To wander inside of Mrs. Potato, a Brazilian potato house tucked into Southwest Orlando, you’d never imagine from the modest decor and cozy atmosphere that this restaurant was showcased in an episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives when Guy Fieri chose Orlando as his featured “Flavortown” in 2017.
“I hope you’re hungry,” says chef-owner Rafaela Cabede as a carne seca rosti potato with Brazilian cream cheese is placed in front of me, the server pausing briefly with a big smile to see my reaction to this ultimate comfort food. The rosti potato, Brazil’s version of the classic potato pancake, is Mrs. Potato’s signature dish, with filling options that not only represent the traditional Brazilian flavors that Rafaela grew up with, but also Philly cheesesteak, broccoli and cheese, and other flavors that remind Americans of home as well.
“I’m happy to share my culture, but I want to respect your culture as well,” says Rafaela as she politely watches me groan over the crispy, buttery potatoes and the saltiness of the meat. A creamy, house-made garlic sauce and a spicy Brazilian pepper sauce are served on the side for additional flavoring, but the rosti is heavenly in its own right.
The carne seca, or dried beef, rosti potato has a yellow star next to it on the Mrs. Potato menu, indicating that Guy Fieri sampled and put his restauranteur stamp of approval on it. It has become the most popular menu item since the episode aired, but while Rafaela says she was overjoyed to have been chosen for the TV show, she was also nervous for one main reason — she had no formal culinary or restaurant education.
Chef Rafaela with Carne Seca
“All I have is a passion for cooking. I have always cooked for my family and for my friends,” says Rafaela. “Some people go running, some go to the gym. I go to the kitchen. Cooking is my way of telling people ‘I love you.’
She grew up in Rio de Janeiro, where Brazilian potato houses are a mainstay of Brazilian comfort cuisine. It was in Rio where Rafaela’s mother met her stepfather, an American engineer from California who was in the country working on a project with his company. The two were married after a year and a half, and after her stepfather’s project was complete, the family moved to California when Rafaela was 11.
She stayed in the San Francisco Bay area for about three years, and when Rafaela was about 14, she and her family went back to Brazil, where she finished her education and ended up getting a professional degree in teaching. Rafaela enriched the lives of both children and adults during her career, but as the political situation in Brazil became more volatile, she knew she had to make a decision to secure a better future for her daughter, Bruna.
In 2010, when her daughter was 10 years old, Rafaela made the important decision to come back to the San Francisco/Bay area. With her teaching career left behind her in Brazil, Rafaela’s dream to open a potato house began to take the forefront.
“The concept of a Brazilian potato house is very common in Brazil. But when I told other people my dream that I wanted to open a Brazilian potato house, they would look at me and say, ‘What!?’” a Brazilian Potato House? she said. “Potatoes are international. I don’t know one culture that doesn’t have them. Like when you play cards and a wild card goes with anything, potatoes go well with anything.”
But Rafaela soon found that realizing her dream might not be possible in San Francisco.
“I couldn’t find quality Brazilian ingredients in California for my Brazilian potato house. It was like being an artist and having your brushes and tools taken away. I wasn’t feeling it,” she says.
The strong Brazilian culture and more accessible and diverse food markets of Orlando, Florida appealed to Rafaela, and shortly after, she relocated to The City Beautiful. But although her dream to open a potato house was just as alive and strong as ever, she knew she wasn’t ready yet.
“I didn’t know anything about restaurants. Everything I knew about it was what I had seen on TV,” she says, laughing.
Rafaela decided to begin her foray into the restaurant industry by starting at the beginning and applying at Brio Tuscan Grille at Orlando’s Millenia Mall. She did not yet have the necessary experience to be a server, so she began as a hostess and used the position as an opportunity to learn.
“Whenever I got the opportunity to go into the kitchen, I would ask them, ‘Why are you doing that?’ and I was probably the most annoying person but they would explain it to me and I learned about consistency, portion control, temperature control...I saw someone putting hot chicken into the refrigerator and asked why because my mom had always told me I would break the fridge if I put hot things in it,” she says. “They told me about getting the chicken down to a certain temperature in a certain amount of time to keep it safe from bacteria.”
Rafaela’s tenacity and determination earned her a place in Brio’s server course after just four months with the company, which was unheard of at the time. At the end of the course, she and three other potential servers were tested by having to serve the General Manager and other senior positions at the restaurant as though they were everyday customers, and Rafaela says it is the most difficult test she has ever taken to date.
“One of them would ask for water with no ice, one of them would ask for water with ice and lemon, and we had to memorize the ingredients for everything on the menu so one of them would claim to have an allergy and ask if a certain ingredient was in a dish,” she said.
Of the four people who took that final test, only three passed — and Rafaela was one of them. In the four years that she stayed with Brio, she quickly worked her way up from server to closer to team leader while continuing to ask questions from the experts around her and using every opportunity to learn.
“From customer service to cleaning to answering review, I’m so thankful for that. That was my big school,” she says.
Now ready to realize her dream, Rafaela opened the first location of Mrs. Potato in 2014, in a small kiosk on International Drive — one of the most popular tourist destinations in Orlando.
“We had four flavors on the menu when we first began,” she explains, “and everything we made was to pay the bills. What’s for dinner? Let’s have a potato. Every single day I would eat a potato because that’s what I could afford.”
As for the name Mrs. Potato, Rafaela says that was a result of sudden inspiration.
“I wanted a name that would speak for itself, and ‘Rafaela’s Potato House’ wouldn’t really do that. The drawer was drawing as I was speaking, and I thought ‘How about Mr. Potato?’ but realized that my husband can’t fry an egg and I’m the chef!”
Mrs. Potato was born, a happy-looking female potato character with one hand on her hip and the other holding a giant wooden spoon, ready to prepare your order in her chef’s hat and apron. Mrs. Potato has also become a nickname for Rafaela, and within just a year of opening the business, word had already spread about the new potato house in town and the little kiosk on International Drive was featured in Orlando Magazine.
Mrs. Potato Restaurant
By 2016, Rafaela was able to move to her current location, which offered her the ability to upgrade from just a few outside picnic tables to a true restaurant experience. The popularity of her dishes continued to grow, and Mrs. Potato was soon visited by the local Fox 35 TV station.
But although her business was gaining traction, Rafaela’s daughter, Bruna, was getting closer to college age, and Rafaela was worried about being able to send her to her school of choice — the University of Florida in Gainesville.
“How could I have the story of bringing her over here for a better life and then have to tell her that she wouldn’t be able to go to school?” she said.
Their lives changed when Guy Fieri came to town.
“He asked me where my daughter was, and I said, ‘She’s out front.’ He said, ‘I want to meet her’ so he went out there and he said to her, ‘We’re doing this for you.’”
Bruna is now 19 years old and attending the University of Florida for International Affairs, an achievement that Rafaela knows she could not have achieved without Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. Although the Food Network recognition has not changed or defined Rafaela or Mrs. Potato, the success that the restaurant has experienced since the episode aired is a large part of their story.
“I never imagined this,” says Rafaela, speaking about the 300% increase in business that the restaurant has seen and the Yelp awards, magazine features and autographed Guy Fieri poster that adorn the dining room wall.
The staff at Mrs. Potato, Brazilian Potato House which started with just one person in addition to Rafaela, is now a team of 20.
“They’re not just 20 employees. These are 20 families and 20 immigrants who have the same dreams that I did,” she says. “I think the American dream is still possible for people who work hard and are decent and who respect the culture. I don’t want to impose my culture; I want to share it.”
Banana Crunchy Roll
Before I knew what was happening, Rafaela whispered a few words in Portuguese to one of her staff, and in a few minutes, a surprise dessert was put on the table — a cheesecake and banana crunchy roll, served with soft vanilla ice cream and homemade dulce de leche sauce.
When I revealed that I’d eaten the entire carne seca potato because I couldn’t have leftovers due to being on the keto diet, Rafaela laughed a deep, hearty belly laugh, and a single spoon was placed at the table for me, because I was her guest.
Author: Becky Greiner
Becky is based in Orlando, Florida, and jumps at any opportunity to combine writing, people, and food. She has been writing professionally for 16 years and can most often be found on her patio with a cup of strong coffee and a book with a weird title.