Back around the turn of the century, an awful lot of TV comedy writers would’ve very happily taken a job on the sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond.” Not only because it was one of the biggest hit shows of its day… but because the show’s creator, Phil Rosenthal, famously fed his staff better than anyone in show business. The set catering was legendary, and Rosenthal cared about it so much he actually called his production company “Where’s Lunch?”
These days, Phil invests in restaurants from chefs like Mario Batali. And now, he hosts a food travel show on PBS called “I’ll Have What Phil’s Having,” which premiered earlier this week. So, Rico met him for lunch at the Los Angeles Farmers Market to talk about it. But first, he asked why Phil fed his TV staff so well.
Phil Rosenthal: I felt like if you’re going to have you own show — and that was the first show I ever had, right? — the first question you ask yourself is: “How are you going to be?” Are you going to try to be tough? Are you gonna be a task master?” And I thought, ’cause I’d been on other shows, “How about we just try to be nice?”
Rico Gagliano: [mock horror] What?!
Phil Rosenthal: Yeah, a novel idea. So, be nice… and then the other thing you can do to show that you care about people, is you make the food, the craft service, very good. Because when you think about it, we’ve all been to the craft service table, and there’s crap on there. There’s potato chips and junk and–
Rico Gagliano: For those who don’t know, this is kind of the snack table that’s out 24 hours a day on a TV or movie set.
Phil Rosenthal: Right. And if you’re on the crew, or in the cast, or a writer, you walk over there — out of boredom usually — to grab whatever, stuff your face and keep going with your day. Sometimes, that’s your only meal of the day ’cause you’re so busy, and that’s it.
But, what if you went over there and there was deli flown in from New York once in a while? Or cinnamon buns from Chicago? Two strangers approach the table, and here’s something fantastic, and they take a bite and they go, “Holy… did you have this?” “Yes!” And right away we’re talking! And it’s about something nice. And, I would say, after the writing and the acting, the food’s the most important thing.
Rico Gagliano: What was actually out there? Give us an example.
Phil Rosenthal: The things I just described were there. Once a year, we had stone crab claws from Florida. We’d put newspaper on the writer’s table, and get hammers from the set — from the crew — and we’d bang open these things, and had a party.
Rico Gagliano: But, the first thing that came to mind when I heard about the kind of smorgasbords that you had out all the time is: didn’t everybody just then lie around napping most of the day?
Phil Rosenthal: No, we had work to do. But what did happen was… I got fat. We’re in that room all day; we called it “The Veal Pen.” You know, we’re not getting out, we’re stuck. The only sunshine coming in is the menu, and you can order whatever you want. And so we did!
Rico Gagliano: [Laughs.] All right. Let’s move on to why food became so important to you. On [“I’ll Have What Phil’s Having”], you actually talk about how you did not grow up in a particularly culinarily fantastic household.
Phil Rosenthal: No, I was… look,my mother once made matzo lasagna. I’m not exaggerating.Instead of sheets of pasta, sheets of matzo. It was kind of like a cardboard Napoleon. Even the cat wouldn’t eat it.
Rico Gagliano: I’m half Jewish and half Italian, so you would think that would give me–
Phil Rosenthal: That’s a perfect recipe for you!
Rico Gagliano: Yeah. I still don’t think it sounds that great.
Phil Rosenthal: I don’t think so. She got it out of anti-Semitic cookbook, I think. It was a horrible upbringing [laughs].
Rico Gagliano: So how did you become a foodie?
Phil Rosenthal: You know, you talk to chefs… like famous chefs like Alice Waters will tell you her mother was not a great cook. And so, if you hit at the certain age, at the right age — like when you discover great music that becomes your music for life — food became my music. Because when I got out of that house, I was like a man coming out of the desert. I never had garlic!
Rico Gagliano: Oh, no!
Phil Rosenthal: I was in college before I was eating a bowl of pasta and going, “This is fantastic!” I mean it was a cheap, little place and my friends are going, “What’s so fantastic? It’s good, but what?” And I was like, “Ahhh, I pinned it down! What are these little white things?!?” Do you know how fantastic that is if you’ve never had it?
That’s why… the whole point of the show is to get out in the world. Travel. Experience things. Food and a sense of humor is my way of connecting with people.
Rico Gagliano: So on this show, you go to basically everywhere — was your favorite?
Phil Rosenthal: I’m not just saying this because you’re half Italian, but Italy wins.
Rico Gagliano: I mean, I guess I shouldn’t even ask you that question because it’s so obvious.
Phil Rosenthal: It’s just the greatest.You’re eating the most delicious thing you ever had. You’re looking at the most beautiful scenery you ever had, and you’re getting hugged.
Rico Gagliano: [Laughs.] Now that being said, everybody grows up, I think, to some extent, with Italian food. Pizza and pasta. Did you have something there that actually blew your mind that you’d never had before?
Phil Rosenthal: Yes, I’m going to tell you. I just went to Milan for the first time. I got back this week. I spoke at the World’s Fair, which is all food, all about food. So, I went with Norman Lear, and we spoke about “food in entertainment.” How’s that for a scam, getting to go and do that?
Rico Gagliano: I hate you a little.
Phil Rosenthal: Yeah, everyone hates me a little bit. But I had a dish… saffron risotto with sea urchin. Blew the top of my head off, it was so delicious.
Rico Gagliano: You actually — in the Tokyo episode — you have sea urchin. You’ve said that you eat a lot sea urchin in sushi. But you still managed to get your mind blown having it in pasta?
Phil Rosenthal: I never had it like this.
Rico Gagliano: In this season — I’m assuming that you are hoping for more than one season of this — where haven’t you gone that you would like to go?
Phil Rosenthal: Listen, it’s a big world out there! I did six episodes: Paris, Barcelona, Florence and Umbria, Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Los Angeles — which I consider to be the great food city in America at the moment.
And there’s another point to the Los Angeles episode, which is: I know everybody can’t travel. [But] you can travel in your own town. You can have a dish at a restaurant in a neighborhood that you’re afraid to go to. And maybe, if we like that Peruvian dish, we start to taste another one. And before you know it, you’re talking to the owner. And before you know it, “I love a Peruvian guy!” And before I know it, I’m planning a trip to Peru.