When Phil Rosenthal was a struggling comedian in New York, he and his roommate had a birthday ritual. They would save their money all year to go out for one blow-out dinner at one of Manhattan's best restaurants.
Rosenthal is still in love with dining out, but after nine years of having written and produced the hit comedy "Everybody Loves Raymond," he's not buying dinner anymore — he's buying restaurants.
And now he's putting his infatuation with food out for all the world to see in a new six-part PBS series called "I'll Have What Phil's Having," which follows him to Italy, Tokyo, Barcelona, Hong Kong, Paris and, yes, Los Angeles.
In the series, which will air beginning Monday on PBS SoCal, he cooks with Nancy Silverton and celebrity butcher Dario Cecchini in Italy, eats baby eels in Tokyo and rides around Barcelona with a jamón in his bicycle basket.
Rosenthal says he still remembers the first time he noticed food. He grew up in a New York City suburb in a household where cooking was an obligation and eating a necessity. "I can't fault my parents; they were the greatest, most supportive parents ever," he says. "They were saving up for our college. It's that Holocaust survivor mentality, and they were saving up for anything that could happen."
And then he went with some college friends to a place in New York's Little Italy.
"I remember this very clearly," he says, settling into his story over a Monte Cristo at DuPar's in the Original Farmers Market — he had ridden his bike over from his home in Hancock Park, and it was just too hot to eat at his first choice, Loteria Grill.
"I had some pasta, and I'm eating this pasta and I'm wondering why is this so great? 'It's just pasta and red sauce,' they tell me. And I'm, like, 'No, no, there's something in it. These little white things … do you see these little white things? They're fantastic!
"And they go, 'What, garlic?' and I say, 'Yes! Garlic!' I'd never had garlic; I'd never imagined. I was living like an animal.
"A lot of people I speak to in the food business also had bad food growing up. I think when you're deprived of that, you love it more. You're like a man coming out of a desert. It's like 'The Wizard of Oz': You open the door and now the world is in color."
In the series, Rosenthal plays the wide-eyed naif, visiting great restaurants and having wonderful meals around the world.
"I'm exactly like Anthony Bourdain … if he was afraid of everything," Rosenthal says in a much-repeated gag. "I'm not an adventurer, but I do like to travel and eat. I hope people will watch me and say, 'If that putz can go out and try something new, maybe I can too."
That goal comes across most clearly in the Los Angeles episode, the last in the series. That's when Rosenthal takes his friends, many of them from show business, on a tour of some of his favorite spots (he's careful to point out that none of the many restaurants he's invested in is featured in the show).
So he takes Allison Janney to Grand Central Market for tacos. Norman Lear to Langer's — and Paul Reiser just happens to drop by on his first-ever visit to that temple of pastrami. He introduces a highly skeptical Martin Short to Korean food at Roy Choi's Pot and takes his visiting dad to Malibu Kitchen for a picnic.
"I know that at the moment not everybody can go overseas or even all over the country," Rosenthal says. "So the point of the L.A. episode is not to show you celebrities but to say, 'This is your town. Here's a place down the street that you never went to because you never knew about it.
"Give it a try. What's the worst that can happen? You say, 'I don't like this,' and don't go back. So what? But it's always worth the trip to try it out."
For Rosenthal, investing in restaurants is like buying artwork
But Rosenthal makes it clear that this is not your typical business move.
"Why do I invest in restaurants?" he asks. "It's not to make money. In fact, it's a stupid investment. You rarely make a penny.
"I feel that cooking is an art form as valid as any other. Why should your sense of taste be any less important than your sense of sight or sound? People support the Philharmonic; I'm supporting the restaurant culture in Los Angeles. Selfishly, I'm making the town a better place for me to live in."
Rosenthal says he's involved in more than 20 restaurants, "from Moruno to Providence," and is an investor by extension in many more after becoming a backer in Bill Chait's Sprout restaurant group, home of many of Southern California's hottest restaurants, including Bestia, Sotto, République and Broken Spanish.
His first restaurant plunge was Jar. "I invested in it and then I bought it, and then I realized I didn't like owning a restaurant because there are too many headaches. And then I realized that if I sell the restaurant to the chef, I can take that money and invest in more restaurants and have all the fun with none of the headaches."