It’s not in the same league as Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown”—oh, no, not by a long shot. Anthony Bourdain may be the perfect TV travel guide for foodies and gourmands, but in his new food docuseries, “Somebody Feed Phil”, Phil Rosenthal appeals more to the average viewer who seeks food-related entertainment without becoming too involved with the politics of the locale.
Rosenthal, creator of “Everyone Loves Raymond” (Speedy used to watch that), is not a chef. In fact, he has not worked under any capacity in the food industry at all. What makes him a credible host for a travel and food show? He isn’t, according to Eater‘s Greg Morabito, but I think Morabito misses the point entirely.
Think about it. The average Juan and Juana (or Joe and Jane, if that makes it more acceptable to you who are reading this) would be pretty much like Phil Rosenthal, minus the dialogue and heavy cameras, when they travel abroad. Some know a little about the food in the place that they’re visiting, others know a little more while most know next to nothing. Unlike Bourdain, they’re merely traveling for fun (yes, selfies galore) and good food (and cheap shopping). They’re not expecting truly profound experiences (much less an epiphany or two) and they won’t get poetic when they reminisce about the trip.
And that’s why Rosenthal is so relatable. Understandable, even. Because he’s just a traveler with an average knowledge (maybe less) of foreign food and he doesn’t ask his viewers to get cerebral in their approach to food entertainment. He does not require us to find romance in food nor to have a working knowledge of world history to appreciate the diversity of foreign cultures. And that’s what makes “Someone Feed Phil” light and fun.
Episode 1: Bangkok
We watched Episode 1 of “Somebody Feed Phil” on a trial basis. I hadn’t heard of it (Season 1 just came out a week or so ago) but it was on top of the list when I logged in to Netflix and I was curious. So, instead of starting on Season 2 of “Chef’s Table”, we watched the Thailand episode of “Somebody Feed Phil” instead.
Almost every food travel show on TV has dedicated at least one episode to Thailand. It’s always Bangkok and Phuket, the street food and the night life. I was about to declare Episode 1 of “Somebody Feed Phil” as just another one of those forgettable shows when, towards the end, he left Bangkok for Chiang Mai.
The Chang Mai segment is short but it featured one dish which made me decide that is worth moving to Episode 2. The food is a noodle soup called khao soi which Rosenthal describes as “egg noodles; fresh, locally sourced meat; chilies; a broth that simmered for 24 hours that turns into the creamiest coconut curry; all topped with crispy rice noodles.” Then, his local guide continues, “A little acidity on the pickled mustard green, crispy shallot give you a heat, you get texture from crispy noodles… and then mix it in.”
Okay, the description sounds like a badly written food and travel blog. BUT. The camera man knows his job and the series of shots showing the preparation of khao soi was sheer perfection. That and the measly description were enough to convince me that it was worth seeing Episode 2.
LESSON LEARNED: Pay attention to the visuals. When words fail, images can tell their own story.
Episode 2: Saigon
Okay, so there was pho, there was banh mi, street-side grilling and beer… What’s new? Chocolate.
Two French guys met on a survival course, discovered that cacao is planted extensively in Vietnam but it wasn’t a big industry. They stayed, learned to make chocolate and opened Maison Marou, now world famous, where every chocolate product served is made from beans roasted under the same roof.
What’s so interesting about that? Cacao is grown all over the tropics including Southeast Asia. Locally produced chocolate confectionery isn’t a new thing either. In Penang, we visited The Chocolate Boutique and I wanted to buy everything within sight. In southern Philippines, cacao is now an important agro-business.
What’s interesting is the lesson learned.
LESSON LEARNED: Pay attention to what grows in your backyard. If you don’t, someone else will make money out of it.
Episode 3: Tel Aviv
Ah, Tel Aviv… How does one utter its name without thinking of war and conflict, and how civilians have suffered. Well, perhaps, that’s just how I think because I focused too much on the politics in Bourdain’s episode dedicated to Israel. While nobody wants—nor should anyone wish—to trivialize the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is also true that there is a better time and place for its discussion. In a food show overwhelmed by political discussion, it is the food that gets trivialized.
So, it was heartening to know that Phil Rosenthal wasn’t going deep into politics when he went to Tel Aviv, and beyond, to shoot an episode. He’s a Jew and it wouldn’t have been surprising if he had milked the opportunity to get all Jewish. Be he didn’t. And I, as a viewer, appreciated that.
Instead, there was food. And food. And food. In fairness to Bourdain, it was from his Israel episode where I first learned that a carnivore can learn to appreciate vegan cooking when done right. That reality was reiterated by Rosenthal in his Tel Aviv episode.
But what Rosenthal delivered, additionally, was more good inexpensive food. Despite the thriving vegan culture in Tel Aviv, it appears that meat is well loved too. At an eatery that serves a lot of meat stews, the one with cow’s tail was a standout.
LESSON LEARNED: Don’t ruin someone else’s appetite by talking too much politics while eating.
Episode 4: Lisbon
There aren’t many things I know about Portugal. Right now, I can think of only five.
1. On the map, Portugal is right beside Spain.
2. Ferdinand Magellan (Fernando Magallanes), the explorer who “discovered” the Philippines in 1521 was Portuguese although his expedition was financed by King Philip II of Spain.
3. The egg tart that my entire family is gaga over, the ones we buy from Lord Stowe’s Bakery, is Portuguese in origin, not Chinese. Most Asians associate it with Chinese cuisine because, in Asia, it was in Macau where it gained fame.
4. Portuguese canned seafood, especially the sardines, is world class and expensive.
5. Port, that sweet wine served with dessert or after a meal, is a Portuguese wine.
Numbers 3, 4 and 5 were covered by the show’s Lisbon episode. So, I learned nothing new? Sure, I did!
First, the best way to enjoy sardine with bread is to lay the sardine on the bread to allow the bread to soak up the juices of the fish. Then, after finishing the sardine, pop the bread into your mouth and it’s just delicious. This tip, by the way, is from the local who joined Rosenthal for a meal at Porto Final.
Second, there is a Portuguese rice dish, arroz de tamboril (rice with monkfish), which is more similar to the Italian risotto than to the Spanish paella.
Third, there are still restaurants that want you to enjoy the food and the company rather than Instagramming your meal.
That’s the setup of Porto Final. Seriously, on a spot like that, why not just savor the food, the wine, the scenery and the company for as long as you can? I can stay there from lunch until dinner just drinking wine after wine after wine.
Episode 5: New Orleans
Among the regional cuisines of the United States, it is the food of the South that I find interesting. A fusion of local produce, French cooking techniques and traditions brought over by African slaves, Creole and Cajun cooking are fascinating.
Sadly, Phil Rosenthal’s team must have chosen the wrong fixers (their term for local guides) for the New Orleans Episode. The southern fried chicken that was featured, the pride of the American South, had such thick coating that the chicken looked lost.
And they featured this place called Turkey and the Wolf where the chef-owner’s cocky hipster style was, apparently, meant to go with the hipster food. Like Bobby Flay on steroids. Well, the cocky hipster crap was way too much while the food served for the show looked just lackadaisical—despite the obvious genius of the cameraman.
LESSON LEARNED: Choose your local guides well. You want them to bring you to the good places rather than the “hyped” ones or those whose owners they are just chummy with.
Episode 6: Mexico
Tortillas, churros, meat… Old fare on other food travel shows, right? Don’t skip the Mexico episode though because Rosenthal still managed a few surprises.
First, there is a segment on how fresh corn tortillas are made—by hand. According to the tortilla makers, the inclusion of a “volcanic stone” called cal viva to make the masa is a 3,000 year old process.
Second, and this is really the more interesting bit—Xochimilco. Rosenthal met with chef Enrique Olvera (of Pujol fame) and took a boat ride along the canals of Xochimilco, a borough of Mexico City that has been declared a World Heritage Site.
What’s so special about Xochimilco?
The artificial islands—chinampas—that were built on the lake during pre-Spanish colonial times to increase agricultural production. The scenery is amazing, the story is amazing and it’s even more amazing that these chinampas still host vegetable farms.
LESSONS LEARNED from the Mexico City episode:
First, all tequilas are mezcal but not all mezcals are tequila. Mezcal is generic and made from any type of agave. Tequila is made from blue agave.
Second,… about tacos.
It’s not about how much filling you can stuff into the tortilla. A good taco is about good quality tortilla, well-cooked meat and the right condiments.
Google it, watch it, enjoy it. The host has no pretenses at being an authority on food, and he makes fun of his lack of knowledge and his city-boy limitations. “Somebody Feed Phil” is fun.