Phil is friendly. Phil is kind. Phil is funny. But those qualities count for very little over at foodie magazine Eater where Somebody Feed Phil, the Netflix travel documentary eating its way around the globe was cruelly slated as “too cute”, “annoying” and having “no discernible point of view”. Conde Nast Traveler is much kinder, praising the positivity and optimism wrapped up in each delicious bite. So, which one is it? Sweet or sour?
This new to Netflix series is fronted by a gangly beaming Phil Rosenthal, a television writer and producer, best known as the creator of Everybody Loves Raymond. He had a similar show called I’ll Have What Phil’s Having on PBS in America, but this is the first time an international audience has seen his culinary adventures.
And what a road trip he’s on. In six hour-long episodes he covers Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon) Bangkok, Tel Aviv, Lisbon, New Orleans and Mexico City. I’m immediately jealous of his experiences and his air miles. He begins in the exotic east, but this isn’t just an American on a gap year, as he’s keen to promote food closer to home too, understanding that not everyone can afford international travel. Each episode also runs the full gamut of food available for the budget conscious backpackers and the money-is-no-object crowd. We seem him try street food out in the road on plastic chairs, befriend old ladies in shopping mall cafes, try all sorts of strange things in cafeterias off the beaten track and other hole-in-the-wall cafes where you’d need a local guide just to find the place.
He’s friends with the movers and shakers too, and winds up at at least one exclusive Michelin star restaurant per city for amuse-bouche stacked on a dainty spoon. He mixes with the elite but he’s adventurous in areas your guide book might warn you off, the markets where you flip your backpack on to your front if you get what I mean. Of course, he’s got local fixers and expert guides, so that helps.
Phil is lucky but he’d be the first to tell you that. He’s a successful white man very aware of his privilege. No, he’s not a culinary expert, but I don’t think that counts against him. I for one like his relatable everyman shtick, complaining about his mother’s cooking and how he never realised food was supposed to taste of something until he left home. I think my Mum must use his Mum’s recipe for chicken pie.
Phil is hilariously rubber faced, which is great for excited reactions to whatever he’s just put in his mouth. He doesn’t sound much like Rowan Atkinson but does get mistaken for Mr Bean, and you can see why. He’s tall and thin (but for how much longer?), and his enthusiastic yell of “Come on!” whenever he tries something delicious is completely daft but really infectious. He’s pretty insistent too – in Mexico City he literally pulls two passing Aussie tourists into a shop and buying them tacos. “There’s nothing better than turning someone on to something great”. Amen Phil.
The show is full of warmth and love, especially in Tel Aviv, which was the destination I, a liberal European hand-wringer, was most uncomfortable with. He meets Arabs and Jews who live and work harmoniously together, pretty much ignoring the political situation and just getting on with baking their daily bread. The cities he visits are complicated beasts, and despite the positivity he doesn’t shy away from more difficult conversations such as the Middle East conflict, immigration in Portugal, and the regeneration of New Orleans. But he’s not here for deep political or social commentary. Phil is here to give in to what’s toothsome and mouthwatering. It’s completely joyful to see him embrace his inner plate-licker. And why not? Life is too short to be reserved and composed in the face of magnificent food.
His chats to camera and his voiceovers added in afterwards adds an extra element of warmth to the show. You’re part of the in-crowd, part of the family. He checks in with his elderly Mum and Dad at the end of each episode on Skype, which is always delightful especially when they’d prefer to speak to his older brother Richard, the show’s producer who says they like him better. We can certainly see the inspiration for Everybody Loves Raymond was close to home.
I’m a fan of the irresistibly silly theme tune. I can see it might not be to everyone’s taste but it’s rare these days to want to stick around for the opening credits, especially now Netflix provide a handy button for skipping the whole thing. And it’s a song that will get stuck in your head.
Somebody Feed Phil is fun, but saying that it’s silly or that it’s cute undermines it. There’s more depth there. He’s a perceptive and engaging host addressing issues of prejudice and privilege head-on. Despite only being in town for a few days he manages to get a good understanding of the place and the people. He celebrates innovation and tradition, authentic recipes, those brought in by immigration and he’s into fusion food too. There’s love here for gourmet and everyday – both equally worthy of your salivating excitement. It’s all about the food, and the adventure that turns out is more accessible than you’d think. He says ultimately it’s about inspiration “If that putz can do it, maybe I can, too.”
Somebody Feed Phil is available for your viewing pleasure on Netflix now. Just the thing to watch while you wait for the takeaway to turn up tonight.
After posting this review to Twitter a certain Mr P. Rosenthal of Los Angeles, California got in touch to say that viewers outside of America can see full episodes of his previous PBS series I’ll Have What Phil’s Having on YouTube. Watching telly on YouTube feels a bit naughty to me, but Phil says it’s ok. What a thoroughly nice man.