Unless you live in the area or you’re a devoted fan of Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, the recent closing of Philadelphia’s Hot Potato Cafe likely won’t mean much. For me, it’s the sad conclusion to a bizarre turn of events involving my friend Brian McManus, a guy I’ve known half my life and who Ramsay once claimed, to my great amusement and disbelief, “has the power to make or break restaurants.” Turns out Ramsay was right. At least about the “break” part.
Kitchen Nightmares, in case you’ve never seen it, is basically a makeover show for incompetent restauranteurs on the brink of Losing It All. They beg Gordon Ramsay for help, he mocks and humiliates them, then rebuilds their operation from the ground-up: new menus, new merchandising, new decor. Each episode culminates in a successful grand reopening, replete with hugs and smiles, at the end of which Ramsay returns the kitchen to the hands of those who made it such a mess in the first place. Who often proceed to ruin it all over again.
Hot Potato Cafe (try to guess the specialty) was the rehabilitation project at the center of KN’s third-season premiere. In business since 2007 and unsuccessful from the start, the proprietors blamed a good chunk of their misfortune on a scathing review my friend Brian wrote for the Philadephia Weekly under the headline Spuddy Hell. I can’t pretend to know why the producers of KN ultimately choose the restaurants they do, but in this case, I have to believe Brian’s review was a not-insignificant factor, if for no other reason than it afforded Ramsay the opportunity to mutter the words “spuddy hell” under his breath over and over again. Which he did. As often as possible.
It’s a strange experience, listening to a group of desperate women and an internationally renowned chef on a network television show refer, in hushed, fearful tones, to a shadowy figure they know as The Critic, realizing it’s the same guy who, the last time you saw him, took you to an all-black go-go club down the street from his house in west Philly called Cousin Danny’s Exotic Haven, where you both stood out so severely a woman actually looked you dead in the eye and said, “Evenin’, officer,” and where you both got so intoxicated you thought it a good idea to follow some of the other patrons to an “after party” they invited you to — at least until your friend’s wife heard the plan and wisely told you both to get the hell home.
Even stranger is watching your friend and the wife who saved both your asses appear on that same network television show, as the staff of a restaurant he once savaged anxiously awaits word on whether or not he likes their revamped potato soup, the first bite of which is So Very Dramatic the show stretches it from the end of act five, through a commercial break, into the opening moments of act six. That’s right: your friend eating soup is a cliffhanger. Unbelievable.
I’m not sure how many times I texted Brian when I watched the show air the first time, but I know I did so whenever something cracked me up — and I was cracking up a lot. The best part was when he said he liked the soup, then sheepishly smirked, shrugged his shoulders and, looking down at the table, said, “It’s so potato-riffic.” Because that moment — the body language, the smart-ass tone of voice — was classic Brian. And there it was, in the midst of absolute ridiculousness. I know for the women who ran the Hot Potato Cafe this all must have felt very life or death, but from my vantage point, knowing The Critic as I do, it was impossible to take seriously.
Brian wrote a glowing review of the new Hot Potato Cafe shortly before the Kitchen Nightmares episode aired, but in the end it made little difference. Eight months later it shut down for good. I’m not saying Brian could have done anything to prevent that; after all, if Gordon Ramsay couldn’t save the place, no one could. But the fact remains: as years pass, whenever those ladies think back on their failed enterprise, the role of The Critic will loom large. And I guess in that sense, the Brian they know is just as real as the Brian I know — the Brian who spent most of his 20s doing stuff like this:
Turns out he’s not just a guy who can wreck your living room. He can also wreck your career.