Back in the day, we used to say that Serious Eats was a website focused on celebrating and sharing our enthusiasm for food with the online community. In Part 2 of my interview with fellow food enthusiast Phil Rosenthal, he reveals that Somebody Feed Phil, his new Netflix show, is really about the same thing, if you just added "travel" to food and substituted "family" for the online community.
Food, travel, and family are at the heart of the show; in each episode, we see Phil interacting with a family he's met in whatever city he's exploring. And, for good measure, Phil's elderly and utterly hilarious parents make appearances in each episode via Skype.
Phil tells me, "What I learned from [Everybody Loves Raymond] is that every show is about a family, and what I mean is, your news broadcast that you tune into every night, that's a family of people that you enjoy being with. Right? That's another reason why my parents are in the show...because that's what makes a television show."
Phil explains that one of the reasons he loves travel is that it forces him out of his comfort zone. Like the time he found himself in Thailand, sandwiched between two elephants as he was trying to leave their habitat. After a few tense moments he was able to leave unharmed, though not before one of the elephants swatted him with his tail. Phil explains, "Once you're through that moment, it's the best experience of your life. It's one of the highlights of your life that you will never forget, and you are so happy that you took that step outside your comfort zone. It's the only way we get anything in life. When you see the pretty girl across the room, will I ask her to dance? If you didn't, you wouldn't have the dance. Maybe you wouldn't have the girlfriend. Maybe you wouldn't have the wife. Maybe you wouldn't have the family...we all have to go outside our comfort zone sometimes."
Then there's the vicarious thrill viewers get when Phil makes a food discovery. Like the crab omelet made by Jay Fai he ate in Thailand. "This is somebody, she's been venerated as one of the best street food vendors in the whole world. She makes a crab omelet, there's a pound, pound and a half of fresh crab meat in this omelet, which she's cooking over a hot wok. It's just again, street food, on the side of the street. She has a few tables beside the stove, but [the] fire is going, real fire. The wok is on the fire. She pours the crab into the eggs that are in the wok, with butter, then as she starts turning it, and the omelet starts to form around the crab, she starts ladling fresh egg over it and turning that. So, it's tender, layers and layers of egg, until you have, really, a football filled with crab....This lady, right after we filmed...she got a Michelin star. For a shack...and just this week, she wants to give the star back. There's too many people now. She's 73 years old."
To hear Phil elaborate on the crab omelet lady, to hear more about the elephant walk and other hilarious situations in which Phil found himself way outside of his comfort zone, check out part 2 of his Special Sauce interview and the full transcript on Serious Eats.
My friend Phil Rosenthal, the creator and host of the new Netflix show Somebody Feed Phil is as much fun to talk to as he is to eat with. When I asked him how the show ended up on Netflix, he replied, "The way I sold the show...I said, 'I'm exactly like Anthony Bourdain if he was afraid of everything....I mean, I'm the guy watching him, not really wanting to go to Borneo and have a tattoo pounded into my chest with nails.'"
When I sit down with Phil no subject is off limits. We revisited (admittedly at my behest) the moment in 2006 when I asked him to invest in Serious Eats. I just thought that the food-obsessed creator of Everybody Loves Raymond would leap at the opportunity to get in on the ground floor. "By the way," he said, laughing, "my business manager told me not to give you money then. I was ready. I was like, 'This sounds good.' But he said, 'No, no, no, no, don't, don't.'" That's four "nos" and two "don'ts" for those of you counting at home.
If you listen, you'll find that the Phil Rosenthal you hear on Special Sauce is the same guy you see on Somebody Feed Phil. He's funny–really funny–smart, and generously spirited (he always picks up the check, on the show and in real life). And, oh yeah, Phil's also a great storyteller who has somehow managed to maintain an optimistic but realistic outlook on life. Why? Because as his friend Ed. Weinberger, the legendary sitcom director and creator, told him when he was shooting the Everybody Loves Raymond pilot, "Phil, you might as well make the show you want to make because at the end, they're going to cancel you anyway." As Phil pointed out, "Isn't that a great philosophy of life? We all get cancelled one day. Live your life."
So enliven your life, Serious Eaters, by listening to Part 1 of the Special Sauce interview with Phil Rosenthal. You'll be laughing in the first minute. (And for those of you who prefer their interviews in written form, we've included an edited transcript of the conversation on our website.)
My guest this week on Special Sauce is chef and cookbook author Joseph "JJ" Johnson. When I say he gravitated to kitchen work at an early age, I mean really early. He started cooking with his grandmother when he was four: "I didn't really watch cartoons...I'd step on like a milk crate. She would give me a peeler, which was probably like a phony play peeler, like Fisher-Price, and I would peel vegetables or I would scoop things out." Five years later, when he was nine, he saw an ad on television that sealed the deal: "So I saw a commercial back then for [The] Culinary Institute of America, when they used to run commercials, and I just said one day...I'm going to go to that school." Now that's what I call a really, really early decision application.
After graduating from the CIA and doing a few stints in serious New York kitchens, JJ appeared on an episode of Rocco's Dinner Party, which led to an unlikely introduction to Alexander Smalls, the seminal African-American chef/restaurateur and Tony Award-winning opera singer (that's quite a combo, isn't it?). Smalls invited JJ on a trip to Ghana, and gave him an education on the food of the African diaspora, which was both foreign and familiar: "It also was a lightbulb moment for me because I grew up in the diaspora...So there was these things that would happen and I would say, I remember that flavor or I remember that scent. It really helped me develop who I was."
JJ would go on to open The Cecil with Smalls, and although it is now, sadly, closed, it was named America's best new restaurant by Esquire Magazine in 2014. Since then, J. J. and Smalls have co-authored the cookbook Between Harlem and Heaven: Afro-Asian-American Cooking for Big Nights, Weeknights, and Every Day, and he's done a whole lot more, including cooking for Beyoncé. To find out just what those things are, you'll have to check out both this week's and next week's episodes of Special Sauce.