Hey there, hi there, ho there, that’s all I can say without Disney’s dark eyes falling on me for copyright infringement. I’m Jon O’Guin, this is Kitchen Catastrophes, and today, we’re talking TV. Last week, we talked about a cookbook you should pick up if you want to push your boundaries. Today’s show touches on a very similar premise, in a much gentler way: Netflix’s “Somebody Feed Phil”
A Host Would Be Nice, if It’s Not Too Much Trouble
To talk about the show, we first have to talk about the host, and the previous show(s). This is a show about Phil Rosenthal traveling the world and exploring cuisines that are foreign to him. The obvious question is “Who the hell is Phil Rosenthal, and why do I care about him?” These are good questions to ask about, really, anyone. Though, from a spiritual standpoint, “because he too is human, and therefore serves as your brother in joy, suffering, loss, and triumph” is a pretty universal answer to the second half, but whatever.
Phil Rosenthal is a writer and producer, mostly of sitcoms. He wrote for Coach back in the 90’s, and he is the creator of Everybody Loves Raymond. Ray helped write the show, working in his own experiences, but the show’s basic idea and structure came from Phil. And that’s…basically it. I mean, he wrote a sizable portion of the scripts for the show, and he’s done some voice work/acting here and there (often appearing as himself), but most of his history is tied to Everybody Loves Raymond. He made a documentary for instance, about what happened when he was asked to help create the Russian adaptation of the show.
In English, that title is "Voroniny". I like to think that "Ninny" is an insult shared between our two cultures, but that's probably overly hopeful.
Also, true story: I tried to accredit this image 4 times, and every time it refused to save. Sorry "voroniny.pw", the site doesn't like you.
He’s not a very complicated man. In his appearance in “Celebrity Sleepovers”, (a YouTube series with a premise roughly as ridiculous and adorable as it sounds) he demanded his guest bring a 40 of Budweiser, Slim Jims, and Scratch-Off Lottery Tickets. He is….look, there’s no way around saying it: Phil Rosenthal is a Jewish man from New York. And he is aware of it, and the stereotypes and baggage that come with that, and, he does like to lean into it at times. His first series I really got into, “I’ll Have What Phil’s Having”, the repeated introduction to the show opens with ‘There are things I never tasted growing up…like food with any flavor.” Remember when I said “most of Phil’s history is tied to Everybody loves Raymond”? If not, it was literally one paragraph ago, so you may need to see a doctor. The point is that the majority of the stuff unconnected to that franchise is somehow connected to his Jewish heritage.
However, he’s a very relatable, funny, and open guy. He’s almost always excited to try something new, even if he hems and haws a little. (“Ants? He wants me to eat ants? I fly all the way to Tokyo, and this guy’s giving me bugs!”) The man wrote comedy for a couple decades, he’s got pretty solid comedic timing. And these traits are all great ones for a travel/food host, and set him up nicely for a great parallel. Back in…April, I want to say, I reviewed Samurai Gourmet, a show that my family is still impatiently waiting for Netflix to make a second season for, so we can return to Kasumi’s adventures.
By the way, I'm hearing buzz that Japanese Fried Chicken (kara-age) may be building steam as a new food trend. If so, remember that I called it.
And when I told you all to watch it, advice I know for a fact many of you failed to follow-through on, since I still mention it to my friends and they say “oh yeah, I kept meaning to watch that”, as if you expect me to believe your lies. But, then again, I kept ‘meaning’ to make seafood soup for 3 goddamn years, so I guess I have to let it slide and hope that one day you stop being wrong…What was my point?
Oh yeah. When I told you all to watch Samurai Gourmet, I mentioned that a big part of the fun comes from seeing the main character really enjoy the food he’s served. And it’s a similar appeal with BOTH of the shows Phil’s made, with PBS and now Netflix: Phil Rosenthal is, in essence, a well-to-do middle-aged man, who’s now going around and just…trying stuff. He eats beef lung tacos in an outdoor market in Mexico city, and he eats at a Japanese restaurant that has a plate with live-streamed audio from an actual FOREST STREAM.
It is a dish of "dirt" made out of crumbled mushrooms, "moss" made out of tea, and presented on a plate of wood, because Japan COMMITS to themes, God damn it.
And…this is where the review gets somewhat tricky. See, those two events I listed? Happened in different shows. See “Somebody Feed Phil” is, basically, just as rebranding of “I’ll Have What Phil’s Having”. Why? I don’t particularly know. I know PBS sold the show to Netflix because it was simply too expensive for PBS to keep producing, and Netflix must have decided a new name was in order. Just like when I stole that dog, I renamed It. But more legal. And real.
Format Follows Function
The show has a pretty easy format to follow: if you’ve seen Bizarre Foods, or No Reservations, you’ve got the general idea: the host goes to a place, and talks with the chefs/authors/whoever of that place, and eats some food from there. They tend to tie any given episode to a theme reflective of the location, and end with a little philosophical and emotional monologue.
And it is in tying the show to Phil that we reach what makes the show both interesting and irritating, depending on your standpoint: Phil Rosenthal doesn’t know much about food. He is, as noted, a good-natured, uncomplex comedy writer and show runner. This makes his statements…a touch facile, to say it nicely. Or, as Eater phrased it, he is “unafraid to state the obvious.” (They were… not fans of the show.) And I understand their irritation, to an extent. As a man who lives in Western Washington, I am aware enough of Asian foods, and exposed enough to them, to know that, if I want a banh mi, there are roughly 7 different options for sale, in my relatively small town. So the statement “You can’t go to Vietnam and not try the banh mi” is somewhat obvious, the equivalent of telling someone “If you’re in Italy, try the pasta.”
Which is ALSO a thing he does in the first series.
Thus, it’s understandable to be a little irritated that Phil is the host of a food show, but he doesn’t have any professional food experience. But, here’s my counter: that’s what makes him a useful figure. Andrew Zimmern and Anthony Bourdain, by their very expertise, are somewhat alien to many people. Even I say that Andrew Zimmern describes food in ways that are probably quite accurate, and also sound TOTALLY UNAPPEALING, and I AM a foodie. Telling me that the soft shell turtle you’re eating is like “a solid patch of Vaseline” doesn’t entice me, it disgusts me. And I used to eat popcorn after stomping on it.
Stan Lee had a phrase he used in discussing the story-telling of comics, if you’ll excuse the topical whiplash: “Every comic is somebody’s first.” That’s why in the 60’s and 70’s, so much of any given comic was simply re-iterating the current plot line and recent character actions: Stan Lee felt that it was important that you could pick up any comic, and have an idea of what was going on. And Phil serves as a really nice “first comic” for older people trying to get into more diverse foods. He is, in many ways, discovering these foods with the viewers.
In the Mexico City episode, he talks about how, in 1980’s New York, a shop selling QUESADILLAS was a culinary discovery for him and his friends. And that may sound somewhat silly, but think about it this way: the first Taco Bell built east of the Mississippi was in 1968, which is 8 years after Phil was born.
Fun fact: this is the first picture from the actual series I'm reviewing. Seriously, both shows are pretty interchangeable.
And that, I would argue, is where the show’s strength lies. It isn’t for people like me, who write food blogs, collect cookbooks, and know, for instance, that Food Network believes nduja is going to be one of the hot new food trend of 2018, and have opinions ABOUT that claim. (Nduja is a spreadable cured meat, very spicy. Like if Pepperoni and pate had a baby. I think it might be a big chef trend for the year, but I don’t think we’re going to see it on Safeway shelves. Name’s too weird, the idea of sausage you can smear is kind of off-putting, and it’s a VERY fatty ingredient. Like, “85% of your daily fat”, “half a stick of butter per serving” tier fatty. I'm betting on kara-age, as I mentioned before.) This is a show for someone like me to watch with someone like my father, or mother, as a way to make them more open about new dishes.
This isn’t always a strictly good thing, though. Following an episode of the show shot in Saigon, my family went to a local Asian restaurant, and, motivated by the show, we ordered a new dish called “bo la lot” (boh-lah-low-t) which is beef wrapped in betel leaves, a sort of peppery plant with slight addictive properties popular in Vietnam. Turns out, most of my family definitely does NOT like the taste of betel leaves. I was the biggest fan, at a response of “eh, this isn’t that great.” Versus my brother, who practically spit it out, and likened the disgusting flavor to physical assault for the next 3 days. So, you know, sometimes trying things doesn’t work out.
Yes, thank you, Phil.
In the end, it’s a show that makes the viewer feel cozy, with a lot of pretty shots of the cities and people, and a nice older man talking about the importance of community, the universal innocence of children, and broadly talking about acceptance and tolerance. On the way, the host eats a lot of really good looking food, and gets very emotional about things. In his first series, he cried after trying a scoop of gelato. That’s how good it was. He hugs chefs, deeply, clearly moved by the flavors their foods have brought him. He wants people to talk about their cultures, to explain to him how things got so good here.
Is it the cutting edge of culinary trends? No. But he’s honestly not that far off: while I was reading about some of the restaurants he ends up visiting a year or two ago in food magazines, he did beat the Michelin committee to Jay Fai’s restaurant, which became the first restaurant in Bangkok to earn a Michelin star a few months after they filmed the episode there.
To be fair, with a food description like that, they were always going to win SOMETHING.
If you’re someone who’s “in the know” in the culinary world, you probably won’t like it. If you’re someone who favors the blunt, rough assessments of someone like Anthony Bourdain, you might not like it. But if you’re looking for something to make you consider a place for a vacation, or you want to convince a family member to try a restaurant for a cuisine they don’t know, this could be the show for you. Personally, I’ve watched all of it. Some of it twice. And if going back for seconds isn’t a compliment, then I don’t know what is.
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MONDAY: JON BRINGS YOU A DIP MADE PARTIALLY OUT OF PITAS, AND TOTALLY CREATED BECAUSE JON IS KIND OF CRAZY.
NEXT THURSDAY: JON TRAVELS THE WORLD ONCE MORE, IN A SEGMENT YOU PROBABLY HOPED HE’D NEVER BRING UP AGAIN: SEARCHING ABROAD’S PANTRIES.