A few days ago, British editor Sophie Gadd posted a photo of Irving’s Salted Egg Potato Chips and called them “the worst crisps.” While negative comments aren’t anything new, what drew the ire of Twitter was that in the replies that followed, she admitted to not even trying them—but she still insisted they were “horrendous.” Some felt that this was just another round of white people criticizing things beyond their culture—that if it isn’t familiar to what they’ve come to understand, then it has no place in their world. This, thankfully, is very much in stark contrast to Phil Rosenthal’s charming new show on Netflix, Somebody Feed Phil.
He doesn’t try to mansplain the intricacies of the dish, and instead just lets his happiness do the talking.
At first glance, we’ve all seen this type of show before. A straight white male goes into a foreign land to check out a new country and try out the local cuisine. Anthony Bourdain is perhaps the most famous example. With his rugged features and rock-and-roll attitude, he comes in to these towns like a hurricane, forces his way into the community, and experiences these exotic locales down to their strangest and seediest areas. It gets a little too pretentious at times, this machismo perspective that all those journalists from Vice hope to one day perfect. As if it’s only these kinds of “auteurs” that can capture the real stories that so many have failed to capture.
Phil Rosenthal is the antithesis of Anthony Bourdain. He’s a tall, lanky, Jewish man who talks more like a Woody Allen character and acts like the nicest 12-year-old boy you’ve ever met. In his first go around Bangkok, trying out the local street food via a small boat, he acts like a kid in a candy store. His eyes pop in bewilderment as he tries “the best pad thai he’s ever had.” It’s calming and refreshing at the same time. Seeing Rosenthal enjoy the food doesn’t seem like an act but an exercise in pure joy. He doesn’t try to mansplain the intricacies of the dish, and instead just lets his happiness do the talking.
Later in the episode, he spends an afternoon meal with Lawrence Osborne, a British author who’s made Bangkok his current home. This man seems like the most Bourdain-esque figure throughout the whole show, the typical disheveled rebel sojourner Bradley Cooper would play in a movie. It’s this juxtaposition that highlights what makes Phil Rosenthal so appealing. He’s wide-eyed and in awe about everything he tries. Equal parts innocent and curious, he becomes instantly relatable and doesn’t discourage the viewer from feeling like they’re a part of the show. Later on, he and Osborne are served a big bowl of tom yum. Phil realizes that the bowl is too much just for two people and invites his crew to sit with them and share the bounty. It’s something so mundane yet so rarely seen that the show transcends whatever doubts it might have elicited at the start. It fills the soul just as much as the stomach.
Other programs would offer more insight but Somebody Feed Phil is not a glorified lecture. Throughout its first six episodes, the show doesn’t do anything but embrace the experience of it all. It is learning by way of appreciation.
If you’re looking for new insights or hot takes, this isn’t the program for you. What Somebody Feed Phil does—just like Rosenthal’s previous show, I’ll Have What Phil Is Having—is remind the audience (and himself) of the comfort and joy of food. Something as common as banh mi becomes new and exciting through the eyes of the show, which keeps finding new ways to celebrate and appreciate the familiar.
Perhaps the best moment of its pilot episode is when Phil surprises his Bangkok fixer/tour guide, Nok, with a dinner at the world-renowned Gaggan, the number one ranked restaurant in Asia. While the prepared food looks exquisite, it falls short of the episode’s most magical moment. When the fixer is served a hefty piece of toro, Nok, who’s never had sushi before, is cautious as she tastes it for the first time. As she bites into it, the toro overwhelms her with so much joy as Phil and the chef share in the experience. The scene will bring a tear to anyone’s eyes, and reiterates just how heartwarmingly beautiful this show is—that when you cut out all pretentions, food, at the end of the day, should always be nourishing.