In a year when traveling outside of our homes — let alone beyond our borders — has been halted, many of us are looking to travel documentaries and docuseries for a virtual escape. Topping that list for Team Wiretap is Netflix‘s Somebody Feed Phil. Since its first episode, we’ve been a fan of this series. We’ve been completely charmed by Phil Rosenthal’s way of embracing food as a way to get to know other people around the world. He’ll have you laughing to the brink of tears in one moment; then, in another moment, he’ll have you contemplating your place in the world.
We recently chatted with Phil Rosenthal via Zoom about the joy that is Somebody Feed Phil. Below are highlights of our conversation, including some exciting behind-the-scenes stories, the most surprising destination so far, and advice for when we all can travel again.
Somebody Feed Phil is much more than a show about a guy traveling the world and eating food. You’re enticing people to go beyond their backyards and explore. Was that always your intention?
Two-thirds of Americans don’t even have a passport, so I’m trying to get them to travel. That’s the purpose of the show. It’s not just me eating. I’m using food and my stupid sense of humor to get you to travel. You see how beautiful these places are and how great the people are. The world would be better if we all experienced a sample of other people’s experiences. People who travel embrace and celebrate other people’s differences.
One thing that I’ve loved about the show since the beginning is that, yes, it’s about food, but it’s also about going outside of your comfort zone, trying new things, and making new friends. People don’t realize that you have a new best friend waiting for you just by traveling to a new place.
That’s exactly how I feel. I’m lucky that I get to travel and eat, but the best part is the people. Food is the great connector. We sit around the table, eat, and get to know each other. That’s human nature, and it’s universal. It’s about meeting people, finding out about their lives, who they are, and the commonality. Laughs are the cement, because once we laugh, not only do we know each other, but then we’re friends. You can make a face and get a laugh, and people understand it. You can make a joke about your wife, husband, kids, and parents, and people understand.
With any docuseries, there’s a group of people working behind the scenes to capture as much footage as possible. How large is your crew when you’re filming an episode?
We bring a few people with us [from the US] – two or three camera guys who are cinematographers and they’re great. They worked with Anthony Bourdain and on many other shows like this. In fact, we use Anthony Bourdain’s old production company. My brother, Richard, is the producer, and the director is John Bedolis. So there’s about five or six of us. When we get to the location, there are locals we can hire. They’re experts on that place. It rounds up to about 10 of us all together.
Of the episodes that have been released so far, which destination surprised you the most?
Saigon was probably the biggest one. I saw Apocalypse Now. It didn’t look like a vacation spot. Our knowledge of Vietnam is news and movies. I grew up in the era of The Deer Hunter, Platoon, and Full Metal Jacket. Those aren’t the things you think of when looking for a beautiful place to go.
Then I went there and my whole view was turned upside down. The food was phenomenal, and the people were gorgeous and friendly and sweet. I loved it, and now it’s one of my favorite places. There’s always a surprise, even in places I’ve visited before.
Have you heard about a destination that viewers have visited after seeing it on Somebody Feed Phil?
Lisbon. I didn’t know about Lisbon at all. My joke was that Portugal seemed like the New Jersey of Spain. Like New York, Spain gets all the attention. I went to Lisbon, and thought it was an ideal place, not just to visit — and I think I said it during the episode — but I could see myself living there. It’s a world-class European city as good as Barcelona, Paris, or Florence. More people write to me and say that Lisbon is the place they’ve been to because of the show, more than any other place. And I’ve been back because I made friends there. It’s an awesome place.
One of Season 3’s episodes profoundly affected me – the one in which you visited Marrakesh, especially when you visited the Berber family at their mountain home. Can you share a bit about that experience?
We drove about 45 minutes outside of Marrakesh into the Atlas Mountains. The Berbers live there, and they have very little. The husband of that family [we visited], his business is collecting rocks to make mosaics. It’s very hard labor.
They live in a cement kind of bunker on the side of a mountain. It’s actually dangerous for the children. There’s wiring and pipes, broken rocks, and sheer cliffs that if you step wrong, you’re dead. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The ground floor is the little restaurant that the wife runs. Under that, built into the cliff, is the family’s dwelling. The children live in one room, and the parents live in another room. They have a tiny kitchen to themselves, and that’s it.
On top of the roof is a slab of cement where they put a table and chairs, but what are they looking at? The most gorgeous mountains you’ve ever seen in your life are right there. Every move they make and everything they say and do is in appreciation of this beauty and how lucky they are to be there.
They have nothing except nature and each other, yet they’re the most generous, sweetest, kindest people. I was there for 15 minutes and the mother said, “Anytime you come to Morocco, you are welcome to stay in our house.” They don’t have room for their family, but they’ll find room for me. And the kids were the sweetest. I love kids. When you meet kids from around the world, you learn that kids are kids [everywhere].
Are there any other behind-the-scenes stories that you’d like to tell us, where you really pushed your boundaries?
My brother Richard — who is terrible (laughs) — is a great producer because he knows me and knows what’s going to be good. I fight him on almost everything that he wants me to do that I don’t want to do. For instance, in Ireland, he told me we were going to visit these twin brothers, Steve and Dave, that have a health food store called The Happy Pear. Every morning at dawn, they go and jump in the ocean with some of the townspeople. It’s their ritual first thing in the morning to jump in the cold water, and they love it. Rich said that we were going, and maybe I should jump in the water with them. I said I’d go, but I wasn’t jumping in the water because I’m a bit of a wuss.
We went and they were trying to get me to jump in. I said, “No, thank you.” I had my coat on while they were coming out of the water with their teeth chattering, but they were happy. Then I spent the day with the brothers, and they were the nicest, most enthusiastic, loving people. So kind and charming.
We left them that afternoon, and I had a little downtime in my hotel while the crew was setting up something else. I called my brother because I couldn’t stop thinking about the morning and I said, “I think I know a good ending to this episode,” which is not something that I usually think of. That was the good news. The bad news was we had to go back so I could jump in the water with Steve and Dave, and it was 40 minutes away.
We got into the van at sunset, plus it was raining and colder than it was that morning. I took off my clothes on camera, and I’m in my bathing suit — which is already traumatic for someone who looks like me — and I jumped into the water with Steve and Dave. It was way colder and more horrible than I thought it was going to be. The shock of that cold was so crazy. I lasted maybe 30 seconds before I had to get out or I thought I was going to become an ice cube. And it was one of the great experiences of my life.
I noticed that you’ve been using your platform to give back over the past year. Can you tell us about Somebody Feed the People?
When the election was coming, I saw that many people were going to have to wait in line to vote. I thought, “What if we fed those people who have to wait in line?” And I found out that World Central Kitchen and Pizza to the Polls was already going to do this.
I wanted to help them, so I set up Somebody Feed the People. If you donated to World Central Kitchen through SomebodyFeedThe People.org, I was going to match your donation. The election ended and there are still hungry people, especially during COVID when they can’t work. World Central Kitchen is still in business, so If you donate to them through that website, I’m still matching donations.
Eventually, we’ll all be able to visit other places again. What advice do you have for people to make the most of their travels?
Leave room in the schedule for serendipity. Don’t schedule your vacation down to the last minute. Don’t have every meal booked, because you could be walking down a street, see something, walk in, and it changes your life. I try to keep that attitude in life as well. I don’t like to be scheduled every minute of the day so that I can do whatever I feel like for part of the day. That’s something I learned from traveling.
Watch Seasons 1 to 4 of Somebody Feel Phil with exclusive behind-the-scenes comments by Phil Rosenthal when you add Wiretap to Chrome.