It’s safe to say we’ve all probably watched a bit more TV than usual this year. During the first London lockdown in March through June, Somebody Feed Phil on Netflix saved my sanity. Phil Rosenthal, creator of Everybody Loves Raymond, took me around the world, introducing me to food-loving, wisecracking friends, and reminding me why I love and missed traveling—and people, dining out, long walks in a new city, museums, culture, hotels—so much. At the end of every episode, he gathers everyone he met on the show together to share a meal. Not six feet apart, not masked. Just a group of creative, funny, special humans eating and laughing together. There I was, tearing up on the couch, wondering if we will ever get back there again.
I’m currently on Day One of the second lockdown in London and Somebody Feed Phil is saving me again, with five new episodes streaming now on Netflix, set in Singapore, Hawaii, Rio de Janeiro, the Mississippi Delta, and San Francisco. I watched the Rio de Janeiro episode, remembering my stay at the Copacabana Palace and tasting my way through a Rio food market, trying sweet caki (persimmon), stinky jackfruit, and sipping sugarcane juice. A great travel show transports you, but it also makes you want to get up off your couch and go, discovering a destination for yourself. Or you get to relive your own experience in a place.
Rosenthal joined me on a recent AFAR Live to talk about investing in restaurants, his favorite hotels, where to take your kids on their first trip, and how we will get back to traveling again. And is he actually that relentlessly positive?
The following interview has been excerpted and edited. You can watch the full interview as well below.
On creating a dream job post-Raymond
After Raymond was over, I didn’t want to sit around and do nothing. You have to get up in the morning. I kept trying to do sitcoms. That’s what the agents and studios want you to do. But guess what? I couldn’t sell anything. The business had changed so drastically in the nine years we were doing Raymond. The things they were offering me I didn’t want to do. [With Somebody Feed Phil] I’ve combined everything I know about how to make a show combined with everything I love in life: family, food, friends, travel, laughs.
I want to keep doing it despite COVID, maybe Somebody Feed Phil alfresco! You can still explore other cultures, cuisines, restaurants, and people in your own town. There’s diversity everywhere and that’s to be celebrated and that’s what the show is.
On being relentlessly positive
I’m annoyingly positive. I’m a person: I get annoyed, we get angry, we fight. And so we’re just regular people. What you’re seeing on the show is me, but you’re seeing me very happy. I’m doing what I love. You’re not seeing me talk to an accountant about my taxes. You’re seeing me traveling, meeting beautiful people, eating beautiful food. That’s the dream.
On helping wherever you go and investing in restaurants
I try to help every place I go. I leave a little something for some organization that I found. I’m very lucky. It’s good karma to do that, and I love being in the position that I can help a little. It’s only good if you can share it, from the micro to the macro.
Think globally, act locally because that’s how you affect change around the world.
I invest in restaurants because I’m not very bright. It’s a stupid investment for money, but it’s a great investment for your heart, your soul, your belly. Many independent restaurants are in danger of closing. If we’re not careful, chains are all that’s going to be left. I do takeout every day—either lunch or dinner, because I don’t want to live in a world without restaurants. It’s theater, it’s entertainment, it’s your social life. It’s my sustenance, it’s my joy.
On the best advice he ever got
When I was writing the pilot for Raymond, I asked an old showrunner for some advice, and he said this: Do the show you want to do because in the end they’re going to cancel it anyway. This is great advice for a philosophy of life. We’re all going to get canceled one day. Live your life the way you want to live it. Make the most of it.
On those formative life experiences
I was a security guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art when I was 21 years old, on the graveyard shift. They found me asleep on a 300-year-old bed. I wrote a Roseanne episode and used the material. You never know what life experience—as horrible as it is at the time—may serve you later. I tell all the young writers out there, keep a journal every day, because you never know when that might come in handy. The stuff you think is nothing today, you might look at two months from now and say that’s funny. It’s easier to write things down now than to write later. All we are is your life experience that’s filtered through the way you think, which makes everybody’s point of view valid. We did a New York episode [of Somebody Feed Phil], and that’s a lot of pressure. We can’t do a definitive New York episode, but I can do mine.
On visiting Singapore for Somebody Feed Phil
It’s, like, the most modern city on Earth has erupted from the jungle. There is the most cutting-edge, gorgeous architecture where nature and gardens are incorporated right up and down the building. It is a world of tomorrow. It’s genius and they’ve built underground, amazing cities where it’s temperature controlled and you don’t feel like you’re underground.
And the food culture there is the culture. You’ve rarely seen a place that’s so food-centric: the greatest hits of Asia and Malaysia, a mishmash of everything good. The Raffles Singapore is one of the best hotels in the world. I got to try a hotel I’ve always wanted to stay at. At the Raffles Bar, I got to make a Singapore Sling. It’s worth seeing the whole show just to see their cocktail shaker.
On his favorite hotels
When we did the Bangkok episode in Thailand we stayed at a hotel in Chiang Mai called the Dhara Devi. It’s like you’re in The King and I. Each person got a house—two stories, a piano, an upstairs balcony with a hot tub. And then, you have views of the rice paddies with the buffalo from your hotel room; it’s crazy gorgeous.
In Italy, I love Le Sirenuse and the Villa Tre Ville in Positano on the Amalfi Coast. And the Gritti Palace in Venice and the Four Seasons in Florence. Spectacular. There are so many, but I’ve loved bed-and-breakfasts, too. I stayed at the Pensione Annalena on the less touristy side of Florence when I was 23, and it was just a walk-up with a little garden. You’re in Italy, it doesn’t matter. You don’t have to spend a lot of money. In Paris, I’ve stayed in little B&Bs. When you’re in your 20s you can do anything. When you’re an old man, you want the George V or the Plaza Athénée.
On encouraging people to travel
The world would be better if we could be more open-minded and experience other people’s experiences. We’d be in a better place. So if I’m trying to get you to travel, I’m starting with the world’s greatest hits—meaning most people will speak English, there will be food you will recognize, there will be a hotel with a bed and a pillow. I’m not Bourdain—I’m an old Jewish man. That’s what I like. I think London is the gateway drug to Europe.
On traveling with kids
I recommend people to take their kids to London but also to Venice: The whole thing is an It’s a Small World ride. We took our kids—they weren’t even three and six. Your kids will walk anywhere as long as it ends with pizza or gelato.
On people being good-hearted
This may be politically incorrect to say, but everywhere I go most people around the world are so much better than their governments. We all love to eat. We all want our children to grow up happy and healthy. We love music. We love to be welcoming and to be welcomed. So many people are so good-hearted. You’re going to see the Mississippi Delta show—I thought I was going into a land of rednecks, and I was so wrong. They don’t tell you that Black people and white people get together and have lunch.
On where he’d relocate temporarily
There’s a lot. Anywhere in Italy would be fine with me. Copenhagen is an amazing, utopian society. Lisbon may be the world’s most underrated place.
On the scariest things he’ll eat
Once you’re a foodie, you start to learn that cheek is always great. I’m not going for the eye or the ear. I’m adventurous to a point. I do get a little more adventurous the more shows we do.
On where he wants to go next
I was in Zurich once and I thought Switzerland was gorgeous. The Alps are there, people! I haven’t been to India ever. I’ve only been to Australia once, to Sydney for a film festival, so we’ve got to do both Australia and New Zealand. I haven’t been to Shanghai yet. There are so many.