When my husband first started watching the Netflix series Somebody Feed Phil, I said to him, “Who is this clown? He is so annoying, Jonathan, please turn it off!”
My husband didn’t listen — of course. But in this case, I am glad he didn’t, because I ended up slowly falling in love with Phil Rosenthal, the creator behind the popular TV show Everybody Loves Raymond. He’s also a writer, a producer, and an all-around funny Jewish guy who just also happens to love eating.
The premise of the show is that Rosenthal travels around the world, trying different foods and chatting with people in each place he visits. The concept is not dissimilar to Anthony Bourdain’s or Andrew Zimmern’s shows, minus the bug-eating of Zimmern or skepticism of Bourdain (as much as I truly adored him). Rosenthal is all heart, and I can’t get enough of his ridiculous yet lovable facial expressions.
The third season of Somebody Feed Phil was just released, and I devoured the entire season — pun intended. The series is a welcome distraction from a pandemic, escalating and troublesome racial tensions and violence, to say nothing of my day-to-day life as a busy, working parent. Essentially, these days I need Rosenthal’s optimism and enthusiasm and wacky, Jewish dad humor.
Each time I watch Rosenthal, and maybe even more so in this latest season, I am struck by just how Jewish he is: There is something very familiar about him. Maybe it’s just because I am also a born-and-bred Jewish New Yorker who loves food.
In this season, he travels to London, Chicago, Venice, Seoul, Marrakech, and Montreal. In the Montreal episode, Rosenthal enthusiastically praises Montreal-style bagels at the city’s iconic St. Viateur Bagels. This is surprising since, after all, there is an ongoing and passionate debate between which style of bagels truly reign supreme: New York’s crusty, king-sized bagels, or the softer, sweet Montreal variety. My favorite moment is when the Italian bagel shop owner shows Rosenthal his favorite way to enjoy a bagel: schmeared with ricotta cheese and topped with fresh figs, a true mash-up between Italian and Jewish culinary perfection. Rosenthal plants him with a big smooch on his cheek before heading out to the next food stop, and I just about died from this endearing exchange between grown men over bagels.
In Marrakech Rosenthal enjoys traditional Moroccan donuts called sfenj, which are also a popular food for Hanukkah among Moroccan Jews; in London he spends time with the one and only Yotam Ottolenghi; and in Chicago he endearingly buys hot dogs for everyone waiting in line at Jim’s Original.
Each of us is grounded by our own culinary memories, and that’s how Rosenthal also compares his culinary experiences: to his own family and their favorite recipes. A rich soup in Korea is compared to chicken soup; a mung bean pancake is compared to a potato latke; and, at the end of each show, Rosenthal calls his dad and wife to talk about what he ate. What a nice Jewish boy.
Rosenthal’s charm is in his authenticity, warmth, unabashed silliness, and sincere love of food, both Jewish and decidedly not. If you need to laugh and escape right now, this season will really fill you up.