Mumbai fed Phil Rosenthal

17 February,2024 08:20 AM IST |  Mumbai  |  Nasrin Modak Siddiqi

Phil Rosenthal shoots in the city for Somebody Feed Phil. We bring kheema pav

Phil Rosenthal

Last year in May, we got a tip that the crew of Somebody Feed Phil - an American television travel documentary series on Netflix, presented by Philip Rosenthal - was in the city to shoot an episode. We were told sternly by every reference we contacted that he wasn't doing interviews. We tried our luck one last time by writing an email to an ID shared by Chintan Pandya of Dhamaka Restaurant in New York, who had shot with the crew earlier that day at Soam, Babulnath.

Richard Rosenthal, Phil's brother and a three-time Emmy Award-winning producer, who serves as showrunner and executive producer of the show, kindly invited us to watch the filming at a restaurant. The fact that the two brothers have the gift of producing compelling content is known to those familiar with the show, but watching the crew film at The Bombay Canteen was a study into what sharp filmmaking looks like.

Kavi Thakrar, owner of Dishoom, London, breaking bread with Phil at a restaurant off Muhammad Ali Road

Later that week, we met him at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, where he was staying, with kheema pav and homemade sheer kurma for the crew out of admiration. Since then, we have waited patiently till he announced the cities to be featured on the upcoming show, starting March 1. The diverse destinations include Dubai, Mumbai, Kyoto, Taipei, Washington D.C., Orlando (with a twist), Scotland, and Iceland.

Those who knew we met him have asked what he's like in person. We'd say a hundred per cent like the guy you see on the show - free-spirited, energetic, cheerful, and downright honest.

Excerpts from the interview

What shifted you from scripting comedy to hosting and producing a food show?
I have always loved great food. Growing up, I wasn't in a situation where that love was able to flourish because my immigrant parents worked very hard and didn't have a lot of money. Food wasn't a priority. We'd beg our parents to go to McDonald's because at least that food had fat, salt, and flavour. I ate many pizzas, hot dogs, hamburgers, and French fries - foods I still love because I loved them as a kid.

At 23, I got a very cheap flight to Europe, and I had my first bite of food in Paris - my head exploded. Then, on that same trip, I went to Italy. Italian food is remarkable. Back home in New York, I discovered Indian food and thought it was so exotic - and I fell in love with spicy food from other parts of Asia. Then I moved to LA, and felt it had more diversity. New York might have a few more countries represented, but more people live outside their native homes in LA than anywhere else.

How has the food scene evolved globally?
The Internet makes the world a level playing field in information. So, a boy in a small town in America can see what a chef in India is doing and can try to replicate it. When people use local ingredients, it makes it easier to relate. I believe that is what is happening right now - we are owning our produce. Also, if you like a cuisine, I tell people they must go to the source. So if you want to explore Indian food, you know where it is really, really good? In India.

How did the idea of Somebody feed Phil come to life?
After Everybody Loves Raymond, the Russian version - Exporting Raymond - came out. That was the first time I faced the camera. Travel changes you and your perspective on life. When I travelled to Europe for the first time, I admired the planned cities, but even the trees looked beautiful. At the time, I didn't live in a significant section of New York, and I remember when I returned and was walking down the street, I said, hey, we have lovely trees. My eyes just opened up to them. After going from one network to another, finally, when Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) aired, ‘I'll have what Phil's having' in 2015, things changed.

Brothers Phil and Richard Rosenthal formed Lucky Bastards to help clients capture and tell great stories - from fiction to unscripted series to documentaries

Eventually, in 2018, Somebody Feed Phil came to life. When you write a script, you hope one person at the network would like it enough to let you do the show - season after season. For now, when I wake up, I feel like the luckiest person in the world. To be able to travel means I can compare my life to everything else that I see and want to do.

What took you so long to come to Mumbai?
We started with Mumbai because it's the centre - the big one. However, I'll admit I was afraid. With whatever I had seen and heard of the city - from movies and people who had travelled here - I knew it had stark contrasts, and I was worried about how to present it. The show is supposed to be light hearted and fun, and when there are so many people suffering, how do I show that side? I didn't want to show rich people; I wanted to show real life. Mumbai is a major city, and you have much of everything here. We always leave the place a bit better than when we came here. Also, every American who had come here told me they got very sick, and since I'd be here with the crew on a schedule, I wasn't sure how I'd manage eating and not falling sick. I overcame that, and here I am.

Travel is a gift

While filming Everybody Loves Raymond, Phil asked Ray Ramano (on whose life the sitcom is based) where he was going for a vacation, and he said to the Jersey Shore in New Jersey. "It's nice, but it's not travelling very far... just going to the beach. When I asked him if he had ever been to Europe, he said no. And I was asking a 40-year-old man. When I asked why not, he stated I am not interested in different things. That's like two-thirds of Americans - they don't even have a passport. I feel if somebody gave you a house as a gift, would you stay only in one room of the house? Of course not. We have been offered a gift - this earth - and I want to see the whole house.

After much persuasion for three to four years, we shot two episodes of the show in Italy, where his family is originally from. And in just a few days, I saw him transform from that ‘I am not interested in different' attitude to where he suddenly ‘gets' it. He kept asking in awe - Have you tried gelato? Isn't the pizza unbelievable and the pasta the best you've ever had? I said, ‘Yes Ray, that happens when you travel'. Now Ray travels all the time, and if I could do that for him, wouldn't it be great if I could do that with other people?

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