November 17, 2018

I’ll have what Phil Rosenthal’s having

When people ask you which person in history you would most like to share a meal with, the acceptable answers are Thomas Jefferson, Shakespeare or your dead bubbe.

I used to be a Jefferson guy, too. But then I watched an episode of “I’ll Have What Phil’s Having” on Netflix. Then I watched another. Then I watched them all.

And I decided the person I most wanted to have a meal with at that moment was Phil Rosenthal.

And so I did. 

We met at République on La Brea for breakfast.  Rosenthal has been interviewed quite a bit about his show, including in these pages.  It’s a story with a built-in hook: uber-successful television creator/producer of “Everybody Loves Raymond” hits the road to host a show about food. But I wanted to talk to him about something else, something I kept noticing as I watched him eat his way through Paris, Hong Kong, Florence, Koreatown.

I wanted Phil Rosenthal to talk about why he keeps crying.

I first noticed it in the Florence, Italy, episode. He wandered into a gelato shop. The owner, a woman who speaks no English, showed Phil — whom she had just met —  how she makes her ice cream. When it was ready, she spooned some vanilla gelato into his mouth. And as he spontaneously hugged her, a tear wet his eye.

What was that? Emeril doesn’t cry. Lord knows, Bourdain doesn’t cry. Yes, in those food contest shows the losers weep, but that’s different: They’re upset they won’t be on TV anymore.     

“I’m not trying to cry,” Rosenthal told me. “I’m ashamed a little, but it just happened spontaneously.”

In person, Rosenthal is very much the Phil of the show: quick-witted, enthusiastic, boyish. 

So then, what happened in Japan? I asked him.  At a small, family restaurant in Tokyo, Rosenthal sat for a multi-course, all-eel meal. It dragged. “So,” Phil asked, “what do you guys do for fun?”

Every week, the father said, we break open a bottle for “Champagne Night.” 

“Really?” Phil said. “We have Egg Cream Night.” He was joking, but his Japanese hosts grew as excited as him. “What is this ‘egg cream?!’ ”

Before long, Phil’s crew had gathered the ingredients, and Phil and a group of total strangers were toasting, laughing and bonding over real New York egg creams.

And that made Phil a little teary as well.  

“To me, it’s the quintessential scene of the series so far,” Phil said, “because it’s everything. No. 1, food bonds us together. It bonds us with everyone in the world. It’s the most human of traits to me, because it directly ties into companionship and empathy. You can’t kill people if you’re eating and laughing with them. My joke is, if those boys from ISIS would just sit down and have a piece of cake with me, everything would be OK.”

Too simple?  Consider the Los Angeles segment. Rosenthal is deeply tied to the food scene here, as an investor in many restaurants and as a benefactor of food justice groups and enterprises such as LocoL restaurant in South Central, Food Forward and Homeboy Industries. 

“I think we’re in the epicenter of great food in America right where I live,” he said.

If a standard food show visited Malibu Kitchen, it would be all about shoving some carb bomb into the host’s face as his eyes bulged out. But Rosenthal is entranced with the cranky owner. The guy turns out to have an amazing life story as a former road manager for Elvis and other top acts.    

“I feel like the world would be a better place if more people experienced a little bit of someone else’s experience,” Rosenthal told me. “The food and the humor is just the way into the connection with the people. It’s not about food, my show, it really isn’t. That’s the wallpaper. The jokes and the humor, if there is any, that’s hopefully to get you to the table. But what happens at the table?”

In Paris, a famous young pastry chef hosted Rosenthal for dinner. The generosity, the flavors, the wine — it all visibly moved Phil. I pointed out it seemed to make him tear up.

“That rice pudding really is one of the world’s great desserts!” Rosenthal said. “I don’t cry in every scene! What a lightweight here crying over every kind of food! I did not cry over the rice pudding! It may be a blink in the eye. No, I cried  … ”

I told Phil I understood. He was confessing to the converted. There are those of us who feel that way in prayer, and those who find it at the table — that magic that happens when you bring together food, friends and family to eat, drink and talk. It could happen over a celebration of a particular holiday — next month it will be Rosh Hashanah, in spring, Passover or Nowruz, or, if you’re otherwise inclined, Easter or Chinese New Year — but it’s also something else, something closer to a celebration of being human.

“That is my religion,” Phil said, nodding, “a bonding over food, over place, over community.”

To have what Phil’s having is to be open to the possibility that food can take us places even religion can’t.

“When I teared up at the gelato thing,” Phil explained, “as delicious as that thing was, it was when I gave her a kiss. Her response was to hug me back and kiss me on both cheeks. … That’s when I lost it. Because it was the connection with the person. It wasn’t just the food. It never is.”


ROB ESHMAN is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Instagram  @foodaism .