There was plenty of jarred gefilte fish and bland brisket in Phil Rosenthal’s childhood home, but what the “Everybody Loves Raymond” creator really craved was food with flavor: pizza and burgers, oil and fat and salt.
To compensate for all of that lost time, the Jewish writer-turned-food critic found a way to eat his way around the world on Netflix’s dime in his new show, “Somebody Feed Phil.” In the six-part series, Rosenthal brings a healthy dash of humor to the food documentary genre.
“I’m exactly like Anthony Bourdain — if he was afraid of everything,” Rosenthal told The Times of Israel in a recent interview.
But Rosenthal doesn’t seem too nervous to try all that Israel has to offer in the series’ third episode, which focused on Tel Aviv, Jaffa, Caesarea and Acre.
To guide Rosenthal along his culinary journey in Israel is Michael Solomonov, the James Beard award-winning Philadelphia chef and creator of his own Netflix food documentary, “In Search of Israeli Cuisine.”
What makes this food documentary different is that unlike Solomonov or Bourdain, Rosenthal’s background is more comedic than culinary: He was the writer, creator and executive producer of the 1990s hit sitcom, “Everybody Loves Raymond.”
It was an epiphany while working on “Raymond” that inspired his Netflix series. Rosenthal was writing an episode script where the family travels to Italy to meet the cousin of Raymond’s mother (Doris Roberts). Ray Romano’s character, lacking any interest in culture, travels to Italy under protest. But Romano — both the character and the real person — has a transformative experience in his family’s country of origin.
“I decided that I would love to do this for other people and that my enthusiasm for travel and food was worth showing because I think there is no more mind-expanding thing we can do in life than travel, and I think the world would be better if we could all experience a little bit of someone else’s experience,” Rosenthal said.
His idea originally emerged as Rosenthal’s James Beard award-winning PBS show, “I’ll Have What Phil’s Having,” before moving to Netflix.
There is no more mind-expanding thing we can do in life than travel
In Rosenthal’s own journey to the Jewish state, his initial connection with Israel seems superficial. He likens his previous trip with going to Hebrew school or being among family. But as the story develops, so does his connection to the land and its people.
“Food is the great connector and laughs are the cement,” Rosenthal told The Times of Israel. “We have to eat. But it’s also a very social thing. If the food is good then maybe we have a good time, but if we laugh, now we are truly friends.”
Rosenthal does have an easy time laughing with everyone he meets in Israel, from old women in the mall to hip Tel Avivians on the street.
And while humor might be on the menu, controversy is not, he said.
Unfortunately, it found him.
“Jerusalem is the spiritual center, obviously, of the world, and it’s where all of the politics that we’ve read about in the news happen,” he says in the opening scene’s voiceover.
“What I want to focus on is the part that maybe the news doesn’t cover, how beautiful the rest of the country is, including Israel’s capital… Tel Aviv.”
You could hear a pita drop.
Israel has called Jerusalem its capital since the founding of the state in 1948, though many within the international community will not recognize Jerusalem as such pending a final peace deal with the Palestinians. In December, President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and committed to moving the US embassy to Jerusalem.
Rosenthal told The Times of Israel he regrets the error.
“I did not mean to be controversial in any way,” he said. “When I read that line, I honestly thought Tel Aviv was the capital of Israel… I’m sorry we mentioned it at all.”
Saying he wished he could fix the line, Rosenthal said, “All I can do is apologize to anyone that I’ve offended with that statement but know in my heart, I honestly don’t have a dog in this fight. Whatever people consider the capital of Israel is fine with me.”
Despite the fact-checking mishap, the eating must go on. The tall and lanky Jewish dad does indeed look like he could use the protein as he hops from sampling falafel to Iraqi soup to a herring sandwich in Tel Aviv’s open-air market, taking in everyone’s story along the way.
But when Rosenthal ventures to Dr. Shakshuka — a popular restaurant specializing in the North African dish of poached eggs in tomato sauce — he gets hand fed by the doctor himself, Bino Gabso.
Gabso also treats Rosenthal to a tearful recollection of how he spent a year in prison for illegal money changing, and how he earned the nickname “Dr. Shakshuka” while cooking his family’s recipe for the other inmates.
If camera-ready Israelis such as Dr. Shakshuka give the show flavor, the spiciest characters of all are Rosenthal’s own parents — the inspiration for Ray Romano’s fictional parents on “Everybody Loves Raymond,” who make a cameo appearance each episode.
What the senior Rosenthals might have lacked in culinary skill, they certainly make up for in wit and charm.
In a Skype call, Rosenthal tries to help his father tell the punchline of a Western Wall joke multiple times — and while he claims his father never really nails it, he too can’t stop laughing.
Hopefully, the elder Rosenthal’s joke will be ready in time if there’s a Jerusalem segment, which Rosenthal said he hopes to do in the future.