Meet Catherine De Orio.
She's Italian. She's in her mid-30s. She lives in the West Loop. She's married to a lawyer. She has no food allergies. She has a throaty, confiding voice. Her favorite color is green, and if she were a tree, she would be a fig tree (“beautiful leaves, and edible …”). She once owned a goldfish that committed suicide by leaping out of its bowl and into a garbage disposal.
Also, she just signed a one-year contract with WTTW-Ch. 11. Yes, after five months of speculation and lobbying, an audition process that drew more than 900 applicants, more than 10,000 online votes from viewers and a fair amount of gut-level consideration from producers …
Catherine De Orio is the new host of “Check, Please!”
De Orio — whose selection has been known and closely guarded for weeks, so much so that producers and station executives would only refer to her as “the chosen one” internally — now becomes the face, moderator and “brand ambassador” of the wildly successful, long-running restaurant-review round table, the highest-rated show on Chicago public television. Indeed, De Orio appears genetically engineered for “Check, Please!” duties, possessing every quality that David Manilow, the show's creator, has been publicly espousing since Alpana Singh, the previous host, announced last winter she was leaving the show after 10 seasons.
A self-described noncritical food writer (for the online magazine Eater and the glossy print publication Vegas), De Orio's up on food trends and local restaurants, but doesn't have a history of panning or praising Chicago establishments. A self-employed media personality and “culinary consultant” — “I do a lot of corporate recipe development and spokesperson work for brands, on TV and at events,” she said — she's comfortable in front of a camera (unlike Singh, whose mild on-screen presence was never entirely satisfying, even to Singh).
Plus, well, De Orio is so nice — a quality that Manilow has also been stressing for months.
Last week, an hour or so after being told she was the new host, she hugged this reporter.
“I'm sorry,” she said. “I have no sense of personal space, and I'm a hugger, and this is killing me. I have been told I can't tell anyone about this until the official announcement, and I have watched this show since Amanda Puck (the host for the first two seasons) was on, and I remember watching with a friend and saying, ‘I want that job.' So when I got home and the only person there was my dog, this curmudgeonly pug, I hugged her, and she was like: ‘Feed me. I don't care. What does this mean for me?' Which is a typical dog.”
The official announcement was to be made Wednesday on WTTW's website.
Manilow, who created the series in 2001 and since franchised “Check, Please!” spinoffs in five cities (including San Francisco and Miami), said that De Orio “reinforces what we've been doing all along. She is smart, knowledgeable about food and wine, and sure, there is somewhat of a gut feeling here: As we went through this process, we would see certain people and think, ‘There's the new host.' But then those people would fall to the wayside, yet Catherine was one of the few people who I liked her audition tape then I met her and liked her even more. Then she auditioned for us, and I liked her even more. And her story appealed.”
Unlike Singh (who grew up in California) and Puck (Staten Island), De Orio is the show's first host from the Chicago area. She grew up in Elmwood Park, studied art and political science at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, became a litigation lawyer, then became disillusioned and went to Kendall College culinary school — not to be a chef but “to celebrate food,” she said. (Her audition video resembled a courtroom parody and featured De Orio swearing on Julia Child's “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.”)
That said, despite the months of hype leading to this announcement, De Orio's duties mostly amount to moderating 13 episodes a year and a handful of specials, as well as appearing at show-related events around Chicago. On the other hand, don't mistake the relative lightness of the job with a lack of consequence: Her appointment is not minor to Manilow, who owns the rights to the show and would like its success to continue — or to WTTW, which in recent years has reduced the number of ongoing series it produces. “When you think of this in terms of our branding, how iconically local the show is for us now, a change like this is a gigantic deal for this station,” said Dan Soles, WTTW's chief television content officer.
One more caveat:
Though producers and executives close to the show play up her everyday relatability and use words like “authentic” to describe De Orio — despite a candidate pool that variously included the wife of chef Charlie Trotter, Ina's Kitchen owner Ina Pinkney and well-known food consultant Sarah Levy — De Orio has had a lot of previous screen time. She's appeared often on the “Today” show, “The Rachael Ray Show” and Martha Stewart's satellite radio channel. And her spokeswoman duties have not been for minor brands, but rather, among many others, Ball Park hot dogs and Hillshire Farms meats — duties that V.J. McAleer, WTTW's senior vice president of production, said will have to be reviewed on a rolling basis to avoid any conflicts of interest.
“At the same time, we are PBS,” he added, “and aren't paying anyone a lot of money, and people have to make a living — we just want to be sure nothing conflicts with her as the face of a show about restaurants and food.” (De Orio, for her part, said many of her contracts are up for negotiation, and she doesn't expect a problem.)
Asked if online viewer voting for a new host — supposedly part of the decision process — factored into his decision, Manilow said: “It did in the sense (that) I don't remember which place she came in, but it was not the bottom three finalists, in which case it would have mattered. (The voting) mattered enough. And look, Catherine's never read a teleprompter! Just meet her, then you'll understand the decision right away.”
Yes, you do.
We met near a park outside her home; coffeehouses, being full of snoops, were ruled out. She played it nice and clandestine: She wore a tweed Dolce & Gabbana suit and heels, huge black sunglasses and the expensive-looking blond highlights of a movie star. Every passing dog-walker and jogger in Lululemon cast a glance. Her smile is gigantic, her laugh is even bigger and she talks a mile a minute — Annie Hall meets Nigella Lawson.
Asked why she left law for food, she answered for a solid five minutes.
A few highlights:
“My background started in the arts. I worked at the National Gallery of Art straight out of college, where I worked for the Italian Renaissance painting curator. I was his researcher. Then I went to Italy on a Guggenheim Fellowship, where you meet visiting scholars and give talks and do papers, and though I didn't really care for the modern art, because I'm an old-masters person, it was great to learn about the Venetian School. … Then I became worried about living in big cities and making no money, so people suggested I try law school … but when I got out of law school, I ended up working for a not-for-profit and basically dealing with licensing agreements, which is awful! The only person who cared is my dad, because now I'm a lawyer — and you do learn to negotiate and speak in front of people in law school, which are translatable skills — but I'm ready to slit my wrists. So I went to culinary school and didn't tell my parents for a long time, but it was my time! My money! But, of course, to parents, being a lawyer is more legit than slaving over a stove. …”
She talks a lot.
“I know!” she said. “I have damaged vocal cords!”
She added that, because other finalists were at the WTTW offices the day that she was anointed as the host, Manilow asked her not to skip on her way out of the building. “It was so hard!” she said. “I nodded to people on the way out and had to look serious. It was awful! Then I got in my car and had a stupid grin all the way home.”
Taping for the 13th season of “Check, Please!” begins next month, and new episodes air in the fall. De Orio has already downloaded a teleprompter-reading app for her iPad. Chicago, everything's going to be all right.
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