious Eats was a website focused on celebrating and sharing our enthusiasm for food with the online community. In Part 2 of my interview with fellow food enthusiast Phil Rosenthal, he reveals that Somebody Feed Phil, his new Netflix show, is really about the same thing, if you just added "travel" to food and substituted "family" for the online community.
Food, travel, and family are at the heart of the show; in each episode, we see Phil interacting with a family he's met in whatever city he's exploring. And, for good measure, Phil's elderly and utterly hilarious parents make appearances in each episode via Skype.
Phil tells me, "What I learned from [Everybody Loves Raymond] is that every show is about a family, and what I mean is, your news broadcast that you tune into every night, that's a family of people that you enjoy being with. Right? That's another reason why my parents are in the show...because that's what makes a television show."
Phil explains that one of the reasons he loves travel is that it forces him out of his comfort zone. Like the time he found himself in Thailand, sandwiched between two elephants as he was trying to leave their habitat. After a few tense moments he was able to leave unharmed, though not before one of the elephants swatted him with his tail. Phil explains, "Once you're through that moment, it's the best experience of your life. It's one of the highlights of your life that you will never forget, and you are so happy that you took that step outside your comfort zone. It's the only way we get anything in life. When you see the pretty girl across the room, will I ask her to dance? If you didn't, you wouldn't have the dance. Maybe you wouldn't have the girlfriend. Maybe you wouldn't have the wife. Maybe you wouldn't have the family...we all have to go outside our comfort zone sometimes."
Then there's the vicarious thrill viewers get when Phil makes a food discovery. Like the crab omelet made by Jay Fai he ate in Thailand. "This is somebody, she's been venerated as one of the best street food vendors in the whole world. She makes a crab omelet, there's a pound, pound and a half of fresh crab meat in this omelet, which she's cooking over a hot wok. It's just again, street food, on the side of the street. She has a few tables beside the stove, but [the] fire is going, real fire. The wok is on the fire. She pours the crab into the eggs that are in the wok, with butter, then as she starts turning it, and the omelet starts to form around the crab, she starts ladling fresh egg over it and turning that. So, it's tender, layers and layers of egg, until you have, really, a football filled with crab....This lady, right after we filmed...she got a Michelin star. For a shack...and just this week, she wants to give the star back. There's too many people now. She's 73 years old."
To hear Phil elaborate on the crab omelet lady, to hear more about the elephant walk and other hilarious situations in which Phil found himself way outside of his comfort zone, check out part 2 of his Special Sauce interview.
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Ed Levine: Welcome to Special Sauce, a Serious Eats podcast about food and life. Every week on Special Sauce, we talk to some of the leading lights of American culture. Food folks and non food folks alike.
Phil Rosenthal: Soft, al dente, soup, crunchy, meaty. This is one of the most delicious things I ever ate in my life. A dollar. If you want the combo, a dollar fifty.
EL: Today it is indeed an honor and a pleasure to welcome back producer, comedy writer, and television host Phil Rosenthal. Many people know Phil as the creator of the long-running multiple Emmy Award-winning sitcom, Everybody Loves Raymond. Phil was also the creator and host of PBS's James Beard Award-winning food and travel show, I'll Have What Phil's Having. Now Phil is back with a moving and hilarious new food and travel show, Somebody Feed Phil. The first six episodes are streaming as we speak on Netflix, and as somebody who's fed Phil, I feel uniquely qualified to conduct this interview.
PR: Well, I'll say.
EL: Welcome back to Special Sauce, my dear friend and fellow Serious Eater, Phil Rosenthal. When we last left off you were talking about your parents, and I realized something that comes through in every frame are your feelings about family.
PR: Well, certainly Raymond was rooted in that, right? What I learned from that experience is that every show is about a family, and what I mean is, your news broadcast that you tune into every night, that's a family of people that you enjoy being with. Right? That's another reason why my parents are in the show, because you're creating, in an ever changing situation that I'm in, meaning I'm going all over the place. All over the world, different scenes, different things. There's still a cast of characters that roots you to, you know, I think wanting to see it again, if you respond to them. That's one reason that family is included, because that's what makes a television show.
PR: And, I happen to value family. This show combines everything in life that I love. That's why I wanted to do it for ten years.
EL: Right, that's why your brother... What do you call the production company? Lucky-
PR: Lucky Bastards.
EL: Lucky Bastard, because Rich Rosenthal who was the producer of this show-
PR: Yes, and it wasn't just I threw my brother a bone and let him produce a thing. He was already a great producer.
PR: I learned from the London debacle, you need a producer who's simpatico with you, so why not work with my brother and get to travel? I call him, and I say, you know, at first, "PBS is going to let us do this food and travel..." He goes, "What do you mean? You get to go around the world and eat?" Yeah. He goes, "What are you going to call the show, the lucky bastard?"
EL: That's true.
EL: It's true, but you know-
PR: I said, "Well, come be with me."
EL: This is, in a way, this is Godfather 4. It's about the family. It's about a different family. People think there isn't going to be a Godfather 4.
PR: Alfredo's revenge.
EL: And your son...
PR: My son's a-
EL: A PA.
PR: Yeah, he's a great camera assistant now. He's learning a trade, which is wonderful. It's fantastic. He's a great actor in his own right, but to make a little money, he came along and learned how to do this. It was fantastic. I have him coming. I have my wife, when she's available and wants to see a place she can come. She'll spend the day doing what she likes to do, and then when I'm off of work, we call this work, I go and eat some more with her. Pretty great, and sometimes, you know, people love her, so I put her in.
EL: It is, as we discussed earlier, not just family-driven and oriented, but message-driven. There's always a moment or more than one moment in each episode, where you speak to the camera-
EL: You say something that resembles what you think is a universal truth.
PR: It's what I've learned from being there. That's honest.
PR: Nothing is written.
EL: Nothing... I was going to ask you.
PR: Nothing is written. There's some voiceover written after, so that you'll understand transitions, and you'll understand. If I have a final point to make, I make it in voiceover. Sometimes the way I'm feeling and what I've learned, I'll speak right to camera. Where did that come from, the speaking to camera? When we first started the show, I thought, these people don't know me. Who am I to host the thing? How do I get them to know me? Why don't you talk to them? It's that simple.
EL: It seems really elementary.
PR: If you notice, in a lot of these, what they call confessionals, where people speak to camera, they're looking off camera to the person asking them the questions. I wanted to have direct connection to you. I'm looking right into the camera. That makes a difference.
EL: That was very conscious.
PR: You know who else did that, and where I got that from? That's how Woody Allen opens Annie Hall.
EL: Right. That's so interesting.
PR: You get to know him. You get to know his thoughts. You get to know... and he's funny. I'm not as funny as him, but I have what I have, and I thought, you're either going to take me or leave me by how I speak to you.
EL: Yeah, and so the messages are seen through a cautiously optimistic lens, I think.
PR: Yeah, and now as the more I do it, I'm less cautious. I'm very optimistic, because I've seen more of the world now. The world, believe it or not, is pretty great. It's pretty great. I learned this generalization. Most people around the world are way better than their governments.
EL: Your shtick is that you're optimistic even as you show us your lighthearted discomfort.
PR: That's a nice way to put it. Sometimes it's not so lighthearted, the discomfort. Sometimes it's very uncomfortable. The whole thing is about taking a little step outside your comfort zone.
EL: Right, so give me an example of something where it really wasn't that comfortable.
PR: They say, "You want to meet the elephants?" I'm like, "Sure." In Thailand, in Chiang Mai. "Sure. Who doesn't like elephants?"
EL: You thought to yourself-
PR: Then I thought, oh no. My last experience with elephants, getting this close to them, was six years old at the Bronx Zoo. They used to give elephant rides.
PR: Remember that? I have home movies, I think, of sitting on top of an elephant with 12 other children, on top of an elephant.
PR: Going around the Bronx Zoo.
EL: But this is not what happened in Thailand.
PR: No, in Thailand, they're sanctuaries for elephants who have been mistreated in that way, where people are taking elephant rides. They don't treat the elephants very nice, so they use them in the logging industry, as pieces of burden. Genghis Khan used them in way. This is like the old actors home for elephants, where I'm going. It's hundreds of acres, run by one lady who's maybe five feet tall, maybe smaller. She loves these animals.
EL: She comes up to the elephant's knee?
PR: Yes. Yes. By the way, I'm not that much bigger, but I'm a foot bigger, but that's still... on an elephant, it's not a lot. The crew tells me, they get set up. I'm sitting in a room somewhere, and they say, "Okay, we're ready for you," because they want to see what it's like when I see them. Walk out in this field, yes. This mound of dirt. I see an elephant there with her. I'm going to meet an elephant. Oh, boy. Wow. You get right up close to it.
EL: One on one with an elephant.
PR: One on one. Huge, but also, it's still like a wild animal. You have no idea. What if the elephant gets a charley horse and falls over? You're dead. Right?
EL: That's your old Jewish pessimism, like what could happen?
PR: Yes. I'm not an idiot. I'm like, worried. You should think these things, shouldn't you? How about that guy, there was a movie about a guy who was friends with the grizzlies. I'm friends with the grizzlies. You know what happened to him? They ate him. Him and his partner.
EL: So, you thought you were going to be at one with one elephant.
PR: I thought I'd meet a couple elephants. I go up to this mound, and it's feeding time. They're all coming, and I stand there-
EL: A family?
PR: Yes, a beautiful family, but they start surrounding me. They start surrounding me, and they're excited, because they're getting fed. I could easily be mistaken for food.
EL: For lunch.
PR: Or something in the way of food. I can't describe this feeling, other than I'm really out of my comfort zone, and I'm vulnerable.
PR: These are giants. I think I say, it's like the scene in Jurassic Park, where things start going wrong.
EL: But you think, in a way-
EL: One of the things that you're saying is that this is part of travel. Getting out and maybe for a given moment, being a little uncomfortable.
PR: Because once you're through that moment, it's the best experience of your life. It's one of the highlights of your life that you will never forget, and you are so happy that you took that step outside your comfort zone. It's the only way we get anything in life. When you see the pretty girl across the room, will I ask her to dance? If you didn't, you wouldn't have the dance. Maybe you wouldn't have the girlfriend. Maybe you wouldn't have the wife. Maybe you wouldn't have the family. This is all, we all have to go outside our comfort zone sometimes.
PR: To move forward.
EL: I'm saying that travel is one of those that's as good as finding your partner for life. Thailand was the first episode, I think.
PR: It was the first one we shot for Somebody Feed Phil, and it's the first one that's presented. Yes.
EL: I'm going to ask you this about all the episodes, but what surprised you about Thailand?
PR: The very first scene that we actually shot, is the very first scene that you see in the show. I go to a market, and then I step into a little rickety, wooden boat, with a guy on the back of it, who's going to work the motor. You're going to go up this little river. I have a wonderful guide with me who knows Thailand and can give us information about what we're doing and what we're seeing. Basically, Disney's got nothing on this. Disney, you know, the Small World ride, you go through the little river, and they all wave at you. They're not feeding you, though.
PR: Here, you're going up the little river. It's just as magical. Way more magical. Why? Because it's freaking real.
EL: Right, and it's stalls to the right, stalls to left.
PR: Not just stalls. I'm talking boats. There are boats that are there, where people are selling not just produce, and flowers, and gorgeous things, but there are stoves on the boat.
PR: Here's a woman with a wok making pad Thai. You eat the pad Thai, and you go, wait a minute. This is not just good pad Thai for being in this little touristy boat. This is the best pad Thai noodles I've ever had.
PR: That's an unbeatable experience, and yes, a surprise. I didn't know that you could have it... I heard about floating markets. That sounds cool, but you don't know what it's like until you're sitting in that boat and putt-putting up the river, and meeting the beautiful people, and eating the food. Now you go to another boat, and you eat something else.
EL: I think that was the moment that you, for the first time, you gave your signature reaction, "Come on!" I love that, because you know, there's this meme of when Rachael Ray says, "Mmm," a million times. I'm wondering, like how's my friend Phil going to deal with that moment of tasting something delicious and trying... I realized after I watched all the episodes, "Come on!"
PR: There is a few of those, I guess. I can't tell you, I was planning it as a meme.
PR: It's just something I've said, I guess, for a long time. "Come on, this is amazing. Come on."
EL: It was great.
PR: Like, I can't believe it.
EL: Right. What were your favorite bites?
PR: Oh, my God. That's a really hard question.
EL: In Thailand.
PR: Okay, the khao soi in Chiang Mai is one of the best things I ever ate in my life. Does everyone know what khao soi is?
EL: Talk about khao soi, then I have a question for you about your khao soi.
PR: So, Ian Kittichai, you know who he is.
EL: Yeah, great chef.
PR: Great Thai chef who had a restaurant for a while in New York.
PR: So, we visited his place in Bangkok, and then he's going to meet me in Chiang Mai later in the episode.
EL: Which is northern Thailand, which is where everyone says there's even better food than Bangkok. Who knows if it's true, but-
PR: Well, at least for this moment, I'm going to say yes.
EL: Right. Okay.
PR: So, he takes me to a little side-road place you'd never walk in to, because you don't know what's in there, and it looks just like a shack. It is a shack.
PR: He goes, "This is the best khao soi I've ever had." I'm like, "This? This guy? This place? Little old guy behind the thing, he's doing..." Well, you get a giant bowl, feed three people easily, of coconut curry soup. At the bottom of that soup are fresh noodles, beautiful noodles, like the best pasta you ever had, because it was just made. It has that texture of-
EL: It's al dente.
PR: It's beautiful. Yes.
EL: It's not soft and mushy.
PR: No, it is gorgeous. I swear. You would not know the difference between this and Italian pasta. That's in there. Then, sprinkled throughout it, is pickled mustard greens, and shallots, and onions, and hot chilies. You know, you can imagine the balance of flavors that are going on here with that coconut, and that curry, you know. Then there's big pieces of chicken, whole drumstick, whole thigh in there. If you're getting the beef one, it's organic grass fed beef cut up in that. That's a different bowl. Or you can get the combo, I'm going to tell you about that in a second. On top of the fresh noodles, the coconut curry, the chicken, all the other ingredients, then they put crispy noodles on top.
PR: What this does is-
EL: This is MacArthur genius award material.
PR: That's what I think. It's one of the most delicious things I ever ate. It clicks all the boxes for balance of flavors, exciting flavors, unique flavors, delicious flavors. Then all the textures I just described, right? Soft, al dente, soup, crunchy, meaty. All those things. It was one of the most delicious things I ever ate in my life. A dollar. If you want the combo, a dollar fifty, because he's running a deal.
EL: I love that.
EL: Here's my question.
PR: I say the best things in life are free, right? I say, the best things in life are free, or a dollar.
EL: Remember, I took you to the Peking Duck place in Flushing where you get the Peking Duck thing for a dollar?
EL: Now it's, remember, when we went back, it's a dollar fifty now.
PR: Yeah, I'm a little disappointed.
EL: Yeah, but here's the thing. That moment in the show led me to a question about authenticity. At one point, you say, "If you want to taste something, you got to go to the source." Do you still believe that? Did you believe it, and did you believe it then, before you went?
PR: Who knows? Who knows what you know before you see it, right? I think what you mean is, if you love something, go to the source. In other words, if you're in New York and you taste pizza, let's say. You love pizza, and you've had every pizza in New York, why don't you go to Naples and try it?
EL: That would be me.
EL: I did go to Naples.
PR: Yeah. You go to the source. Same thing. You like Thai food here? You think it's really good? It's your favorite cuisine? Why don't you go to Thailand?
EL: The weird thing, what I did-
PR: You like tacos? Why don't you go to Mexico?
EL: Right. The weird thing is when I did it for pizza, my pizza book, I went to Naples, and I discovered that I still thought the best pizza in the world was in Phoenix, Arizona.
PR: Chris Bianco.
PR: That's one of a kind, and by the way, there's no absolutes here. Everything is subjective. This is your personal taste, my personal taste, of what we think-
PR: My favorite pizza at the moment is Mozza.
PR: From Nancy, who based her pizza... I think she'll readily say this. She got inspired by Chris Bianco.
PR: Razza's now, it's a whole other one.
EL: Right. It's like the evolution-
PR: There's room for both.
EL: For sure.
PR: There's room for everything.
EL: It's true. Favorite moment in Thailand.
PR: Well, that-
EL: Was it the elephants?
PR: That khao soi...
PR: That crab omelet from Jay Fai.
EL: Oh yeah, that crab omelet. Tell people about the crab omelet. That's a whole other thing.
PR: This is somebody, she's been venerated as one of the best street food vendors in the whole world. She makes a crab omelet, there's a pound, pound and a half of fresh crab meat in this omelet, which she's cooking over a hot wok. It's just again, street food, on the side of the street. She has a few tables behind the stove, but fire is going, real fire. The wok is on the fire. She pours the crab into the eggs that are in the wok, with butter, then as she starts turning it, and the omelet starts forming around the crab, she starts ladling fresh egg over it and turning that. So, it's tender, layers and layers and layers of egg, until you have really, a football filled with crab.
EL: And with a little crunchy exterior.
PR: Exactly, because it's been made in a wok.
EL: Right. It's made in a... and you see the-
PR: You can't possibly eat it yourself. It's too big.
PR: So, you share that.
EL: It's really like a pillow.
PR: I think it's, I should say this too. It is $25. It's the most expensive street food, probably, there.
EL: Well, a pound of crab.
PR: I mean, that would be $85 in New York, wouldn't it?
PR: I mean, you can't... Actually, there's no one here who would be crazy enough to make it, because it would be too expensive.
PR: Is it worth $25? It's worth $100, and it feeds three people.
EL: Yes, easily.
PR: Not to mention the soup that she makes there. This lady, right after we filmed, a couple months after we filmed, she got a Michelin star.
EL: I love that.
PR: For a shack. A Michelin star, and just this week... Do you know about this? She wants to give the star back. There's too many people now. She's 73 years old.
EL: It's the joke of nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded.
PR: I say that in an episode. It is funny. She's a wonder, this person, so I loved meeting her. Yes, the elephant, there's a moment... When you're making a documentary series, or a documentary of any kind, you turn the cameras on and you hope something happens. There's a moment with the elephants where I thought I was becoming very chummy with them, and now I'm family.
EL: You're at one with the elephants.
PR: Here I go. I'm just walking with them back to their pen or wherever they're going. I'm between two. They start to get closer together, and I don't think they realize there's a person in between them. Suddenly I'm in the Star Wars scene where the garbage thing is closing in on them. I like, oh no, this could be it for me. Really, they're giants, giant, ten-ton creatures.
EL: You could be the cheese in the grilled cheese sandwich.
PR: Exactly right. I start to back away as I get knocked between them, as they get closer together. Bing, bing, bing. As I exit the rear of the elephants, to add insult to injury, one of the elephants swats me with his tail in the back of the head. As if to say-
EL: Don't come back. Don't let the door hit you on your way out.
PR: Yeah, here. Take this with you. Right? The camera just happened to be in the exact right spot. It was almost as if I said, "Hey, elephants. I want to do a bit with you." Right? It's one of the greatest... and it felt like getting hit in the back of the head with a broom.
PR: That's what it felt... We saw it, I think none of us could stop laughing. Especially my brother, who thought it was hilarious that I, number one, I almost died, and number two, I got hit in the head with a tail.
EL: Yeah. What was the takeaway? The takeaway-
PR: Don't find yourself between two elephants.
EL: No, but like, what's the cosmic takeaway? I think you do end every episode with a very human moment, where you sort of sum up what you've seen and experienced, and how you make sense of it.
PR: Well, can I ask you what you got from it?
EL: You know, for me, it's always... We have a very similar point of view about food, and I'm just as uncomfortable traveling as you are. You've managed to overcome it. For me, it's always what you realize is no matter what culture you're in, there are certain universal values and qualities that people hold dear.
EL: In every city, what you learn is the bonds that exist between people.
PR: Right, and they certainly look different from us. They have different ways of going about life. They have different ways of eating. They have... and that's to be celebrated. That's a wonderful thing.
PR: Because that's what makes life interesting and beautiful, and then the most beautiful thing is, in spite of all of that, in spite of all the differences that are apparent, we're all the same.
PR: We all want to have a good time. We all want health and happiness. We all want our children to be okay.
EL: That message that you put forth in every episode seems to resonate at this moment more than ever, because we know what's going on in the world. People are trying to play to people's fears rather than their hopes. Every episode, every moment, every shot is infused with hope.
PR: You know, I can't say that that was the point when I started, to counter what's happening. I couldn't have known. I started this a while ago. Timing is everything.
PR: If that infuses it, if that makes it more resonate at this moment in time, that's nice, because we need all we can get, is what I feel. If this is helping anybody feel a little bit better about the world, I'm here to say, you can feel better about it, because look, not so bad, everybody else. Right? Not so bad. You know, I do, out of every six, if I'm lucky enough to keep going, there's going to be one American city. Two reasons for that. One, I know not everyone can afford to travel overseas. Hopefully you will. I'm rooting for you. I want you to. I think it's the best thing you can do with your saved leisure time, money, is rather than buying some material thing, this life changing experience might even be more worthwhile, is the message I want to say.
PR: The other point is, you can travel in your own place. You can travel not just in your own country to a land that is so different and so much more exciting than your daily life, right?
PR: You can even travel in your own town. What do I mean? Let's say there's a Mexican restaurant down the street, and you never had Mexican food. Why don't you try it? Why don't you look on your phone, pretty easy now, and just look at the menu. That's not asking a lot. Just at least look. Just give a look, as my parents would say.
EL: The exploration you're talking about is both micro and macro that way.
PR: Absolutely. Look. Is there something on the menu that I would possibly like? Oh, my father. I take him to a Mexican restaurant, he's not into that at all. Don't you know, every time, there's always something he can eat. He likes chicken and rice.
PR: You know what that's called, Dad? Arroz con pollo. Yes. Oh, I like that.
EL: Oh, yeah. With a side of grasshoppers, Dad.
PR: We'll get there.
EL: There's so many things that I want to talk to you about, but I know you have to go. I did want to say that the rest of the episodes are Saigon, for this six. Tel Aviv, which was totally fascinating to you, because you did not have an altogether positive view of Israel going into the show.
PR: It was only because I had had an experience that wasn't ideal.
EL: Got it.
PR: I was taken around by someone with an agenda, and that was annoying.
EL: Got it.
PR: I have nothing bad-
EL: I love that you said that. Yeah, for sure.
PR: -to say about Israel. It's an incredible miracle.
EL: Right, right. It was worth it for the wall joke.
PR: Absolutely. The point of that show is, there's enough conflict that you see about that region of the world. It was very easy for me to find Jews and Arabs getting along very, very well.
EL: Right. Which was really very, very moving. The show, it's both laughter and tear inducing, which is-
PR: Oh, thanks.
EL: There aren't a lot of things that do that. That's what makes it magical, I think. Then you went to Lisbon.
PR: That's maybe the most underrated place in the world.
EL: And full of blue and white tile?
PR: You don't think of it first, when you think of, I'm going to Europe, let's go to Lisbon. I want to say that's a top tier world city.
EL: Mexico City is the coolest.
PR: Awesome. Yeah.
EL: You didn't go to the shrimp tostada place.
PR: I didn't.
EL: No, but you can't go to everything. I didn't even know about the place that you went to in the show, which looked awesome.
PR: Yeah, and then I found out afterwards, Bourdain went there too.
EL: That's funny. I'm going to ask you just one more question before we have to say goodbye. How has doing the show changed you?
PR: Well, you said I was cautiously optimistic. I'm way more optimistic, as a human being, because of all the great people that I've met and fallen in love with. It's wonderful.
EL: That's great. There are six more episodes coming, right? Which you can't talk about, but-
PR: I'm not saying it. All I know is, the hint is, they're calling this six, part one.
EL: Oh, okay.
PR: Or, the first course, I think maybe they're calling it. I'm not stupid. I think that indicates something.
EL: Well, thank you so much, my friend-
PR: I love you.
EL: -for stopping by.
PR: I love coming. We're probably going to go eat now, aren't we?
EL: Yeah, I hope so.
EL: I hope so, and really, your thoughts about family, food, travel, and humor, are life-affirming, I have to say.
PR: Why else are we here?
EL: Serious Eaters, I encourage all of you to binge watch the six episodes.
PR: Don't binge. I know, people like to binge. Don't binge. You'll get sick.
PR: Binge carefully.
EL: Alright. Nightly. It'll be like a show on Broadway. Once nightly. No matinees with two shows. They're currently streaming on Netflix. You will laugh. You will cry, and you'll learn a lot. Thank you, Phil Rosenthal, for making Somebody Feed Phil.
PR: Somebody had to.
EL: Thank Netflix for letting you do it.
EL: Thank you, Serious Eaters, for listening. We'll see you next time. So long, Serious Eaters.