Over a (Virtual) Pasta Dinner, Phil Rosenthal Talks Saving the Restaurant Industry, the Power of Good Food, and More

The host of Netflix’s ’Somebody Feed Phil’ orders takeout almost every meal—so we joined him via Zoom for dinner to go and a heart to heart
99

Phil Rosenthal is like a cartoon everydad who was magically brought to life. His eyes bug out and his mouth spreads into a Cheshire Cat grin when he eats something he loves, and he punches his fists into the air in delight. When he dances impromptu with a local in Rio de Janeiro, dressed in shorts and a sweaty polo shirt, his chicken legs flap inelegantly. You can practically hear a nearby offspring groaning “Daaaaaaad…”

“Ask my family. They’re like sick of me,” he says. “‘Dad, it’s just a piece of steak. What are you doing?? There’s people watching!’ I’m like, ‘Taste this!’”

But that’s what makes Somebody Feed Phil, which returns for its fourth season on October 30, so endearing. The creator of Everybody Loves Raymond isn’t a food or travel expert—he’s just an excited explorer of other cultures and cuisines, who can’t help but wildly demonstrate his excitement when he bites into something delicious. Chefs love him.

There’s also a fundamental curiosity and kindness to his show. He takes us to fancy restaurants but also small villages, sharing a table with regular folks in Vietnam or Cape Town or New Orleans. He hugs little old ladies and powwows with local food activists who are trying to improve their community or provide opportunities to the underprivileged. He Skypes with his aging parents in every episode. And, of course, there’s the travel-porn quality to the sumptuous cinematography of exotic vistas and succulent dishes.

COVID-19 scuttled Rosenthal’s plans to celebrate his 30th anniversary with his wife, actress Monica Horan, in Venice and Marrakesh this past spring, and it’s also put a question mark on the future of his show. As a superfan of mom-and-pop restaurants and chefs, and an investor in more than 25 local restaurants, he’s also extremely concerned about the future of the industry. To fight back, he orders takeout every day, for every meal, and he recently launched Somebody Feed the People—a national campaign raising money to bring food to voters waiting in long poll lines.

I couldn’t think of a better way to chat with Rosenthal than over a meal. Since we couldn’t meet in person, we did dinner over Zoom, and he selected the Larchmont Village Italian restaurant Vernetti so we’d be eating from the same menu. Over some delicious pasta we talked about whether he’s faking it when he demonstratively loves something on his show, what Angelenos can do to support their local restaurants, and whether conservative palettes go with conservative politics.


How are you?

Very nice. Did you get your food?

I did.

What’d you get?

I got the pappardelle con funghi.

Nice. My whole family is in the dining room back there, and we all ordered from Vernetti. I got some Caesar, and I got the rigatoni with sausage and the chicken parm. I think it’s a perfect neighborhood spot. Years ago it was called Girasole, and I loved that. And then they left, and these guys… what was sweet was, they kept a couple of the recipes from Girasole, because they understood what it meant to the neighborhood.

Is it true you do takeout for every single meal?

I’m gonna say 90 percent, if not more. Sometimes my wife says, “Eat the leftovers! You don’t have to order out…”

So who eats the leftovers?

We all do. But…I don’t know. I love the restaurant business so much—I mean the people who do it. Aren’t you proud of how they’ve pivoted to make this side business their main business? We’re like in the golden age of takeout! Everything else is shit, but it’s the golden age of takeout.

That is true. I’m so grateful for restaurants, because I don’t know that I would have kept my happy disposition if we couldn’t eat out—even in this compromised form.

Yeah, but what are we gonna do? I mean, this can’t sustain. There’s no way. The only restaurants that are going to survive are the fancy, hoity-toity, expense account ones—and McDonald’s ones.

Which sounds like a dystopia.

Have you done the outdoor dining yet?

We’ve only done it once. We were trepidatious about it, but it was a good experience. Have you done it?

I do lunch about once a week with some guys. And there’s some very nice outdoor spots, in some unexpected places—like on West Adams there’s Mizlala, which has a beautiful courtyard. And then the same guy took over a Johnny’s Pastrami—he left the name, but it’s a completely, like, Israeli-Japanese menu. It’s a crazy thing. It’s so good. And they have a beautiful, wide open courtyard, where you can sit far away. And then there’s this place called 106 Underground. Have you heard about this? Mexican seafood, near the airport. You go down a residential street, and you go down a driveway. I’m like, “Are you taking me to be kidnapped?” And it opens up into this backyard that’s like a paradise of palm trees, and a little shack in the middle where they’re making ceviches and aguachiles. Spectacular.

phil rosenthal
Phil and Tim enjoying dinner from Vernetti in Larchmont Village

Zoom

This year we lost a couple of our favorite places: Preux & Proper and the Pikey. What have you lost?

Listen, you’re talking to someone who invests in restaurants. I mean, I’m in over 25 places—because I’m not very bright. But we lost one of our own already, called Here’s Looking at You. Have you been there? It’s in Koreatown. Same people have All Day Baby in Silver Lake. People ask me, “Where’s the first place you want to go when this is over?” I said, “My diner! The diner down the street, I want to go.” You want normal life back. But I don’t know if they’re gonna survive. How can they? How do you survive with no money? No income?

For this long.

For this long. And the stupid government…they don’t care. They’re not helping. Restaurants need their own bailout. Second largest employer of people in the United States, after the government, is the restaurant industry. And not just the restaurants, but all the services that provide the restaurants. It’s terrible.

Other than buying a lot of takeout, what can people do? Are there funds to contribute to, are there actions people can take?

World Central Kitchen has this brilliant thing: they feed people by employing restaurant workers who have also lost their jobs and livelihoods. So I think this is a win-win. I’ve been matching donations through our Instagram site. That’s one way people can help. I’m also doing this initiative called Somebody Feed the People, which is for places where they’ve created long lines for voting, because they’ve closed certain polls. I thought this would be a good way to help. So we’re doing that. But as far as restaurants specifically, you look for ways to help them help others.

What do you mean?

If you want to give back, if you want to help during COVID, you pay a restaurant to make food for people who need it. That’s what we’re doing. I can’t think of a better way to do it. It kind of solves two things. I don’t know what else to do other than keep patronizing them. Keep ordering out. Keep them in business.

And tip well.

Always. You should anyway, but yes.

“Everything else is shit, but it’s the golden age of takeout.”

Somebody Feed the People is a nationwide effort, and they’ll be distributing food to long lines, just sort of reacting to reports…

Where the lines are. I think we were there yesterday in Atlanta. Some people waited 12 hours. It’s a crime. But that tells you how much they want to vote. That tells you how people are so fueled right now. Not to get political.

I haven’t been paying attention to this, but has Biden talked about restaurant relief at all?

A little bit. And I think Schumer and somebody else put it in in the bill, right, that they want a huge amount—billions of dollars to go towards restaurant relief specifically. But McConnell… they won’t vote on it. “Oh, they’re asking for 2.2 trillion, and we’re offering 1.8, and they won’t meet us in the middle.” That’s not the point! It’s what’s in their package that’s so disgusting. You know that there’s a tax cut for rich people in there?

It’s funny, you’d think restaurant survival would be bipartisan.

Uh-huh!

But maybe it’s every Republican’s fantasy that it’s all McDonald’s and Red Lobsters.

Well, we have a president who likes that. Imagine you’ve just won the Super Bowl, or the NBA championship, and you get to go to the White House. And this guy puts out McDonald’s for you. What says “I’m the cheapest asshole in the world” more than that?

He also puts ketchup on his steak.

I mean, it’s all you need to know is from his eating habits, the kind of person.

Is there a correlation between a conservative or boring palate and conservative politics?

Seems to be. Food is about personality, isn’t it? Character? The more character a dish has, the more we like it, right? Like people. McDonald’s doesn’t have character. It has a cheap facade, a commercial kind of pop art, maybe, to the packaging. But it’s not food, even. If you read that book—what was it, Fast Food Nation?—there’s a factory in New Jersey that manufactures, a guy puts a litmus paper in a thing, he says, “Smell this,” and the guy goes, “I was transported to a backyard barbecue in New Jersey of my youth,” right? That’s it. They figured out how to get that smell and that flavor artificially into sawdust and byproducts, and that’s what we’re eating for a dollar for dinner.

“Since when did embracing and celebrating other cultures become political? That’s the tragedy.”

Your show is such a celebration of different cultures and complexity, and people with different stories. That does seem to be the Republican nightmare.

Yes. Why is this political, my show? All of a sudden it’s political. All of a sudden you can tell by watching the show: he must be a Hollywood liberal. Right? Instead of just a person! Since when did embracing and celebrating other cultures become political? That’s the tragedy. We should be friends with people. What the hell? That’s why we’re here. It’s all we try to do, as human beings on the planet, is connect with other people. It’s not hard. But we’ll be back. I believe it. We’re so desperate for it. We want it so badly. This will end, it’s just not going to end as soon as we’d like it to. But then the world will be returned to us, and we’ll get to travel and hug people.

So how did you have a fourth season in the can?

We film ten episodes kind of simultaneously. We split them up—five and five. So our first five aired. That’s always how they do it.

That’s fortunate, considering.

Thank you. It is fortunate for us, but I don’t know what the future is. I have no idea if they’re gonna let me do more. You know, we seem to be a hit on Netflix. They told me we were when season three came out—we were in their top five unscripted shows. But Netflix, they always want new stuff, so it doesn’t really matter how well you do.

You went to Mississippi, right?

I did. It was great.

Did you interact with the Chinese population there?

A little bit. Do know the Mississippi Delta?

Not really, no. But I just saw a program on PBS that talked about the history of Chinese immigrants in Mississippi, which I had no idea existed.

That’s very interesting. There’s this famous sauce that you might know called Hoover sauce. That’s a Chinese guy, and it’s on a lot of stuff in the Delta. To me, the big surprise of the season was the Mississippi Delta. Because we all have these stereotypes in our head of like, oh it’s just gonna be redneck country or something. And it’s not. The people were really warm and nice. The diversity, people getting along, living together in a beautiful way. I was so pleasantly surprised at the warmth and humanity. I was not expecting it. And the food! They’re doing twists on the food you would expect from the Mississippi Delta, but it’s like two guys from Brooklyn are doing it. And they’re doing farm-to-table stuff, and they’re using really fresh local ingredients, and it’s just delicious. I thought: this isn’t gonna do well here, people like what they like. But, damn, they really respond. I think good is good.

One of the things I love about your show is it does blow up stereotypes. And it fills me with hope because, not only does it make me want to travel and eat what you’re eating, but all over the world there are these kind people who are revitalizing or reinventing the place where they live. And they’re innovating. It’s the opposite of what the news tells us, which is just that everything’s terrible and we’re on this downward slide toward oblivion.

That’s right. The news thrives on the conflict. I found that in Israel. I say this in the show, but, like, they would go out of business if they said: “Oh, the Arabs and Israelis came this close to each other in Jerusalem today, and you know what happened? They had lunch and they got along.” [Laughs] That’s not a news story. Same with everywhere. They’ve got to blow it up every day. “Did you hear what [Trump] said today?” That’s the news now. Who cares what he said? What if we didn’t cover what he said, if it was going to be so upsetting? Why cover every tweet? And yet, I’m like obsessed. I wake up every morning and I think: “Today’s the day! They get him today.” But I’ve been living on the edge like that for four years.

But your show is such a balm. It’s such an antidote to that.

Thank you. I feel it. When I’m there, I feel like I’m getting the antidote. You know, kindness is the only antidote. It’s not about food, really. Food is just the connector.

It’s an expression of kindness. It’s a way to receive kindness.

Yes, and give kindness! Yes! You know chefs, they do it because they love it. It’s an art form. A performer feels they have to perform; what they get back from the audience makes life worth living. And same for when you tell a chef how delicious something is, right? I’m their best audience. They like me because I love them. [Laughs]

I want to know: How much performance is in your enthusiastic response?

Zero. You don’t see the things I don’t like, because I don’t put them in the show. I want to show you the best stuff. I’m never gonna go [spitting noise], “This is junk! How could you serve me something this terrible?” I’m not there to ruin their business. By the way, 90 percent of the time I’m walking into sure things. We’ve done the research, we know this is going to be good. It sounds good to me. Sometimes I’m surprised. Like, you’ll see in the Mississippi Delta episode there’s a place they make a lobster tail, but they chicken-fry it. I’m like, why are you doing that to a lobster tail? You just steam it, give me some butter, that’s how I like a lobster tail. This thing comes out, looks like a chicken-fried anything—like a shoe. Well, damn. First of all, the coating was maybe the best chicken kind of seasoning, breading that I’ve ever had. And what that does is, it seals in the meat of the lobster. So it’s the most tender, barely cooked, juiciest, most delicious… and then with that seasoning, home-run, crazy, surprise explosion. That’s the stuff I love. I tell them: “We’re going to film with two cameras, because I’m not acting.” If you film with one camera, you have to recreate the moment, because they’re getting the other side, right? If you have two cameras, you’re covered. So you can have it be real, which is all I want. The audience can smell when it’s fake. I smell when it’s fake when I see it on other things. You might see me be polite. But when you get the big reaction, it’s real.

I’m glad.

[Giggles] I’m glad too. By the way, what kind of show would it be if I went and, OK, you traveled all this way, you’re in Vietnam, and here comes this guy’s been doing this for 80 years, and here’s his thing, and here it comes, and you eat it… “Meh, it’s okay.” [Laughs] When that happens, it’s not in the show.

But when you like something you eat, you are that expressive? You are that demonstrative, that theatrical?

In real life? Yeah, ask my family. When it’s great, it makes me so happy. By the way, you know how they make a dog food commercial? They don’t feed the dog until the commercial. So the dog is excited when he gets the food. So yes, I’m excited—because when you see each scene, that’s probably what I ate that day. That day. We’re condensing a week into less than an hour. So I am very happy, number one, to be eating anything. And number two, it’s some of the best food in the world, as you can see. And they treat me very well. Sometimes too well. You know the expression “They’re going to kill you”? “The chef killed us, because he kept sending stuff”?

That’s a good problem.

You’d be surprised. You want to say “Oh boy!” not “Oh no…” Like, imagine eating until you’re stuffed. If somebody knocked on your door right now with two more dinners for you… There is such a thing as too much. So I’ve got to pace myself. I take maybe two bites, three bites of the thing. And then the crew is looking at me with their tongues hanging out, and I want to share it with them. It’s only fun if you can share. So that’s the other way I get to keep eating. There have been times when it’s been so exceptional that I’m like, “Get your own. I’m eating this.”

That’s what I would struggle with, just wanting to gobble it all up.

Yeah. And if you’re in Chiang Mai, down a deserted road in a shack, eating one of the best things you’ve ever eaten in your life, and you know you’ll never be here again, or the chances are very slim that you will travel the 30 hours total that it takes to get there… you’re going to finish that.

It’s your responsibility at that point.

Well, you want to never forget it. I’m talking about a bowl of khao soi. Have you had khao soi? Honestly, it was the first time I’ve ever tasted it, was in this place. And I had a full bowl of the chicken one, and a full bowl of the beef one. I have not done anything like that in the show, at all, in my travels. But it was so special—and it was a dollar! Which is my second favorite price.

I love khao soi. Do you know of any good places in Los Angeles?

Yes, there’s a place… it used to be called Khao Soi, on Ventura. But they went out, and now the man makes it at home, and he’ll deliver it to you. It’s called Best Khao Soi. And it’s the best! Look on Instagram. I think you order it through there. Jitlada is an awesome all-around Thai place—maybe the best for me. Luv2eat, they do it well. Northern Thai Food Club—it’s also in Thai Town—I think they do a good one. That’s the thing about living in L.A., right? You travel, let’s say I’m in Rio, and I have something I never had before. I literally Google “Los Angeles feijoada.” There’s a few places! That’s why you live here.

I know. When we talk about the possibility of leaving—for a slower pace of life, the ability to buy a house, to be closer to family, whatever—I don’t know if I can give that up.

But, listen, I’m from New York—so this was the slower pace of life for me. But now I’m here 30 years, and I ain’t going back. There’s not a lot of New Yorkers who move here and then move back. Right? It is the other way, though. And I love New York. I’m born there and raised there. I still have a lot of family there. There’s an argument to be made for the greatest city on Earth. I get it. But food-wise? Right now? We win. Because we have even more diversity. The Chinese food? Unbelievable. You go to Monterey Park or anywhere in the San Gabriel Valley, you can visit all the provinces of China. Pretty great. I just want it to survive.

Besides just an economic crisis, it’s sort of an existential crisis.

But it came fast, didn’t it? It’s like the meteor that killed the dinosaurs, almost. Like in the space of, it’s not even a year, that the world could be so different. I still think it’ll be alright. Vaccine! Come on! Can’t rush it, though. Some people would like us to rush it, because they don’t care if we live or die. But I’m not first in line for that vaccine. I don’t even upgrade my phone until I see what happens to other people!


RELATED: Watch Phil Rosenthal Lose His Mind Over Carnitas El Momo


Stay up to date with everything you need to know about L.A. by following us on Facebook and Instagram.