Phil Rosenthal is a man who has never met a stranger.
He travels to cities around the world in search of great local foods and befriends chefs, street merchants, diners at adjacent tables, hotel clerks, a beekeeper in Ireland, a tango instructor in Buenos Aires and many others in his wanderings.
“Food is the great connector for me,” Rosenthal, the host of the original Netflix series “Somebody Feed Phil” tells The Jewish Week. “Laughs are the cement. It’s all about getting to know people.”
Rosenthal enjoys great food and likes it even more when he shares it. He’s curious, animated and impish, with a wide-eyed smile. His speech is peppered with “I love it” and “This is the best [fill in] I’ve ever tasted.” Always moving, he hugs chefs and waves his hands in the air like Tevye when he tastes a particularly delicious morsel.
Last week, Rosenthal was in New York to launch the new second season of “Somebody Feed Phil.” The writer, creator and executive producer of the television series “Everybody Loves Raymond,” Rosenthal screened the new New York episode at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan with a crowd of Jewish New Yorkers who seemed to savor every moment and laughed knowingly. Comedian Judy Gold, who appears in the New York show, interviewed him about his Gotham adventures.
This is not kosher New York. But it’s a beautiful, historic, ethnic, everybody-has-a-story New York.
The affable Rosenthal visits old favorite spots and is led to new ones by the hungry and discerning pals who join him. In Flushing, he visits the vegetarian canteen at the Ganesh (Hindu) Temple with an Indian chef for an assortment of South Indian goodies; samples uncommonly-flavored ice-cream with acclaimed film director, actress and comedian Elaine May; shops in Zabar’s; goes to Jersey City for what’s considered New York’s best pizza; cracks jokes with Judy Gold; and introduces comic Tracy Morgan to “appetizing” and egg creams at Russ and Daughters Café.
“I say it’s soul food,” Rosenthal tells Morgan. “I didn’t say it’s your soul food.”
And he dines in Central Park with a trio of ballerinas — when he meets them, he’s surprised by their hardy appetites and invites them for a picnic of fried chicken and overstuffed sandwiches from Katz’s Deli and heroes from other shops. After they dig into the food, they place a garland on his head and they all dance together on the Sheep Meadow.
At Nathan’s in Coney Island, he goes nostalgic, buying hot dogs for the crew and then heading to a table on the boardwalk to enjoy his own, along with Nathan’s famous crinkled French fries.
Viewers might wonder how Rosenthal stays so thin. In fact, Gold asked him, calling him “not thin but skinny,” and he says that he tastes and then shares all the food — and also works out every day.
“I would say that the New York show was the most pressured to create, because I am from here, because New Yorkers are critical thinkers. I wanted it to be the best New York show ever made, but I quickly realized that I couldn’t do definitive New York. I can do my New York. I learned from being a writer that if I make something specific — this New York is specific to my likes and my world — that in and of itself makes it universal.”
Rosenthal is the son of Holocaust survivors from Germany. His father Max got out just after Kristallnacht and his mother Helen was in a concentration camp in France; she went to Cuba before coming to the United States. Max and Helen Rosenthal appear in every episode of the show, via Skype. Max is a jokester, but Helen is naturally funny too.
Born in Jamaica, Queens, Rosenthal, 58, spent the first two years of his life in Kew Gardens, then moved to Riverdale and then New City in Rockland County. Fondly, he remembers going to the World’s Fair a lot in 1964 with his family — he says this was probably his first taste of travel and the allure of other places. As a kid, he liked flipping through the Time-Life series on countries and grew up watching television sitcoms.
“No. 1: ‘The Honeymooners.’ When I was born they were already in reruns. I didn’t know what writing and directing was, I just wanted to be them. I could imitate Art Carney and Jackie Gleason. I did that when my parents had company and then I could stay up and have cake.”
After graduating from Hofstra University, he moved to New York City and did acting; he found that when he turned to writing he could afford meals. Now, although he lives in the Hancock Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, he still feels like a New Yorker and returns about every other month.
In Los Angeles, he and his wife, actress Monica Horan, invest in restaurants and support arts education. He thinks of the sense of taste right up there with sight and hearing, in terms of taking in culture.
So far on the show, he has explored Capetown, Copenhagen, Venice, Lisbon, Bangkok, Mexico City and other places, and has a long list of places to visit next, if the show is renewed. In travel, he says, “If I just step a little out of my comfort zone, things happen.”
In Dublin, he says, “Sometimes you find people whose attitude about life is so wonderful, even if it seems crazy, you’d be crazy to forget about it.”
At the outset of the Tel Aviv episode in the first season, he explains that he wants to focus on what’s not in the news: great food, beautiful places and examples of people of different backgrounds getting along. He tastes shakshuka with the Israelis who brought “Everybody Loves Raymond” to Israel at Dr. Shakshuka; enjoys breads at the historic Abouelafia Bakery in Yafo, owned by Israeli Arabs and run by Arabs, Christians and Jews; visits markets and samples hummus and a sabich sandwich (pita stuffed with fried eggplant, hard boiled eggs and more) with James Beard Award-winning chef Michael Solomonov, and then has a home meal with Solomonov’s family.
He also visits Akko and meets Jeremiah Buri, known by the name of his fish restaurant, Uri Buri, and enjoys salmon sashimi with wasabi sorbet. In Akko, a Jewish and Arab city, he says, “The question of whether we can all get along is answered.”
In other shows he turns up in Jewish places like a restaurant in Buenos Aires called Michiguene, which features recipes drawn from across the Jewish diaspora. Throughout the series, there’s kibitzing.
“I am aware that I have a Jewish background, it comes out. I’m not trying to hide it or exploit it. I’m not religious or observant. I am traditionally and culturally Jewish. I can’t help it.”
One of the final segments in the New York episode is one of many scene-stealers by his parents. In their apartment, his mother serves her signature matzah ball soup, and I won’t give away the rest.
“This is where people came for a new life,” he says of New York City over a magnificent shot of the Statue of Liberty, reflecting on what it means to be an American.
He says that the New York show is really about love — he sits with his wife in Central Park, another of his favorite places, on benches that they have dedicated to each other. He’s a lucky man who is living his dream — from the time he was a child, he yearned to have his own television show.
“I’m always grateful to New York for the life that I have.”