Correction appended: Oct. 1, 2015
I know Phil Rosenthal didn't order the boiled chicken feet. He knows he didn't order the boiled chicken feet. But the boiled chicken feet arrive, and when Rosenthal demurs, the non-English-speaking waiter at the dim sum place just outside L.A. points to the list he printed out in Chinese, which apparently says, quite clearly, "boiled chicken feet." "See? You can travel in your own town," says Rosenthal, delighted. But he doesn't eat the chicken feet--nor do I, nor do his teenage daughter Lily, Simpsons writer Matt Selman or TV writer Eli Attie, who are seated with us. Sure, Rosenthal, the comedy writer who created and ran Everybody Loves Raymond, is the host of a new travel show about food, but it's a nice show where nice people have a nice time, and there's no need to prove anything, especially not with boiled chicken feet. "I'm exactly the same as Anthony Bourdain," he says, eating a pork bun, "if he were afraid of everything."
I'll Have What Phil's Having is not only the funniest travel show on television (Mondays on PBS) but also the warmest. In Florence, incapable of finding words to express his joy after tasting gelato straight from the machine, Rosenthal kisses the woman making it. Later in the episode, after taking a bite of steak that leaves him equally verklempt, he kisses the butcher. It's basically a show about a very happy man kissing people after eating things.
PBS ordered the show for its prime-time lineup after seeing Rosenthal bumble around Moscow in his 2010 documentary Exporting Raymond, in which he consults on a Russian-language version of the sitcom. For What Phil's Having, Rosenthal gets chef Albert Adrià to recommend coffee and churros in Barcelona and in L.A. takes Martin Short to his first Korean meal and Paul Reiser to his first pastrami sandwich at Langer's, but he comes off like a guy who can't believe he just got his passport. Rosenthal Skypes with his parents in each episode, and his brother Rich is the producer, neatly re-creating the Raymond dynamic. This is his Curb Your Enthusiasm, only instead of irritating his friends over petty personal affronts, he would like you to try this amazing slice of jamón ibérico.
Rosenthal is slightly anxious about the new show, which, of course, he doesn't really need. He's well connected and rich enough to go to any restaurant in the world. But, as an ex-actor who got to play the chef in Spanglish and a small part in 30 Rock, he needs an audience. Like anyone within two degrees of Rosenthal's social circle, I've been invited to one of his daily restaurant lunch dates (always at noon, when there's no crowd) as well as the semiregular Sunday-night movie parties in his screening room--which start with professionally made pizzas from the wood-fired oven in his kitchen. "All my dad wants is for people to be excited about the things he likes," says daughter Lily as she eats tofu with abalone sauce. "I think it's called megalomania," Selman adds as he eats deep-fried lobster with garlic and chili. "Maybe menschalomania."
Though he grew up in Rockland County, N.Y. eating dinners cooked by his mother in an oven "with a setting for shoe," Rosenthal has made food a primary avocation since graduating from college. Comedy writers revere Everybody Loves Raymond for three reasons: the jokes could come only from each character; the writers were home in time for dinner; and the lunches. Rosenthal called his production company Where's Lunch to signal the most important part of the day. He even got the line producer to divert money from the budget toward food. CBS president Les Moonves said it was the best-catered show he'd ever seen. Every Friday, the writers ate the omakase at Nozawa, one of America's top sushi joints. Rosenthal has invested in more than 20 restaurants, including Next in Chicago and Providence in L.A. "I do it because it's a way of supporting the arts," he says. "Why should art stop at your eyes and your ears?"
After dim sum, back at his house, Rosenthal excitedly asks me to try a ginger candy from Hong Kong. He says that when he told his brother he was doing a travel show, Rich asked, "What are you calling the show, Lucky Bastard?" Which is now the name of his new production company.
Correction: The original version of this story misstated where Phil Rosenthal grew up. It is Rockland County, N.Y. It also misstated his role in Everybody Loves Raymond. He was the creator.