The “Check, Please!” tease is over: Catherine De Orio is the new host of WTTW’s popular restaurant-review show.
The Elmwood Park native will replace longtime host Alpana Singh at the head of the table when the series starts filming its 13th season June 26.
The hunt for a new host has been a long, exhaustive process — one that included video applications from more than 900 hopefuls. “Check, Please!” creator and executive producer David Manilow pared back the field to 17 finalists, whose final stage of auditions had them hosting a mock show while the cameras rolled.
“That was the capper,” Manilow said. “She pops off the screen. She’s engaging, lively, smart, quick-witted.”
De Orio’s unconventional career background turned out to be good training for the gig. Public speaking isn’t a problem for the former litigation attorney, who graduated from Chicago’s Loyola University law school in 2½ years. When the legal profession was no longer fulfilling, she started studying culinary arts at Kendall College on nights and weekends while continuing to work as a lawyer to pay the bills.
“There were some days I’d rush out of work and change into my chef clothes in my car,” said De Orio, who lives in a West Loop loft with her lawyer husband and pet pug.
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Food has always played a central role in her big Italian-Lithuanian family, where Nana routinely presided over homemade dinners on Sundays. When De Orio moved away from her tight-knit family to study and work in Europe, completely alone, “food was a way to relate to people,” she said. “I’d throw parties and have people over for dinner.”
De Orio thought she’d become a caterer but ended up starting her own consulting company, Culinary Curator. She’s served as spokeswoman for various brands — Sara Lee, Hillshire Farm — and writes a dining column for Eater.com and Vegas magazine. She’s had plenty of on-air experience helming food-related segments on TV shows, such as “Today,” where a piece she did on New Year’s Eve parties resulted in Savannah Guthrie accidentally smashing a brandy snifter with a spoon full of whipped cream.
“I’ve done a lot of on-camera work but it’s all been live for the most part,” said De Orio, who noted (correctly) that the weakest part of her “Check, Please!” audition was when she read off the Teleprompter, somewhat stiffly. Scenes from that try-out were shown in a recent “Check, Please!” special, along with clips from fellow finalists Senam Amegashie, Donny de Castro, Ina Pinkney and Sarah Levy.
De Orio’s strengths shine through in unscripted moments. She’s able to keep the conversation flowing naturally — a necessity for a TV show that features regular folks reviewing their favorite restaurants.
It’s a show she’s already familiar with, having watched it since the beginning, when Amanda Puck was host.
Said De Orio: “I remember telling my boyfriend — now husband — at the time, ‘I want that job.’ ”