Samin Nosrat, Phil Rosenthal, and the Spirit of Eating with No Reservations
Do we hold the specialness of each meal at the core of our travel? Or is a meal that happens during a vacation a shadow of the memories it serves to create?
This isStore-Bought Is Fine, a monthly column by Rax King on TV chefs, food media, and the class barriers of cuisine.
During my freshman year of college, I had a ten-month lapse in judgment named Greg, whose persona had been carefully crafted around the exhibition of Manliness. He loved boxing—not just watching it, but doing it, with or without gloves, drunk, sober, it didn’t matter. It was important to him that he could drink men of similar stature under the table. (Drinking little five foot tall Rax under the table every night wasn’t enough.) He was the sort of guy that we all date for ten months during our freshman year of college. A figuring-it-all-out guy, a guy to teach us what we don’t like.
In that regard, we weren’t a terrible match. He liked that I was on birth control. He liked my brains because he liked the idea of being a man who liked a woman’s brains. When I got feisty with his friends, he was proud of my fiery temper, unless I happened to get feisty when he was in agreement with them, in which case, easy enough—he just needed to give me a talking-to later. He treated me like an unruly teenage daughter and, comfortable with such a dynamic due to my years of being an unruly teenage daughter, I acted like one. We made plans for me to visit his family for the summer, plans that I was never enthusiastic about but accommodated because I thought that’s what girlfriends did. As the time for me to buy plane tickets drew nearer, I realized I needed to get out, before I spent $900 on a non-refundable summer with someone I despised.
When I ended our relationship, he cried, which surprised me because I still didn’t understand what sat under the surface of aggressively masculine behavioral tics. He told me it would all be okay if I just came home with him for the summer like I’d said I would. He told me I would regret the mistake I’d made. He did everything in his power to make me regret it, including hacking into my email and forwarding my nudes to everyone in my address book, but nothing he could do had the power to overwhelm my sense of freedom. I could do whatever I wanted now.
What I wanted, it turned out, was to flee. I was eighteen and couldn’t go far on the wages I earned at the Hard Bean Café, but I found a cheap flight to San Francisco and a highly rated host on CouchSurfing to house me for a week, because I had a psyche full of Greg that I hoped to purge. And I purged it using every method I could imagine: sex with my highly rated CouchSurfing host, sex with his roommate, heavy flirtation with their other roommate (I didn’t know many coping mechanisms in 2010) . . . oh, and food. In this case, a plate of tacos from a restaurant whose name I no longer remember, the ragingly tempting smell of which was formative to my baby palate in a most Proustian way.
I was no food expert then. Hell, I’m no food expert now, but my favorite food was still a basket of chicken tenders plus two sides from the Cracker Barrel; I hardly understood what I was putting in my mouth until my tongue was hit by the richness of the lengua, the punch of lime. I’d eaten tacos before, of course, but something about the sensuous experience of eating alone in an unfamiliar place, physically pleasurable but sexless . . . it was healing. I could linger at my table. I could order any dish I wanted, two or three, even, as many tacos as I could afford. Greg was no longer fixing a suitable plate for me in the dining hall, clearing it when he decided I was done, setting my limits. I was.
There’s nothing inherently masculine about travel, and yet somehow, the most popular food travel shows have been helmed by men. As such, the notion of a man roaming the earth in search for great meals has become an emblem of masculinity in its own right. It fits in seamlessly with other manly roamings—think Che Guevara on his motorcycle trip across South America, Jack Kerouac on the eponymous Road from his rambling On the Road.
Women can equally travel alone, of course. A woman could mount a motorcycle steed across the country, or ingest too many uppers and write too much novel about her travels, or any of the other behaviors that we’ve come to associate with special men. Yet when we do it, our travels are typically glossed over with a sheen of the selves we’re supposed to be finding, a la Eat, Pray, Love. Men, too, may travel in the hopes of healing themselves, but women are supposed to not only heal, but learn, and better ourselves in the learning. We travel not just to consume, but to recalibrate our internal dials. If we’re busy bettering ourselves, do we have energy left to devote to, say, tracking down the most exquisite piece of sushi in Tokyo? If we’re learning to be our best selves after a bad break-up, are we also sniffing out the ranch in Argentina that produces the grassiest, most gorgeous steak?
The two varieties of travel—traveling for travel’s own sake, and traveling for the supposedly beneficial properties that it offers the soul—are exciting to watch in different ways. A true food traveler seems untroubled by worldly woes. He (almost invariably he) has all the time in the world to research places that are off the beaten path, all home to someone who can really, really fucking cook. Travelers who are hoping to heal, though, they’re scattered. Their travel time is also time spent licking their wounds. The food and the people preparing it—they’re not the point.
On one of my favorite episodes of I’ll Have What Phil’s Having, one of two food travel shows hosted by Everybody Loves Raymond creator Phil Rosenthal, Phil is visiting Italy and watching an intimidatingly ripped gentleman pound a lump of bread dough. “He’s handsome, he’s muscular,” Phil quips. “If he can write sitcoms, I’ll have to go kill myself.”
The joke is that the Italian dough pounder embodies the ideal of masculinity better than our host. And it’s true. Dough Pounder is six feet and change, two hundred-ish pounds of coiled steel. His shirtsleeves fight his biceps. His face is flushed, probably chronically, and his hair curls just over his eye, as if to say: Here is a man who labors in the heat and sweat and he flushes and curls his biceps and seems for all the world as if he loves his mother and yes, ladies, he could hurl a fifty pound bag of flour from one end of the room to the other with little more effort than it takes to be seated at brunch. And then, on this other side, is Phil. Gangly, nebbishy, incapable-seeming Phil, all too happy to be cuckolded by Dough Pounder’s sheer force, as long as he gets a taste of bread at the end.
Phil Rosenthal is not a chef. He’s clear about that, in fact, in the intro to his first food travel program I’ll Have What Phil’s Having: he has no special relationship with food; he’s no artist, food-wise; he admits that he barely had a palate well into adulthood; he claims no expertise in food. Why, then, does he have two shows whose entire premise is that Phil Rosenthal is trawling the planet for good-tasting food?
If I was supposed to think about food this way, why didn’t all these experts ever bother to say so?
It’s a two-pronged answer, and the first prong is practical, logistical: Phil has money. He helmed Everybody Loves Raymond, which earns money’s mama to this day. He can do what he wants. If Phil Rosenthal approached PBS network executives and said that he wanted to host a game show during which he got to punch a stranger in the face on live television every week, they’d have to consider it. All he wanted was a food travel show. Easy-peasy. They gave him a food travel show.
But absent the expertise that characterized Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, or the spirit of gruesome adventure that occupies Adam Richman’s Man v. Food, what is Phil Rosenthal’s suite of travel shows? I’ll tell you what: it’s a delight. Phil Rosenthal roams, and taste-tests, and dines, and befriends, and cracks wise, and Skypes his elderly parents for several minutes of every episode (a segment that has to be nominated for some kind of “most Jewish scenes on TV” Emmy), and he makes a classic New York egg cream for a family of Japanese strangers, and it is absolutely heartwarming, to the point that other viewers are uneasy with it. Eater published a piece called “5 Problems With Somebody Feed Phil” that calls Rosenthal’s other show’s sweetness into question. Phil’s too uninformed, he’s too corny, his jokes are too stale, his theme song is too bouncy, his goofs are too goofy, his food traveling, in short, is not food-y enough. All of this is true, but also avoids the question of: How do we eat and travel, really? Do we hold the specialness of each meal at the core of our travel? Or is a meal that happens during a vacation an experience of a different sort, a shadow of the memories it serves to create? When the delicious sushi has been eaten and the plate is clean, what is left?
Samin Nosrat is the opposite: a protege of the eminent Alice Waters at Chez Panisse, a chef of twentyyears’ experience, a food veteran par excellence. When she visits another country, she already knows what’s eaten there and by whom and with what proportions of which seasonings. No humble traveler is she, and her show reflects it. Whereas Rosenthal’s show emphasizes the human relationships that can spring out of food, Nosrat’s is a love song to the food itself. She’s written extensively on the sovereign components of any delicious dish, the eponymous Salt Fat Acid Heat (the name of both her cookbook and her Netflix travelogue), and knows, in a way that Rosenthal doesn’t, what she’s talking about.
But the knowledge is never lorded over the viewer. Watching Nosrat taste fine salts is like watching myself do the same thing: She reacts in a way that I can credibly believe I’d react myself. She doesn’t have some other, better palate; she tastes the flavors I taste, eats the foods I eat. One suspects that she’d permit a couple subtle shakes of A1 steak sauce onto a cut of prize meat, though she’d likely try to gently persuade the shaker to try the meat unsauced first. She loves food for its deliciousness, not because it’s high art. And I suppose that means she loves it as its own special art, because no other art is delicious. You can’t nourish your physical self on a painting or absorb nutrients from an installation. Only food will feed you.
She loves food for its deliciousness, not because it’s high art. And I suppose that means she loves it as its own special art.
Part of what’s so impressive about Nosrat is her willingness to tackle food and cooking at an unprecedentedly elementary level. Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat the book isn’t just a collection of recipes, doesn’t demand that its adherents purchase specialty tools, champions no obscure ingredients. A cook needs only to pursue knowledge of salt, fat, acid, and heat. To borrow Nosrat’s own words on the matter from an episode of the podcast Bite, these four elements will allow a cook a degree of expertise “in any kitchen, with any ingredients, while cooking any meal.” Reading her book, and watching the same advice brought to life on her show, one thinks two thoughts. One: of course, why did I never think about food this way before? And two: but if I was supposed to think about food this way, why didn’t all these experts ever bother to say so?
Yet Salt Fat Acid Heat isn’t just an eye-opening stunner of a food show; it’s also a lush travelogue. Shots abound of fog-drenched mountain ranges, immobile waters, squirming fish emerging from rivers with hooks shot triumphantly through their mouths. Every bite of food that Nosrat eats is filmed with painstaking perfection; every chewing sound is subtly muted and still tempting in its explicitness. Every master of food that Nosrat meetsis shown luxuriating in that moment of perfect pride when she takes a bite of their food for the first time. Every face smiles, serenely, and often. It’s the televisual equivalent of a meditation retreat, and the viewer departs from every episode feeling spiritually enriched.
In contrast to the showiness of, say, an Adam Richman, Rosenthal is willing to try foods that he worries will be hostile to his Western palate. But he’s not excited at the prospect of trying Japanese pond loach, or ants. He tackles these foods without Bourdain’s genuine gastronomic enthusiasm, without Richman’s aggressive adventurousness. He resembles nothing so much as a picky kid being asked to eat just one more bite of green beans: a minimal sheen of politeness sitting atop a face of despair.
This is in one glaring way a really bad look: a white man, visiting “exotic” countries and mugging for the camera about foods that are foreign to him? On paper, it’s unwatchable. And yet, if we’re honest, aren’t most of us a little afraid of the unknown? To a sheltered Jewish boy from New City, NY, working one of the most categorically un-strenuous jobs imaginable in American white collar paradise, what could be more unknown than a fat bite of pond loach? And for me, here’s the clincher: uneasy though he may be, he’s loath to turn up his nose. He reacts much the way you or I would if a host offered us a bite of something we found unsavory: gamely, like a grown-up. And bonus: most of the time, he sincerely likes what he’s fed! Aside from what I’m sure he’d describe as a harrowing encounter with a hundred-year egg in Hong Kong, he’s always willing to be convinced. He has prejudices just like anyone does, but he’s unwilling to be guided by them.
Between Nosrat and Rosenthal, Nosrat’s the more evident heir to the food travel throne left behind by none other than the widely beloved Anthony Bourdain. She shares his wonder, his fascination with other people and unfamiliar cultures, his ability to look at a dish as more than just a plate of food but instead as an avatar of culture and an infinitely changeable piece of art all in one. Eating food is never only eating food. The women had it right all along, as they pursued their self-betterment through food travel: eating food can be an enrichment, and being cooked for a mitzvah in its own right.
This, I think, is the magic that the best food travel shows can offer its viewers on a good day, even those that claim to be strictly about food. For all that we insist on doing it in each other’s company constantly, eating is actually pretty intimate. When people cook for you and you eat in front of them, unprotected by dining companions or the barrier of a kitchen door, you’re locked in an intimate transaction. Any half-decent cook will know exactly what you think of their food as soon as they see you put it on your tongue. Really good food travel shows strip away the anxiety from that experience and say to their viewers instead: what if every person who cooked for you also had the opportunity to share their culture with you, to bestow upon you a distilled sense of what it is to live life as someone else? What if you ate ramen, after watching it be prepared by someone who really fucking knows ramen, and they could see you, and they could know they were wonderful because they could see your reaction in real time?
Despite the vast differences in their shows, Samin Nosrat and Phil Rosenthal are both tuned into these questions in a way that I think most other food travel show hosts aren’t. They aren’t deliberately seeking out the most extreme experiences, like Richman does on the sometimes-nauseating Man vs. Food. Nosrat and Rosenthal are credibly able to present as real eaters, average Joes. They incorporate deliberate warmth and humanity into their travels in a way that few others are willing to do. They aren’t afraid to make mistakes or seem uncool. They care only that they’ve been given a platform to make you care about their most beloved foods, and they’re going to use it, and they’re going to get you on their side.
Rax King is a James Beard Award-nominated bitch. Her work can also be found in Glamour, MEL Magazine, Catapult, and elsewhere. Look out for her monthly column Store-Bought Is Fine for hot takes about the Food Network, and her essay collection Tacky (Vintage 2021).