Hot Potato’s ‘Potato-Riffic’ Turn on Kitchen Nightmares

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El Gordo and Hot Potato chef Danielle Keller
El Gordo and Hot Potato chef Danielle Keller Photo: Hot Potato Cafe

Did you catch Friday’s premiere of Kitchen Nightmares, starring Philly’s own Hot Potato Cafe? It was kind of a weeper! Even El Gordo seemed to have grown a heart in the face of Fishtown’s finest. It also featured a cameo from Philadelphia Weekly music editor/occasional restaurant reviewer Brian McManus as the Big Bad Food Critic Who Destroyed the Hot Potato. We caught up with McManus over the weekend to hear about his experience on the show.

The episode was a weeper! More than one person told me they teared up.
I don’t know if they’re trying to be softer in Season Three? I was a huge fan of the show on BBC and of the first two seasons here. Usually, the owners are a lot more bullheaded then they were at Hot Potato. Those ladies were defeated and they were willing to take his advice and do anything he said.

Did you think it was weird that they put so much emphasis on you, the evil PW critic, as being responsible for destroying the Hot Potato?
When I got a call from the producer in May of last year - they told me that they had selected Hot Potato and through their interviews with the owners, they learned they blamed [the restaurant’s failure] on me. I don’t think the producers invented it. The owners really felt that way.

I did three other reviews of places I didn’t like [around the same time]. Hot Potato was the one I got the most hate mail from - voicemails and emails from people that knew them, mostly friends and family and people from the neighborhood. A lot of it was personal - saying things like “I know you’re a music editor” and saying I didn’t know what I was talking about. I had to explain my [culinary] background to people. The owners never really think it has anything to do with the fact that the food they’re serving is terrible - they always have an outside thing to blame it on. They spent a quarter of a million dollars to stay open, which is just mind-boggling to me. I don’t know how somebody does that, but kudos to them for staying with it.

Did you feel bad going back to Hot Potato after giving them such a terrible review? Were you afraid they’d freak out on you?
I definitely would have felt weird going right after the review ran, but it’s been two years. I recognized the waiter, Brian, right away as the guy who waited on us the first time. And they knew who I was - in the episode, Gordon tells them not to fuss over me too much and they didn’t. I didn’t feel too bad. I never thought they’d freak out, but it would have been great TV.

I kind of felt like - not that I did them a service with the initial review - but that I’m not crazy! A lot of the hate mail I got said I was a mean guy, insensitive and didn’t have tastebuds. To get 100 emails about something and have everyone tell you you’re awful… you don’t believe it, but you start to think, am I crazy? Then someone of Gordon Ramsay’s caliber tells them the same thing. I felt validated.

What was the taping of the show like?
Originally - which is 70% of the reason I wanted to do it - I was supposed to take a trolley ride with Gordon and I would talk with Gordon about the review. They were going to make it a strong focal point for the episode and I thought it’d be really, really cool to take a trolley ride with him. Then I got a call the day before and they decided to cut that part; they didn’t think it was necessary.

The night of the shooting, we checked in at a table at this little garage right next to Hot Potato. There was a guest list and there was a second waiting list of people that just showed up - that’s the line you see in the show. Our entrance was definitely staged - the producer told us “you’re gonna go in now.” There were cameras on my wife and I the whole time and not on anyone else.

The producers made it abundantly clear to me that if I didn’t think it was any good when I went back, I shouldn’t lie about it in the review. They wanted an honest reaction. I didn’t feel any pressure to say it was good - it just was. Essentially, Gordon Ramsay took over the restaurant for a night. The soup was of the quality of what you’d get at 10 Arts or somewhere like that - handcrafted, strained, really nice. Everything else was really good too. It was a lot of potato though - in the second review, I said 21 out of the 25 things on the menu had something to do with potatoes.

Yes, potatoes. Can we talk about your new tag line, ‘potato-riffic’?
Oh man - I don’t even remember saying it! Here’s the thing, it’s really difficult to eat with the camera in your face. There was a guy with the boom mike above my wife and I - when I would talk he would put it close to my face and go back and forth between us. I felt bright red the whole time I was there. Nothing else I said was usable, I guess. Everyone’s been texting me: “It’s Potato-riffic!”

Hot Potato Cafe: ‘Nightmare’ No More [Philadelphia Weekly]

Hot Potato’s ‘Potato-Riffic’ Turn on Kitchen Nightmares