In an era, where simplicity has been traded for excesses

During the 25 years that I’ve been receptive to [and later obsessed with] films, I’ve picked up on some of the most inane things on screen.

How Rahul Bose elegantly rolls his roti before tearing one end of it in Dil Dhadakne Do to suggest his royal lineage, or the way Abhishek Bachchan rips up a paratha, and smothers it with palak paneer in one of his least known films Shararat to underline his devil-may-care attitude. The cute gadget in Spy Kids, where one only needs to insert tokens into a microwave-like machine, close the door, and in the span of a second, they’re served Happy Meals, replete with crispy looking fries.

Sometimes, I also reminisce about the time Farida Jalal swooped into Shah Rukh Khan’s kitchen in Duplicate, and ‘corrected’ the Japanese dishes by adding Punjabi spices to them, only to see [much to everyone’s surprise] the Japanese delegation relishing the food. Never has a Hindi commercial cinema logic made more sense to me. Of course, the Japs loved chhole masala and kasuri methi in their food. Have you had good chhole bhature? Or rajma with a generous amount of kasuri methi in it?

As you might be able to tell, I’m passionate about food. It’s almost lazy that I also come from West Bengal. But I wasn’t aware this love for food qualifies as a ‘passion’ till recently. I didn’t know I was a part of a target audience of millions, who were turned on by the crunch of a toast or a creamy pasta dish. I vividly remember a scene from The Matrix, when Joe Pantaliano’s character preempts the juiciness of the steak he’s about to bite into, or how Samuel L Jackson ‘washes down’ his Big Kahuna burger with a tall glass of Sprite while staring straight down at a man he’s about to shoot in another three minutes.

The sensory overload – especially how Aamir Khan chomps his salad in Dil Chahta Hai and says “Heaven!” almost as a reflex – is where I draw my inspiration from while expressing compliments for the chef anywhere. Whether it’s a restaurant or someone’s home – it was something that was inculcated into me at a very early age: if you’re fed something, you express your gratitude in the most generous way possible.

I realised I was a part of the tribe that had grown up on multiple seasons of Masterchef Australia – and were probably also a part of the annoying bunch that began referring to onions as shallots almost overnight. Lapping up every second show on Fox Traveller, NDTV Good Times [Highway On My Plate FTW!], and Nat Geo Traveller introducing us to new dishes and cultures – I learned I was a part of the #FoodPorn generation. We had grown up idolising Anthony Bourdain, and been equally perplexed and entertained by Gordon Ramsay. Nearly all of us nursed a desire deep down somewhere to commit to running a full-fledged food blog at some point.

But soon after I began working in media, it became clear that ‘food videos’ or ‘food movies’ weren’t just that. Curated by an algorithm, perfected by umpteen formats between Tasty and Bong Eats, I could see Big Tech’s cogs functioning smoothly behind the close-up of the cream cheese oozing out of a sandwich or the sizzle of the birista [fried onion for garnish], and all of a sudden, the food didn’t seem that appetising. Watching all that tasty food in films while growing up didn’t feel as <pure> anymore.

With the onset of the pandemic, I knew things were only going to get worse. As Netflix tripled down on food+travel shows for its captive audience, I was almost permanently staying away from #Foodgasm content. I’d realised it was just that in the end, ‘content’… to clock viewership data. It could be argued that some of these shows didn’t even seem to have genuine love for food [like Amole Gupte’s Stanley Ka Dabba] or a point-of-view on a particular cuisine/culture. It was at a time like this that I first bumped into Phil Rosenthal.

While sampling my first episode of Somebody Feed Phil [on Netflix], I didn’t know him at all. I’d seen a few stray episodes of Everybody Loves Raymond, but this was the first time I was meeting its creator. And he was hosting a… food+travel show. A curious choice, indeed. Some digging later, I learned he had done one season of a six-part show called I’ll Have What Phil’s Having [2015] for PBS, which was later rebranded for Netflix in 2018.

It surely wasn’t love at first sight. The fatigue of the pandemic had set in, and the mere sight of happy faces in faraway locales tasting an interesting looking dish could make anyone angry. Also, the knowledge, that more and more people were turning to travel shows as their escape meant that the algorithm was pushing more and more travel shows, made me all the more skeptical about Rosenthal’s happy-go-lucky show. With trepidation, I approached one episode after another, and I was hooked.

The first thing I really enjoyed about Rosenthal’s hosting was his child-like enthusiasm about food, which I related to on a subliminal level. In one episode particularly, when he bit into something he liked, he offered the widest possible smile to the chef, and said, “You’re in the happiness business.” It was definitely cute at first, but I was also cynical enough to know that it was only a matter of time before the façade would slip in front of the camera. Not to say that I wasn’t enjoying the episodes, but I was nearly confident that I was going to discover the shticks of the show, and then it would suddenly seem less appealing to me.

As I glided through the first six episodes, I discovered it had none. I mean sure, the episodes have a format, but there was hardly any tedium in them. Each episode was in a new city, and Rosenthal took us through the beats using the light touch of his famous sitcom series. There was no set formula about how Rosenthal reacted to anything. Keeping the irreverent comedy writer alive within him, he would pretty much behave what could be described as a concoction of a layman, a man generous with his praise for the ‘good stuff,’ but also discerning enough to not just about praise anything.

Rosenthal approaches each new dish with the excitement of a student about to learn something new in a Utopian world. He’s scared sometimes – like the time he’s trying an ant for the first time, and even repulsed by some of the things that he’s about to eat. However, Somebody Feed Phil doesn’t take the bait like most shows, where it tries more and more controversial dishes to look like a Bizarre Foods knock-off. Rosenthal keeps it light and organic. The main focus is to reflect on local culture, and if that brings with it unconventional edible items, Rosenthal goes with the flow.

One thing I’ve concluded after watching [and re-watching] all the four seasons of the show is that there’s genuine joy in watching Rosenthal eat. He initially squirms about the spread in front of him [which is usually a lot], but then his face beams with elation each time he tastes something he likes, or always has a sarcastic quip up his sleeve for a dish he isn’t impressed by. And yet, he walks the thin line between being honest, but never rude.

It was a skill that Bourdain had in plenty, where he wouldn’t suffer fools, and yet was never unkind to anyone. Rosenthal is like that funny uncle we bump into at family gatherings, who breaks into a song or dance all of a sudden, but you also know when he means business. He might come across as a goofy host, who does and says more than a few silly things. And yet, in episodes like in Tel Aviv [Rosenthal grew up in a Jewish household] and Saigon, Vietnam – Rosenthal’s tone becomes reflective, never bypassing the past horrors of the place, something that is also reminiscent of Bourdain’s Parts Unknown episode in Lebanon. In a way, Rosenthal does manage to communicate that in an era of hateful Twitter threads, the best way to put aside one’s differences is to join them for a meal.

There are times when Rosenthal seems a bit too ‘analogue’ in a digital world, especially when he makes a large number of jokes on his spouse Monica Horan — how she likes to drink, and how they’ve been married 30 years. Another favourite topic to mine jokes out of is his mother’s [apparently] awful cooking. At first instance, one might even think that it’s too dated, but as one sees more episodes featuring Monica, and Phil’s late parents Max and Helen, one sees their warm dynamic, and comes to the conclusion that even when Rosenthal is making fun of his family members, he’s being self-deprecatory on some level.

There’s also Richard [Phil’s younger brother], who is the Executive Producer on the show, and that’s because Phil keeps calling him when he tastes something truly mind-boggling. “Everyone knows we’re making a show,” he tells people. It’s the most instinctive reaction ever — where you tell your sibling about something incredible that happened to you, or something you ate.

There’s a beautiful segment in the show – where at the end of each episode, Phil video-calls his parents. Sometimes, they’re joined by Monica, or sometimes Monica joins Phil and speaks to her in-laws. He tells them about his travels, what he ate, and Helen usually has a question or two [usually a rebuke for her son when he was younger or irritation for something Max might be doing]. After Helen passed away because of ALS, in the show’s fourth season, it was only Max who would appear on these end-of-the-episode calls, where he would come up with a joke for the audience. It’s one of the most adorable portions of the show, and who would identify with the ritual of constantly talking to your parents, even when you’re thousands of miles away.

In an era, where ‘food’ has become content, and simplicity has been traded for excesses, Somebody Feed Phil reminds us about getting the basics right. Rosenthal underplays his role as the host, as he bounces around the world eating, drinking, and exchanging pleasantries with the people he bumps into. He also undersells himself as the storyteller, as he generously offers the stage to the people around him to tell us about how things came to be, while also engaging them in playful banter. Rosenthal’s wit as a host is unquestionable, but what also sets him apart is how he always has warmth to spare for those around him. He seems present, exuberant, never shies away from a compliment, and yet is never patronising. Watching Rosenthal eat and seeing his eyes light up reminded me of my bond with food.

Somebody Feed Phil also showed me that it’s possible to be irreverent, curious, and kind, all in the same breath. #FoodPorn isn’t going anywhere, but only we’re responsible for protecting our intimacy with food. And for that, I owe a thanks to Phil Rosenthal.

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