Eat, drink and joke with Jewish Bourdain on new PBS series

Next year in Jerusalem. At least that’s Phil Rosenthal’s plan.

The co-creator and behind-the-scenes genius of the hit sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond” has stepped in front of the camera as the star of the new show “I’ll Have What Phil’s Having.”

The six-part, unscripted series on PBS features Rosenthal sampling local fare in exotic ports around the globe — including Hong Kong, Barcelona, Paris and Tokyo. He visits markets, artisans, vineyards and restaurants.

He is usually accompanied by family, famous foodies and friends — including Ray Romano and Martin Short, among others — with whom Rosenthal shares his enthusiasm and jokes.

And, yes, assuming the show is renewed, “I would love to go to Israel,” Rosenthal says in a phone interview.

Phil Rosenthal (right) with chef Roy Choi and comic Martin Short in a scene from the new PBS series “I’ll Have What Phil’s Having.” photo/courtesy wgbh tv

He’s already been to the Jewish state: “What I loved most was the people I met, and the food was spectacular,” he says. “I can’t wait to go back to Tel Aviv, which is such a happening scene. I had the best chicken pita of my life there.”

And while gelato and steak were on the menu during his recent sojourns for the new show, Rosenthal also sampled such rare delicacies as pond loach, an eel-like fish found in East Asian rice paddies.

As a result, Rosenthal acknowledges he just might be thought of as a Jewish Anthony Bourdain (who did reveal during a 2013 episode filmed in Jerusalem that one of his parents was Jewish, though he doesn’t identify with a particular religion).

“My life is exactly like Anthony Bourdain’s — if he was afraid of everything,” Rosenthal jokes. “But when we watch Bourdain — whom I love, by the way — we’re not going to do what he does. I’m not going to vacation in Beirut to be shot at. I’m not eating insects. I’m not eating the parts of animals that make you sick.

“When we watch Bourdain, we live vicariously. I’m trying to encourage people to travel. I want them to watch and say, ‘If that putz can go outside …’ Maybe that should be the name of the show.”

Rosenthal admits to having a love-hate relationship with food. He enjoys food — now — but not so much when he was younger. As he says in a voiceover at the start of each episode, there were “things I never tasted growing up, like food with any flavor. In our house, meat was a punishment.”

In retrospect, Rosenthal doesn’t blame his mom. It was good source material, he says.

“My mother made recipes from a cookbook that I swear had to be anti-Semitic.”

Still, Rosenthal acknowledges the importance of food in Jewish culture.

“Food is a huge part of who we are. It’s celebratory. It’s family time. It’s maybe also celebrating abundance. In our history, there was time food was in short supply. The fact that we can eat is a symbol of personal freedom and calls for celebration.”

Of course, no matter what your religion or ethnicity, good food leads to a kind of bonhomie that fosters conviviality and creativity. Rosenthal has said (half-jokingly) that he owes the success of “Everybody Loves Raymond” in large measure to good craft services — the food that’s put out for the people working on set.

“If the table is filled with nice things, you’ll grab a bite and turn to the person next to you, and right away you’re talking and you’re friends,” he says.

“These are the things I care about: food, family, friends, laughs and travel,” he continues. “And they are all included in this show. That’s why — and don’t tell PBS — I would pay them to do it.

“It’s all combined with my love of show business. I love every aspect: writing, directing, producing, performing.” With the exception, he notes, of the “business” part.

Rosenthal had ample time to test the limits of that love during the nine highly successful seasons of “Raymond.” Still, in the midst of the show’s success, Rosenthal admits he always feared the other shoe was going to drop at any moment.

“I can always find the downside,” he sighs.

Since the show ended in 2005, Rosenthal won a Peabody Award (and earned an Emmy nomination) for co-writing “America: A Tribute to Heroes,” a benefit concert and fundraiser for victims of the 9/11 attacks that was broadcast simultaneously on 35 TV channels.

He also traveled to Russia to help produce a local version of “Raymond” that was eventually called “The Voronins.” That became the subject of a hilarious documentary, “Exporting Raymond,” which had a 2010 theatrical release and debuted on Netflix this month.

The film — which he wrote, directed and starred in — deals with Rosenthal’s frustration when he discoveres that comedy doesn’t always translate well. A highlight of the documentary is when Rosenthal drinks and dines with an extended Russian family. The camaraderie he experienced there is a theme that comes up repeatedly in conversation.

“We’re attracted to people with a similar sense of humor and by eating with them,” he says.

In fact, that’s how Rosenthal met his wife, Monica Horan,  who played Amy MacDougall Barone in “Raymond.”

“I saw her in a play and thought she was really funny,” he says. “The next time I saw her was by accident at a street-food fair. I was eating a giant rib with the juice dripping on my T-shirt and she was approaching with a mutual friend.

“When we were introduced, I told her I was a big fan of hers and she said she was a big fan of mine, which was not true. She had no idea who I was. I’ve since reminded her that our entire relationship is based on a lie. I think she liked the look of the rib in my hand.”

Rosenthal arranged to cast her in a play he was in and the rest is history.

“You know what happens when you’re in a play together,” he quips. “Before you know it, she took advantage of me.”

“I’ll Have What Phil’s Having” debuts on KQED-Channel 9 at 10 p.m. Monday, Sept. 28.