The third season of the food and travel documentary Somebody Feed Phil, premiering on Netflix today, is comfort food for the quarantine. As host Phil Rosenthal does what he does so naturally—being warm and funny while sampling food and meeting locals as he travels the world—the result is joyful, as you vicariously follow his travels to Morocco, England, Korea, and different parts of America.
We caught up with the man behind Everyone Loves Raymond to talk about releasing a travel show during lockdown, the importance of saving the restaurant industry, and why he thinks camels are a terrible mode of transportation.
Fast Company: Somebody Feed Phil is in its third season. Did you do anything differently this time around?
Phil Rosenthal: I like to think that the more you do something, the better you get at it. So I’m hoping that there’s a natural evolution to the show as people get to know me, know my character, know what I like, and the kind of person I am. Personally, I’m a bit more relaxed in front of the camera. I hadn’t been in front of the camera much before.
FC: In this season, you went to Canada, England, Morocco, and even places in the States. What was your favorite place, and what ended up being your favorite meal?
PR: In this batch, I loved Marrakesh because it was the most exotic to me. Seoul was pretty exotic to me, too, but I happen to live in Los Angeles next to Koreatown, so I knew a little bit more about that culture. I didn’t know anything about Morocco. And they even got me up on a camel, which is really not my favorite kind of transportation. Have you ever been on a camel?
FC: I have been on a camel. It’s pretty scary when they get up. I gather you did not like being on a camel. . . .
PR: For ancient people I’m like, “There was nothing else to ride around on in those days? Why the camel?” The camel doesn’t want you on it! My camel didn’t spit at me, but he was hollering. I was like, “Does he really want me on?” I don’t think so.
FC: You couldn’t have anticipated COVID-19 when you were filming this. How do you feel about the show coming out during the pandemic?
PR: I’m hoping people get a vicarious thrill. I’m hoping that since we can’t go now that they can go with me on the show. I don’t want people to watch and be sad or think, “Oh look what we used to be able to do.” I understand thinking that way, because we’re in the middle of this tragic time right now, but we all know that this will pass. The whole point of our show is to show you that the world is worth seeing. So I don’t want people to watch that with melancholy or sentiment, but with the thrill of knowing we can go there.
FC: What kind of food have you been enjoying in quarantine?
PR: Because I want to support the industry, I’m ordering out pretty much every night. There’s a Mexican restaurant here called Sonoratown that is hitting it out of the park. That’s a once-a-week thing. There’s a pizza place that we love. That’s like a once-a-week thing. There’s comfort in the routine? We come up with arbitrary holidays that come up every week, like Taco Tuesday.
FC: You’re obviously passionate about food, and the restaurant industry has been one of the worst-hit sectors by the coronavirus.
PR: My wife and I are big supporters of the arts, and to me, chefs are artists and restaurants are my social life. That’s where I do most of my living with other people—the coffee shop or the diner or the restaurant. And you could see from the show . . . I like it.
FC: Are you doing anything to help them out?
PR: During this time, my wife and I are matching donations to the World Central Kitchen because José Andrés is a genius. Restaurant workers and the restaurants are suffering, so why not give money to them to feed the people who are in need, including first-responder heroes, and the kids can’t go to school and don’t get that school lunch they need because it might be the only meal they have that day? I thought this was a good way to support not just restaurants but everyone in this time of crisis.
FC: You’ve also invested in a few restaurants. Have those investments suffered?
PR: I’m stupid enough to invest in restaurants, not to make money, but to support the artists that work in the kitchen. I’m in, like, 25 different restaurants. But [when I invest] it’s all about, “Do I like this food? Do I like this person? Do I believe that I would want to eat there and other people would want to eat there?” And that’s it. I’ve done well, because I always bet on the chef. I never do it to make money cause it’s a really stupid way to try to make money. . . . It’s like investing in a Broadway show. But I love it so much that I want to support it.
FC: A lot of independent restaurants are closing. How do you think we can save them?
PR: There are bailouts for giant corporations, but there’s no bailout for the 11 million people who work in the restaurant industry. And they need this bailout even more. A mom-and-pop restaurant, that amazing coffee shop on the corner. I always say food is the great connector, along with laughter. The connections that we make over food are really what the show’s about. I don’t want to live in a world where it’s only restaurants for people on expense accounts and McDonald’s for everybody else.
FC: Are there any silver linings coming out of this?
PR: It’s the golden age of takeout. They’ve elevated the game, too, to where you’re getting meals that are as good as eating in the restaurant. One restaurant we order from called Bestia includes reheat instructions that are very simple but specific, and things are separated so they don’t get soggy or they don’t blend when they’re not supposed to. So there’s a tiny bit of work that you do, but the payoff is gigantic because it’s fresh, it’s hot, and it’s just phenomenal and an art form in and of itself.
FC: What about takeout at restaurants that you have invested in?
PR: There’s a burger place that I am invested in called HiHo. It’s from the same people that do Sugarfish. They have this genius way of transporting french fries [so they] stay hot and crispy: It’s as simple as perforating the bag so that the fries don’t steam. I don’t know why they haven’t done this before! But [just doing takeout is] not sustainable. You don’t need the whole restaurant staff, so it still leaves people out of work. They don’t make anything close to what they do when the restaurant is going full blast. And even then the margins are so tiny. So they really need this bailout. I would tell everybody to write to their congressmen, their senators. It’s vital. The food industry is the second-biggest employer in the United States after the United States government. And I would say that restaurants are more important to me out of those two. I certainly like them more.
FC: When restaurants reopen, what do you think the dining experience will look like?
PR: I saw something interesting happening in Amsterdam, where they put little glass houses around the tables outside along the canal. You’re in your own little world. I think there’s some version of that that might work well. But again, I think it’s all going to be transitional and temporary because there’s going to be a vaccine and one day we’ll be comfortable going out in the world.
FC: You’re very optimistic.
PR: I am. I think it might be the end of handshakes, but I’m hoping it’s not the end of hugs and kisses. I understand that there’s going to be this period of adjustment. I just hope that businesses and especially restaurants can survive until then.
FC: What’s the first restaurant you’ll go to when things open up?
PR: I’m thinking of a place that you go to every day that you kind of knew would always be there. A place that has become part of your routine, like the local coffee shop and the local diner. Those are actually the things I crave the most right now because [going back there] will mean a return to normalcy. I miss sitting with friends at a table and hugging them. I miss my dad, who is in a retirement village, and I can’t go visit him. I’m never taking that for granted again.