Interviews

Somebody Feed Phil exclusive: Rich Rosenthal on Phil’s feed the people mission and possible Season 5 on Netflix

Rich Rosenthal and Phil Rosenthal
The brothers Rosenthal are into season 4 of Somebody Feed Phil, a hit for Netflix. Pic credit: R. Rosenthal

Somebody Feed Phil executive producer and showrunner Rich Rosenthal is the less seen or heard counterbalance behind the camera to his animated brother Phil Rosenthal, the creator of the iconic TV series, Everybody Loves Raymond. Together they shape and frame a more comedic and experiential food-centric travel series for Netflix, now in its fourth season.

Somebody Feed Phil came from the original James Beard Award-winning PBS series, I’ll Have What Phil’s Having. This Netflix hit has more of an experiential sitcom feel than Netflix’s excellent docuseries, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat.

This is no heart of palm darkness (Bourdain, R.I.P.) or give me the tasty eyeballs (Zimmern) epicurious history lessons, as Somebody Feed Phil is a celebratory dive into places many have not traveled (Marrakesh, Seoul) and the entirely familiar (Mississippi Delta and NOLA).

Somebody Feed Phil is also a platform for the brothers Rosenthal to not only remind us of the connectivity of food and a shared meal but to lovingly present each city in its best light with some delightful locals, many chefs and food writers, who act as tour guides.

It’s a show made for end-users—diners, foodies and the curious—not a Michelin starred, “cool kids’ table” insider chef show.

It’s wholesome and at times silly, and drives anyone on a diet mad with envy. Rosenthal, built like a long-legged lanky Irishman, delights in small and large, simple street noshes and grand meals prepared for him as he defies his chronological age and taps into his inner twelve-year-old, celebrating the culinary gems and curiosities in each locale with wide eyes and waving arms.

His enthusiasm is infectious and genuinely from the heart. His storytelling combined with Rich Rosenthal’s gifted eye for framing and capturing the moment is also a platform to discover their parents.

Helen and Max Rosenthal are the delightfully wry and witty bookends who get to weigh in, crack wise and reminisce with Phil in the episode postscript. Sadly, the brothers lost their mother Helen in 2019.

The “Oz” behind Phil’s relentless pursuit of delish is his brother Rich Rosenthal.  Together they have designed a premise that resonated with audiences while earning a James Beard Broadcast Media award, no easy feat. As is keeping the audience growing each season in the streaming world.

Perhaps it is a testament that maybe they know what they’re doing in the business.

Rich Rosenthal spoke with Monsters & Critics about the future of the series, and covered a lot of ground that also makes a point of highlighting amazing nonprofits and charities in each city that are dedicated to feeding people in need, training at-risk kids in the culinary arts and growing healthy and delicious food for us all.

Rich Rosenthal
Cobblestones were part of the fun for Phil Rosenthal, here Rich test drives the transportation. Pic credit: R. Rosenthal

Monsters & Critics: Right before the whole world shut down, I was in Berlin, Barcelona and Edinburgh, Scotland, and then COVID news was percolating out of Asia and then whammo. This is when I discovered your show on Netflix, a bit late to the party…

Rich Rosenthal: I love Berlin! I was doing a project on the Syrian refugees in Tempelhof Airport, Hitler’s old airport temple. But I was in there during the summer. And it was gorgeous, we were just doing these little essays on the people there because Germany took in a ton of Syrian refugees.

They carved out these little villages in the old airport. It was amazing. They were supposed to be there just for a couple of weeks, but some of them were there six months to a year because Germany then decided that they didn’t want to assimilate some of them, so some of them got out. Some of them didn’t, but it was incredible.

But the city…I really did love the city.

M&C: Timing is everything. I was there in late November, it was cold, gray and overcast and I was going to all the death museums. So there was that.

Rich Rosenthal: I was there with my father once because of part of the restitution. Both my parents are Holocaust survivors. My dad got out actually right after Kristallnacht, but as a reward for that, the Germans give you a free trip back to Berlin. My mom didn’t want to go. So I went with my dad, and it was basically like all of what you said.

And I really did not love Berlin [initially] because, A) my father, all he wanted was Weiner schnitzel. Every day it was Weiner schnitzel. And then B) they take you around to these museums and places… just exactly what you did, all the death camps.

So it just became like, ugh, I can’t anymore.

M&C: My take is your show is a Trojan horse for us to fall in love with your parents, and condolences about your mother’s passing, but you know what great parents you have…How is your father?

Rich Rosenthal: He’s great. He went to an independent living facility in Jersey. He was in lockdown which was with a bunch of his friends…we grew up in Rockland County for most of our early life. And then my mom, her dream was always to move to the city and especially to be closer to the Lincoln Center, so she could go to the ballet, the opera. And she did.

The last seven years of her life, they lived across the street from Lincoln Center and she went to every concert, every opera, every rehearsal, and she worked at the Met, literally until maybe two months before she passed.

But a lot of their friends went to this [assisted living] facility in New Jersey. And so when mom passed, my dad was like, well we were all trying to figure it out and it really wasn’t good for him to be in the apartment by himself, even though we had help coming to his apartment. So he went there, and it was great.

And then COVID hit like literally a month later. He had been very socially active, he was really walking around and then lock down hit. We couldn’t see him for four months. But now I can see him once a week. We literally go to a diner every week where we can go outside and eat.

M&C: Phil’s based in the LA area. You’re going to stay in New York?

Rich Rosenthal: Yes. When I was working for Warner Brothers for four years, I was commuting back and forth [to LA]. I really wanted to stay in New York. My wife really wants to stay in New York. I’ve got two kids and we were all like, no. I spent a lot of time in LA just from all of the travel, because before that I was working in advertising agencies.

We would shoot in Los Angeles and would probably be out there six months out of the year, for many years, But I never had the urge to live out there.

M&C: I noticed the first and second season, you had six episodes and then the third and fourth, it was whittled down to five each. How did you film all of them, in those blocks or in larger blocks?

Rich Rosenthal: We filmed them normally. We did that with season one and two as well. Although we had a bigger break in between the first and second six shows. What happened in the third and fourth seasons was that we shot at the same time. We started [at the] end of August.

We went up until… I mean, the crazy thing is that it was weird because it coincided with my mom passing. My mom was getting worse and worse when we started shooting, we did have help. Also Monica [Horan-Rosenthal] and then my wife were helping out and Monica came to live with them for a little while.

We shot the first of the second five blocks. But mom was really not good. The morning we were supposed to fly at that point, I had to make a decision that morning and call everybody and go like, no, we’re not going to go because it looks like mom is not doing well.

She had ALS and it just wasn’t looking good. We stayed, and she actually passed that week. And then we hung for another couple of weeks and then we went and shot the remaining five.

M&C: Your mother Helen was very funny, and smart. The New York City episode where she made the matzah ball soup and then chef Daniel Boulud does a chef drive by to come and try her soup and talk shop? That had to fill your heart.

Daniel Boulud
Chef Daniel Boulud surprised Helen Rosenthal and critiqued her matzah ball soup. Pic credit: Phil Rosenthal

Rich Rosenthal: [laughs] And by the way, I sent just one email to Daniel and his people. I said, ‘You know, look at this, My mom makes a matzah ball soup and would you consider…’

And right away, like literally just an hour later he responded, and it was like, ‘Look, we’d love to do it.’

He was so game and so lovely.

M&C: Would you think you and your brother have similar senses of humor given the nature of the comedies you both were involved in?

Rich Rosenthal: I was an executive producer on Childrens Hospital, but I had started Warner Brothers, a web studio. I was more of the studio, but my brother and I have very similar tastes in comedy. So [Childrens Hospital], I loved it, and I loved working with Rob [Corddry] and Jon Stern and all those guys.

That’s broader than I think my sensibility is, even though I thought that a lot of it was really funny. I had less to do with the content and more to do with shepherding that along from almost like a studio executive point of view.

M&C: When Somebody Feed Phil was pitched to Netflix, it had already had won awards and made a mark on PBS. It was the same show with a different name?

Rich Rosenthal: Exactly.

M&C: How did this show come to be? I know that Phil’s mentioned more than one in other interviews that he couldn’t get any shows that he wanted to make made, despite his great success. And so it was like, why not do something fun? Who came up with this idea?

Rich Rosenthal: Philip did, he tells the story of when, I think third season, when he wants to go to Italy with Raymond [Romano] and he talks about this a lot. Raymond had never been out of the country and never had an interest in even visiting Italy.

So Phil wrote the episode where basically Ray goes to Italy with no interest to go. Then through the magic of Italy and the food and the culture, he comes back crazy excited about everything [and] can’t wait to go again.

And that actually happened. Ray kept going back then to Italy because he loved it so much and he traveled a lot more. so I think Philip has loved that feeling of curating the experience.

M&C: I think the success of this show is when people start watching it and especially now because there’s so much economic crisis, existential crisis. we’ve got political leaders calling for civil war, it’s insane times. Your show is like this safety net and landing of kindness, curiosity, acceptance and diversity. Please tell me if there will be a season five.

Rich Rosenthal: I can’t tell you. I really don’t know. I mean, they are literally in discussion, we had good numbers. But they give us very minimal data. The thing is that the numbers keep growing, which is unusual for an unscripted show.

I know the first week we came out, we were the number one unscripted show on Netflix then. So the numbers are good. I don’t know how they make those decisions as far as spending “X” for this number of people who are watching it and where are we bringing in any new subscribers?

It is all very behind the curtain stuff that we’re not privy to. We do get this amazing reaction from people who loved the show and on Phil’s social media, but just like anything else in social media, you’re in your own little bubble.

All I can say is like when we go to restaurants, Phil is approached at least once or twice in every place we go by somebody who loves the show.

M&C: A lot of the places that you highlight and talk about, it’s worrisome if they’re still in business. And I just got a press release from your publicist today about a social media tagging dance contest from Phil…

Rich Rosenthal: That is Phil’s thing, I really didn’t have a lot to do with that like he had. He had his publicist, and our cousin actually, Jeremy, who helps him with the website… just kind of helping him sort of build out his brand a little bit.

He has a huge passion for giving back. He works with World Central Kitchen chef José Andrés and he was making huge donations to that organization. I think he obviously felt strongly about the election. He wanted to turn that into something positive. It is amazing. It’s great.


And then the dance challenge thing, it keeps your followers interested. And we always have a charitable benefit aspect to each episode.

We like to spotlight a charitable component, no matter where we go, because we know we’re the luckiest, our production company is Lucky Bastards and we realize how lucky we are and doing what we love and getting to work together.

It couldn’t be more fun. And so we just want to leave something of value when we visit.

M&C: Talk about Rio de Janeiro when Joao Diamante started crying when he was explaining what his purpose was with what he wanted, his project there in the favelas. You were behind the camera.  Was that one take, was that unexpected?

 

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A post shared by João Diamante (@joaodiamante)

Rich Rosenthal: Everything is one take. We never reshoot anything. We actually wanted to shoot in a favela but we were just told we need the security guards and people with guns.

And sometimes they’re run by gangs and it just kind of gradually morphed into, okay, let’s look for somebody who works with people in the favelas and what they’re doing.

And this guy is just incredible. Diamante takes people from the favela and gives them some training and they move on and up. They then work in the work in some of the restaurants all across the city. And he’s just a beautiful human being, very emotional.

M&C: The structure of the show, it has a slight sitcom feel – even the opening song…

Rich Rosenthal: Yes it’s kind of a sitcom theme song. We think of it as a comedy. It’s funny because that was the thing with Netflix. They just saw it as like a food show. And we were like, no, it’s really about making a connection. It’s really it’s about that. We want it to be comedy.

I do try to put Phil in situations that he’s uncomfortable with because I do know that will be funny. But we don’t force anything. And we try not to do anything that’s too contrived.

We do things that you would normally do, like in Hawaii where he’s doing a couple of things like zip-lining or an Outrigger with the big guys. We knew it would be a funny juxtaposition, but we try not to force anything.

We just want to put him right at the limit of what he’s uncomfortable with, and then see what happens.

M&C: You really pushed Phil with the two mesomorphic Irish guys (The Happy Pear Twins) from the Dublin show that ran him all over London…

Rich Rosenthal: Yes. Oh my God. But what was really funny was I remember when we shot in Dublin we found those two guys and they were fantastic. We had no idea how great that they, but they were just this bundle of energy.

But the swimming thing [end of the Dublin episode] was not planned at all. We were shooting in another restaurant, actually a restaurant that was fantastic. That for some reason it didn’t make the cut, but I remember it was three or four o’clock in the afternoon.

And Philip said, ‘I think we should go swim with the guys in the water…’

I’m like, ‘What?’

He has never done this. Like never! He never did anything like this actually up until then. He had never put himself in a position where he is the one who’s going to put himself in a situation he does not want to do. Right?

But he has that storytelling mind. And he was thinking that would be a great ending for that [Dublin] show. When we had met them in the morning, he would not go into the water, because they go into the seawater every day at dawn. Every day.

M&C: I don’t want you to think about this question too hard, just a first thought… Favorite episode?

Rich Rosenthal: Crap.

M&C: Top of your mind is the best time you had. [radio silence] …I know it’s like picking one of your children. Just pick one episode that still stands out that you would do over again.

Rich Rosenthal: There is not one episode I would not do over again. I have to tell you. There was not one episode but everyone always says… like there’s some surprise ones. And Lisbon was a surprise.

I had actually been to Lisbon before, but we just loved Lisbon. We were supposed to go to Morocco, but we couldn’t get good flights. That was the first or second season. We were supposed to go from Israel to Morocco. But it turned out we couldn’t get any decent flights. And we had to pick something else.

I had been to Lisbon the year before. And I said, ‘I think you’re really gonna like Lisbon.’ And it was a magical episode. I liked New Orleans. New Orleans is a favorite place of mine. I can’t believe how much we also enjoyed Mexico City. There’s so many places. There has never a place we didn’t love. So yeah.

M&C: Do you ever watch him eating the food in and want to rip it out of his face?

Rich Rosenthal: Yes. All the time. All the time. In fact, I almost never want to go to places where things are one bite, because one bite, I don’t get anything! If you go to a sushi restaurant, someplace where it’s all one bite, I get nothing. So we try to avoid those now.

M&C: What do we not know about Phil that you know, that we need to know?

Rich Rosenthal: There’s a very limited range of temperature degrees that he wants to tolerate, by the way, that rule has been broken many times. But if he had his way, he only go to visit places between 60 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit.

He would also say that’s because—and this is true of us both—he always wants to show whatever city we’re visiting in the best possible light.

But because we had to change things around schedule-wise, we ended up going to Rio in the middle of the summer. And there were a couple of times where that rule was completely broken because Seoul turned out to be really cold, and Rio, which we normally would have done in their spring or actually probably in their winter…we had to go with summer and it was crazy hot.

Phil’s very particular about the temperature.

Somebody Feed Phil is streaming season 4 now on Netflix.

April Neale
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