I am not sure how the lunch club got started. Temperamentally I’m not much of a joiner. All those Zoom gatherings you’re having these days to reconnect with friends? I’m the guy who “forgets” to show up.
Nevertheless, a few months ago, when we could still go to restaurants, Phil Rosenthal emailed me about getting together for lunch in Manhattan. Phil intended to bring along a friend, cake wizard Paulette Goto. I invited my friend Klancy Miller, a cookbook author who spent time working as a pastry chef at Taillevent in Paris. The four of us met at Hutong, which is a New York outpost of a famous restaurant in Hong Kong. I have come to learn that you’d have to be some kind of Freudian acrobat to figure out how to say no to Phil Rosenthal, and even on my most misanthropic days I find it impossible to turn my back on dim sum.
Phil got excited about this impromptu gathering—excitement is his default mode, I think—and at some point there arose the suggestion that we might just have the makings of a lunch club. I thought: Hold on, what is happening here? Was this some Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants shit I was being roped into?
Anyway, I don’t want to get all sappy here, but if you’ve ever watched Rosenthal’s food show on Netflix, Somebody Feed Phil, you can probably see where this is going. Somebody Feed Phil could be seen as Parts Unknown’s easygoing, buttoned-up brother, with fewer Apocalypse Now allusions and more Borscht Belt wisecracks. (As Rosenthal said during one great meal in the first season, “I can’t imagine anyone not liking this except my parents.”) Phil travels to cities like Copenhagen and Bangkok and Buenos Aires—and, in the new season, which debuts Friday, London, Marrakesh, Seoul, Chicago, and Montreal—expressing Felix-the-Cat-ish delight at all the good stuff he eats. If Somebody Feed Phil doesn’t aim for the noir poetry or the depths of cultural reporting that Anthony Bourdain reached in his trips to, say, Vietnam and Senegal and the Philippines, there is an underlying sweetness that makes it a pleasure to spend time with. The guy has fun.
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Phil and Klancy and Paulette and I had fun at Hutong too, and in subsequent weeks a group convened for two more outings—at Kāwi in Hudson Yards, and at Thai Diner just north of Chinatown—before the coronavirus made the idea of a lunch club about as appealing as a full-contact rugby squad. Our uproarious, gluttonous meal at Thai Diner, on March 11, would be the last I enjoyed with friends before I began staring out of the same window for three months.
Phil is an unabashed enthusiast, and that makes him, for those of us in the food-writing game, something of a holy grail. (The only person I’ve ever met who gets more excited about going to restaurants is my 14-year-old son, Toby, who curiously enough—maybe this is of interest to those who traffic in astrology—happens to have the same birthday as Phil.)
When you have a job that involves constantly visiting restaurants that you might write about, you spend a weird amount of time trying to find people who are free to share a table with you. Sometimes you visit a city where you don’t know a soul, which means you’ve never even laid eyes on your dining companions (friends of friends of friends, or whatever) until they sit down. Sometimes those people turn out to be perfectly lovely from the conversational standpoint, but rather, um, disappointing from the perspective of eating a ridiculous fuckload of food. Maybe they’re squeamish—“oysters, ewww!”—or maybe they’re allergic to half the menu. Maybe they’re avoiding carbs, and you just walked into a trattoria planning to order nine bowls of pasta. Maybe they’ve decided in advance that they want to look cool and act like a professional food critic, so they inspect each course as if checking a dog for ticks. (Hey, back off—that’s my job.)
Phil Rosenthal does none of that. The dude walks into a restaurant as if he’s about to see Hamilton on opening night. He laps it up. He can be counted on to order the entire menu when necessary (even though it was lunchtime at Hutong, there was no question that the four of us were going to tear apart a Peking duck), and he consumes food with the kind of canine relish that you’d expect from someone about to go in for surgery. I admire Phil for this and (I guess I’m getting sappy here) miss that spirit more than ever these days. As Julia Child once expressed it, “People who love to eat are always the best people.”
Phil made his bones as a producer and writer with Everybody Loves Raymond, so in Los Angeles, where he lives, his social circle includes a fair number of actors and directors and stand-up comedians. This explains his appearance in the most recent season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, in an episode that made ingenious, twisted use of a MAGA cap. Phil Rosenthal and Larry David have such wildly opposite temperaments (Phil loves everything, Larry hates everything) that I’m surprised the universe didn’t collapse in on itself, matter-versus-antimatter-style, when the two appeared together on camera. In fact, the episode hinges on the fact that Larry David does not want to have lunch with Phil Rosenthal because Phil’s childlike excitability grates on his nerves. (Recall what I said about Freudian acrobats…) Curb your enthusiasm? With Phil, that’s just not feasible.
I get it. When Phil sent me a note last fall asking me to join him for a meal in the upcoming Montreal episode of Somebody Feed Phil, I might’ve flinched. (I’m not sure why I was included, either; maybe just because my last name is French.) Enthusiasm can be exhausting. But as you’ll see, Phil and I wound up having the most insane meal of our lives. This was the ridiculous fuckload of food to end all ridiculous fuckloads of food.
The meal took place in the town of Mirabel to the northwest of Montreal, at chef Martin Picard’s Cabane à Sucre Au Pied de Cochon. In the sugar shacks of Québec, which exist as small factories for (and centers of worship toward) the production of maple syrup, chefs compete in an endless overtime game of Rabelaisian excess, and Picard is their Michael Jordan—the GOAT of gout. This dinner was so wanton, so relentless in its lack of concern for human health and the storage capacity of a digestive tract and one’s ability to stand up straight, that I barely remember any details about it. All I remember is a river—a gushing torrent of (admittedly delicious) foie gras and pork fat and offal and maple syrup. I remember feeling confused by this river, disoriented, not even sure how to process the caloric deluge, let alone eat it. And I remember looking over at Phil Rosenthal in the midst of the madness and seeing him grinning from ear to ear. He looked like the happiest man alive.
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Source : Esquire