At last, after great deliberation and much wringing of hands, David Manilow made a decision.
White smoke rose from a pipe outside the window of his Lincoln Park office. He adjusted the zipper on his navy blue garment, splayed his hands on a conference table and stared intently at the collection of photographs before him. Each was a portrait of a candidate; he had looked at more than 900, whittling down an unwieldy morass to this, a handful of options. It had been an arduous process, as he expected it would be: Eight weeks ago his most infallible employee decided to retire, leaving Manilow with the unenviable task of filling very big shoes.
He needed a new host for “Check, Please!” — the popular restaurant-review round table, WTTW-Ch. 11's highest-rated show.
More white smoke poured from a pipe outside the windows of the show's production offices. “That?” Manilow said, looking toward the white curls, collecting and vanishing, collecting and vanishing, “that's just steam.”
Oh. False alarm.
He decided on 17 possibilities for a new “Check, Please!” host. (Those possibilities include a waitress/actress; a bartender; a personal chef; a restaurant general manager; an Oak Park restaurant owner; a food-industry spokeswoman; Anthony Todd, food editor for the Chicagoist blog; Bill St. John, the Tribune's wine columnist; Frank Brunacci, the former chef at Sixteen; Tony Diaz, sous-chef at Maude's Liquor Bar; Ina Pinkney, owner of Ina's Kitchen; Cleetus Friedman of the former Ravenswood deli City Provisions; pastry chef and food consultant Sarah Levy; and Rochelle Trotter, Charlie Trotter's wife. Also: Two candidates with no food industry experience, a fashion designer/former “Check, Please!” guest, and a charming T-shirt designer.)
He just hadn't made his final-final decision. Rather, Manilow, the show's executive producer and creator, had come to the midway point of his search to replace celebrity sommelier Alpana Singh, who announced in January that this season, her 10th with the show, would be her last. She wanted to focus on running The Boarding House, her new restaurant on Wells Street. Which left WTTW without a host for “Check Please!” — a show so enduringly popular after 13 years that, in 2012 alone, more than 4,000 Chicagoans applied for one of its 36 annual guest-reviewer slots.
“The truth is that the star of ‘Check, Please!' has always been the reviewers and never the host,” said V.J. McAleer, WTTW's senior vice president of production. “But a good host draws out conversation between reviewers, and it is a high-profile gig: I can't tell you how many old friends I've heard from lately with sons or daughters who would be ‘perfect for this show,' whose kids spent a year in culinary school and have ‘been on TV once' and no, it ‘doesn't matter they've been at a law firm the last five years' — I've had my share of those calls.”
As have Manilow and “Check, Please!” producer Jacqui Wedewer. Manilow said: “There are people, well-known names in the food world, who reached out to say they kind of wanted to apply. But they didn't want to send an audition tape, so could we meet for coffee instead? They wanted to figure out how interested in them we were without having to actually apply publicly.”
He declined to name names.
He said he's asked everyone, famous and unknown, to follow the same process: Submit an audition video explaining why they should host. He's received nearly 1,000 videos, many from chefs who did formally apply, including Phillip Foss of EL Ideas, Susan Goss of West Town Tavern and Jackie Shen, who most recently worked at City Tavern. He's rejected agents and sidestepped the exploratory committees (aka assistants) of brand-name chefs looking for an inside track. Manilow has said, again and again, that his ideal host is — he's not sure. Someone with camera presence (but not merely an actor) who knows his or her way around the local food scene (but has a thoughtful, engaging persona)?
“Be a nice person, that's my biggest requirement,” he said. “But I've heard, even from people at WTTW, ‘It's so nice you're having open auditions, but of course you know who you're picking …' And we really don't.”
But he is picking.
Though he also is asking fans of the show to vote — through April 17, on wttw.com/checkpleasehost — for their favorite finalist, those votes will be “influential but nonbinding.”
A host will be announced May 1.
Asked if WTTW was intentionally dragging out the process, “American Idol”-style, McAleer said, “‘American Idol' is not the place where we set out from here,” then added, “but I do like the mystery and suspense.”
Said Wedewer, “Ultimately, our gut has everything to do with this.” Manilow jumped in: “Also, can we see ourselves doing this show with this person? Or is this person just good at making a video of themselves? That's really why we need to leave the final decision up to ourselves.”
Indeed, Sonny Vitkauskas, a former restaurant general manager who applied, said, “The producers called after I sent a video because they loved it but they also said I wasn't the right fit, which felt like an accomplishment and a disappointment at the same time. You could be a celebrity because of that show.”
Which may be what many applicants had in mind.
Vitkauskas' audition video was relatively mild, showing him driving around Chicago and explaining himself, a funny Everyman who could swing a decent impression of Guy Fieri and John Lennon. Other audition tapes elaborately mimicked courtroom dramas, featured applicants as dancing hot dogs, performing stand-up, conducting mock episodes of “Check, Please!” (one came complete with inserted shots of Barack Obama, who was a guest on the first episode in 2000 while still a state senator). One inexplicable video was a puppet rave. Another seemed modeled after the classic Bob Dylan video for “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and showed its applicant silently flipping title cards. One video included a cameo endorsement from Jim Belushi.
Some applicants promised 20,000 new Twitter followers if they were selected; others sent cakes (Levy, whose video also featured the Belushi walk-on). And some of this stuff even worked, if for no other reason that it kept Manilow and Wedewer awake. “You cannot believe how many people explain to us how exciting and dynamic they are in a monotone, dull voice,” Manilow said. “I couldn't swing a dead cat without hitting one!”
Wedewer clicked an email.
An audition video began. A woman sat stiffly behind a grandiose place setting. She sipped wine and said, in a flat voice, she would be the perfect new host. “Dead cat!” Manilow shouted, then Wedewer clicked the stop firstname.lastname@example.org