“Until you’ve had it, you don’t know what you’re missing.”
That’s Phil Rosenthal speaking, and he’s not paraphrasing Meg Ryan’s emotional display in Katz’s Deli in When Harry Met Sally.
However, this could be a premature exclamation: His six-part PBS series, I’ll Have What Phil’s Having, is a mind-exploding food travelogue, an international journey to six top culinary capitals. He brings his appetite and his sense of humor, searching for gastronomical gems, meeting top chefs and food personalities, and essentially digging in.
Phil, who is best known as the creator and executive producer of Everybody Loves Raymond, insists that breaking bread with strangers is the key to world peace.
“Travel is the most mind-expanding thing we can do in life,” he tells me, and his mind must have been expanded beyond possible, as he samples everything from LA taco trucks (now tres chic) and barbecued eels in Tokyo to “vanilla bombs” in Paris (zut alors!).
Yep, he really is a lot like the “Raymond” character (a shared alter-ego with series star Ray Romano), so a program about being daringly continental with cuisine didn’t sound like it would go down easy.
“I’m not very adventurous at all,” he admits. “It just looks like I am. It’s only because the food was served to me. I’m not going to the restaurant and ordering eels.”
Eels. Eels? So, did it taste like chicken? Still touting world peace after putting that in your mouth?
“It just tastes like a great piece of grilled fish,” he says. “You would never know it was eel. That cross-cultural moment featured everything I love about travel. Meeting new people, making friends with them, laughing. They shared their cuisine with me, and my one thing I know how to make — egg creams — I could share with them.”
The New York native did not evolve in a healthy, encouraging food environment. In fact, mom (who appears on the show via Skype and is credited as the inspiration for Raymond’s TV mother, as played by Doris Roberts) was not one of the cooks Phil would feature in this series. Oh, hell no.
“She doesn’t understand why I was such a picky eater,” he says about why he didn’t take to his mother’s cooking. “She asks me, ‘How could you have this food show? All you ate were pizza and hamburgers. We couldn’t get you to eat anything.’ And I say to her, ‘Maybe it was the chef.'”
Phil has traveled a long way since those humble days in his mother’s kitchen, but even if you don’t have Everybody Loves Raymond money, you can still afford an eating experience worth having.
“I wanted to show you that you can travel in your own town,” he says (for him, it’s LA, and proves it specifically in the LA episode). “There is something in your neighborhood that you haven’t tried yet. You may not know anything about it or you’re afraid of it. But take a chance. Look online. Look on Yelp even. See what’s in your neighborhood. See what’s in your town. Just one step to the left or to the right, and you can expand your mind a little bit. When we go to a place where we love to eat, that’s a vacation. That’s the first step.”
Them’s fighting words for most of us creatures of habit, who are steak-and-potatoes people. Or worse.
“You have to get out of your everyday existence,” Phil says. “It will make your life better. And I’ll go one step further. It will make the world better. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we can all experience a little bit of someone else’s experience? You literally don’t know what you are missing. With the Internet, in our phones, the world is available to us. It takes very little effort to look up a place or see what’s going on in your town. It doesn’t have to be expensive at all. You can feel welcomed and loved, right in your neighborhood spot.”
Back to Phil’s opening statement in this article: “Until you’ve had it, you don’t know what you’re missing:”
He’s referring to Joe’s on Carmine Street in New York City, where Phil takes his bud, LA-based Adam Carolla, for a slice every time Adam makes the scene in The Big Apple. On his podcast, Adam sings Phil’s (and Joe’s) praises, and Adam is a man who is not easily pleased.
“On the surface, it seems very simple,” Phil explains about good pizza. “It’s dough, sauce, cheese. There are so many variables that go into making each of those things. We know the difference between a piece of bread that’s fresh and a piece of bread that’s stale. We’ve all had pizza that has been reheated, or has not been made with a lot of care. We just know, inherently, that one crust is better than another. A crusty bottom should have flavor, even by itself, just the crust. And it’s hot and fresh. That already is the gigantic difference. It’s like the bread on a sandwich. If the bread isn’t great, the sandwich isn’t great. That’s half the sandwich. So the crust on the pizza is the base. Then we get into sauce. Are they using the best tomatoes? Are they using the right seasonings, and the right amount? If the sauce slides off with the cheese as you’re eating it, you’re not doing it right. Is it the right cheese, and the right amount of cheese? It’s all these subtle things. And by the way, we can apply this to everything that we eat.”
Even coffee. Here’s his challenge:
“Do you know what the difference between a good cup of coffee and a bad cup of coffee? A great cup of coffee doesn’t need anything in it. It tastes great on its own.”
Yo, Phil, how about another series where you are the one actually doing the cooking? Sounds like a great premise, but for now, we’ll have to sit and stew.
“I’m in love with all the world has to offer,” he says. “One day I hope to become an expert, but right now, I’m a student.”