When you see Phil Rosenthal around Los Angeles, and chances are good you will, he’s most likely shoving food in his mouth. With two seasons of Somebody Feed Phil on Netflix, Rosenthal is one of the most recognized eaters in the country right now. Between Somebody and the one season of I’ll Have What Phil’s Having on PBS, he’s traveled to 20 different countries with the wide-eyed excitement and self-proclaimed goofiness of a teenager, and he brings all of those finds — the people, restaurants, the shopkeepers, the food — to our small screens. But whether he’s taking friends like Martin Short to his first K-BBQ restaurant in Koreatown or showing his 77,000 Instagram fans what he ate for lunch today, it’s clear Rosenthal is hopelessly devoted to his adoptive hometown of nearly 30 years.
Born in Queens, New York, the original plan was to be an actor, but after shifting to writing and producing, Rosenthal landed in LA to work on shows like Down the Shore and Coach. His big break came a few years later when he created and was executive producer of Everybody Loves Raymond. He’s particularly proud of the episode where Ray Romano’s character takes his family to Italy, which sparked a bit of a light bulb for Rosenthal: A normal guy going to a new country to eat? That’s funny.
Now a celebrity in his own right—fans often stop him for selfies—he’s equal parts travel show host and patron saint of the LA culinary scene. As an investor in more than 20 of the city’s most high-profile restaurants, including Osteria Mozza, Providence, Connie & Ted’s, Republique, Here’s Looking At You, and Triple Beam Pizza, he’s often hobnobbing with chefs and the culinary elite. But he’s also just a guy who loves food and talking about it, someone who gets excited over a simple sandwich or claims a new noodle shop in the heart of the San Gabriel Valley as his favorite new restaurant (spoiler: almost every restaurant is his favorite).
Here we talk with him about food and your phone being the great connectors of the world, why LA is the best food city in the country, and which LA chocolate cake is so good it could actually create world peace.
WSWD: How did you get involved with so many restaurants?
Phil Rosenthal: I’m not very bright. It’s a stupid investment, as my business manager has informed me. My family and I support the arts, my wife runs The Rosenthal Family Foundation to help put art back in the schools. One of my favorite arts, if not my favorite, is the culinary arts. I love it. It makes our town better. It makes the world better. Restaurants are where we congregate, where we meet friends. I believe in the power of food to connect us, and the chefs that do it well, like Nancy [Silverton], Ori Menashe, Ray Garcia at Broken Spanish… they all make the world the better.
I didn’t have two cents to my name, and somebody took me to one of the best sushi bars in the world. It was like 1989. It was spectacular.
Have you always been an adventurous eater, someone who loved restaurants and food?
No! My mom and dad worked, but we didn’t have a lot of money. Good food wasn’t a priority. I say my mother has setting on her oven for shoe. I don’t blame her, she’s a fantastic mom in every regard, but there just was no time or money to put into fine cuisine. I could count on my hand how many times we went to a restaurant as a kid. As a freshman at Hofstra University, we ate what we could afford, usually pasta and red sauce in a perfectly crappy restaurant. But it was delicious to me. I said there’s something going on here, these little white bits, what are they? They said, what, garlic? Yes! I never had garlic. I was living like an animal.
What’s your first food memory of LA?
Matsuhisa for sushi. I didn’t have two cents to my name, and somebody took me to one of the best sushi bars in the world. It was like 1989. It was spectacular. I had been to LA once before on a business trip and I didn’t like it at all. I had what people told me was great here, the Tommy’s chili burger. That was kind of a highlight then. When I got here, Matsuhisa was maybe the best, and Spago.
How would you compare LA restaurants from then to today?
There were very few great restaurants, and now it’s evolved into what I think is the best food city in America. Look what we have. We have the biggest populations of people outside of their countries here. The biggest Korean population outside of Korea. The biggest Chinese populations. You can visit the different provinces of China just by going through the neighborhoods of the San Gabriel Valley.
You’re like a restaurant guide on social media.
My daughter tells me I’m an idiot. I just try to take pictures of places I’m going, just trying to turn people on to places I like.
How and why did you come up with a food and travel show?
I used to say that I’m exactly like Anthony Bourdain if he was afraid of everything. Bourdain, rest his soul, was a superhero. I’d sit on the couch and say he’s amazing, but I’m not going to Borneo to get drunk with tribesmen and get a tattoo pounded into my arm. I’m a nice Jewish boy living vicariously through him. So I wondered if there was value in a show for the rest of us, something that related to a guy like me that people like me would watch. Food and humor would be the way in, my stupid sense of humor. Food is the great connector, but laughs are the cement. And there’s no better way to get the laughs than being at a festive meal. There’s usually drink involved and that helps.
I’m not going to Borneo to get drunk with tribesmen and get a tattoo pounded into my arm.
When you’re traveling, what do you tell people about the LA food scene, especially if they’ve never been here?
The food has gotten better everywhere, and I credit the internet and the cross-pollination of cuisines. Roy Choi changed the world by putting Korean bbq in a taco. It was like America in your hand. Los Angeles might be the best example because there’s great cultural diversity. When you have all the cultures mixing together all in one place, everyone’s bringing their food. The car, too. In New York, every restaurant is packed whether it’s good or not. You just go downstairs. Here, I’m not going to that mediocre place when I could get in my car and be somewhere really great in two minutes.
When you’re traveling the world, do you feel like a cultural ambassador in a way?
I think everyone is when you travel. Just by going to another country and being halfway nice, you’re an important ambassador. Just by being a normal person, you represent.
Your shows definitely make us want to get on a plane and just go … anywhere. How do you get people out of their comfort zones?
I guess I’m trying to do that with Instagram and the show. Look at your phone, this window to the world. Turn it outward every once in awhile. Don’t you want to see where you live? You live on the planet, the earth. If someone gave you a new house, do you live in one room? No! Don’t you want to see the neighborhood, the city? Say there’s a Peruvian restaurant down the street, and you’ve never been. You check out the menu on your phone, and you see they have chicken and rice. All of a sudden you’re there, eating that dish and talking to the owner. Next thing you know, you’re at Machu Picchu. If you can’t travel, at least you can always travel with food.
So you’re saying if people just sat and broke bread together more, the world order would be much more stable.
At the very least you can’t kill someone if you’re eating with them. Unless you poison them, I guess. Food is love, we all know that.
Which chocolate cake?
Oh, the one at Republique with the layers of salted caramel. Holy cow, that’s good.