As Woody Allen famously complained, “My mother spent my childhood putting the chicken through the de-flavorizer.” Apparently Phil Rosenthal, creator of “Everybody Loves Raymond,” can relate. He maintains he also grew up eating meals devoid of taste. So why would PBS give him his own six-part food show, “I’ll Have What Phil’s Having?” For one, Rosenthal is a very relatable guy and uses his everyman shtick to entertaining effect as he travels to destinations such as Barcelona, Hong Kong and Los Angeles in search of fun and delicious food experiences. While he won’t garner fans from the hipster sriracha flavor of the month club, he’s sure to be a hit with the Viking Cruise set.
In fact, fans of Rosenthal’s popular TV series should feel quite at home with the format of the show. It’s sort of like a very special episode of “Everybody Loves Raymond.” His wife and kids make appearances. His brother is one of the producers. He Skypes with his parents every episode. Ray Romano even makes a guest appearance in the Los Angeles episode. Being his kibitzing self is what makes the show appealing. Rosenthal is infectiously enthusiastic about food, and his show reflects the typical travel experience that most people yearn for — a general sense of local flavor, people and culture.
By incorporating travel segments, confessional style talks with the camera and special guests, some of whom are big-name Hollywood stars, the show explores not just food, but the experience of, say, tasting freshly made crema gelato out of an antique machine in Florence, Italy. Hint: Rosenthal actually gets a little verklempt after the first bite. It’s that good. In L.A., he tastes a taco so delicious, he jokes that he wants to follow the food truck like a Grateful Dead fan.
Episodes with a greater personal connection play the best. In fact, the L.A. segment, peppered with personal friends and stars, is the epicurean equivalent to Randy Newman’s “I Love LA.” Rosenthal, a transplant from Queens, took a while to warm up to Los Angeles. It was through the culinary scene that he found a sense of community. He makes a great case for it at the Grand Central Market, Koreatown, and L.A.’s oldest open air farmer’s market, among others.
Like fellow gastronomic guru Anthony Bordain, Rosenthal can be an acquired taste. He’s not edgy, political or even all that gourmet — although there are definitely high-end culinary concepts explored, especially in the Tokyo episode. At that city’s Narisawa restaurant, Rosenthal experiences a Forest Floor dinner, complete with a live audio feed from, yes, the forest floor. There are a few queasy moments as Rosenthal is game to try sushi so fresh he eats shrimp meat that’s still twitching.
The slick production value includes impressive scenery, personal touches and plenty of mouth-watering shots of food. Overall, the show could benefit from more judicious editing. At one point, Rosenthal reluctantly tries an Italian street meat sandwich made from a cow’s fourth stomach. (The first three stomachs are no good, he jokes; it’s the fourth you want). Ultimately, the focus is simple: trying something unexpected and sharing it with friends. If PBS plans to extend the limited run, a travel companion guide would seem like a natural fit.