By David Hammond
Catherine De Orio is the host of “Check, Please!” the influential WTTW show that features regular people talking about their personal favorite restaurants. She is also the executive director of the Kendall College Trust, providing experiences, culinary and otherwise, to Chicago students. Sometimes, she’s invited to classes and associations to talk about career changes—and she’s seen a few of those changes herself.
De Orio’s first career was in art; she worked at the National Gallery in Washington and The Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, Italy, before getting her law degree and passing the bar. She was an attorney for years before giving up all that to pursue a career in food. Culinary Curator has been, and continues to be, her consulting company, specializing in recipe development, corporate presentations and trend research.
About five years ago, right before De Orio’s first “Check, Please!” episodes started running, I met her at Johnnie’s Italian beef stand in Elmwood Park, down the street from where she used to live with her family. As we were waiting in line for our lunch, De Orio’s dad happened to get in line behind us; he was just breaking for lunch, so we all had our Italian beef sandwiches together. For De Orio, early experiences cooking and eating with her family had a big influence on her current career. The influence of family is still very present for her, even as her star has soared, as indicated by this recent conversation.
It’s been my experience that grandmothers have quite a significant influence upon chefs. I believe that you, too, had an influential grandmother.
My Nana Kay was my mentor from an early age, not just in the kitchen but in life. She was a widow, so needed to be independent. She was a savvy investor: she had an investment club with her girlfriends. My first financial lessons came from her. She was intelligent, picked things up very quickly. She understood people and what made them tick; she gave me very good advice about relationships and my career. She never really thought I should be a lawyer. She knew it wasn’t going to make me happy, and she encouraged me to follow my passion.
She and I cooked together a lot; early on I was frustrated because I wanted recipes and she would say, “no, no, you need to learn to taste things and you need to be able to feel the food.” Most of the food my Nana made was rustic Italian food, peasant food: a traditional neck-bone gravy, homemade raviolis, braciole and involtini. Her gravy was the best!
People know you as the person who listens to other people’s restaurant experiences. When you were little, what restaurant experiences made a big impression on you?
I come from a large Italian family so much of my food experience was in-home. That said, my parents did take my brother and me out to eat fairly often, and what was most formative about those experiences is that my parents encouraged us to eat like adults. By that I mean they weren’t asking for kiddie menus and summarily deciding our meal for us. We were able to choose whatever we wanted. I was always a healthy eater. I would order filet mignon (and always full size, no petite version for me!); it was my favorite. And the waiter would always look to my dad as if to ask if I was for real. And my dad always said, “Yep, let her have it; she’ll eat it.” And I did, down to the last bite. And my dad would eat all types of raw seafood, pig’s feet, tripe, things that most kids wouldn’t touch—but my dad would say, “How do you know you don’t like it if you haven’t tried it.” My first raw clam ended up spit back into my napkin, but I tried it. I turned out to be a kid who liked things that other kids didn’t: brussels sprouts, spinach and lima beans.
What kind of law did you practice… and why did you decide that law was not the profession for you?
I was in insurance litigation. Need I say more? But seriously, I had a very specific reason for going to law school and my plans changed. I was in a career that I didn’t really want. I found myself spending every moment I wasn’t working attending cooking classes, reading cookbooks/cooking magazines, researching restaurants, dining out and throwing lavish dinner parties. At a certain point, it just didn’t make sense for me to stay in a career that provided no “nourishment” for me.
Do you think your legal training has helped you host “Check, Please!”?
As a litigation attorney, a huge part of the job is about listening to people and extracting information from them. And I was on the plaintiff’s side for most of my career, so there is an element of nurturing and gaining your client’s trust—which is also something a host needs with their guests. If your guests feel comfortable with you, they more readily present their best selves. When I’m on my preliminary calls with guests, I tell them that when they’re on the show, I want them to feel like this is a dinner party with their friends, and that they should talk to us just as they would to their friends. They’re not presenting; they’re just talking. And sometimes they may not be polite—they might say “this is awful” or “I hate it”—but that’s fine. And sometimes they’ll ask “Can I say that?” because they’re worried they’ll say something wrong, but on “Check, Please!” there are no rules. Taste is subjective. You can’t say anything wrong. As long as what you’re saying is honest, it’s fine, because that’s what resonates and that’s what helps the viewers. We’re helping them make decisions about where they should spend their money and their time?
Do you ever stop people who seem to be going on about what seems to you an illegitimate complaint about a restaurant?
Never. If a person has a complaint about a place, it’s likely some people in the viewing audience will have a similar complaint, so that opinion deserves to be heard. I don’t stop people, but sometimes I will ask a follow-up question, like “Did you give the restaurant a chance to make it right?” A restaurant can’t fix something if they don’t know that there’s a problem or something else that you want.
So many times in restaurants, a server will come by and ask “How’s everything tasting?” or “How is it?” I’m guessing close to one-hundred percent of people simply say “oh, fine” or “great” even if they’re not completely happy with what they’re eating.
You know, the internet has made it so easy for people to be kind of just… cowards. It’s easy to say “great, great” and then just take to Yelp to complain before they’re even out the door. But that’s the world we live in and it is what it is, but it does seem a bit unfair that a restaurant might take a hit because you didn’t give them a chance to make it right. And it’s happened a few times during the show, where someone will say they complained about something and then the restaurant went totally above and beyond to make it right, and the guest is like “I’d go back. I don’t care that I had a bad experience. They showed me that I mattered.” And my belief is that, even if your food is very good, if you don’t treat people well, they’re not going to come back.
What do you find challenging about being the host on “Check, Please!”?
At first it was not being able to have an opinion. I’m a food writer and food is something I’m very passionate about, and I have opinions. Sometimes I just want to join in the conversation with my own thoughts, but I need to remain neutral, because if I express an opinion, then the guests might just tend to agree with me, and that’s not what we want. I’m used to it now, but it was definitely a challenge early on. Overall, I’m most passionate about exploring cooking techniques and the culture surrounding food, and “Check, Please!” allows me to constantly learn and share that knowledge. So the necessary neutrality has allowed me to be able to focus on bringing some additional takeaway for our viewers. So what started out as a challenge has been a blessing!
I’m guessing that you go to eat at all the places featured on the show. Does your notoriety interfere with the restaurant’s ability to treat you like a regular customer? Do you have any way of overcoming that? Ruth Reichl-type disguises, maybe?
I should start wearing disguises! How fun would that be? But no, I don’t intentionally try to go unnoticed, but I also make no attempt to be noticed either. I know that I am very lucky to oftentimes receive special treatment; however, I never expect it. Serious restaurants strive to give everyone the best experience. At the end of the day, I can have a sublime experience and if they aren’t trying to give all the guests a great experience, they aren’t going to last long. I love when chefs look at what I’ve ordered and then send out to me something they are experimenting with, or they see I didn’t order something they’re really proud of, so they send it to the table to try.
Is there any way to determine the impact of “Check, Please!”?
There’s no formula that gives metrics on the “Check, Please!” impact; however, based on anecdotal evidence from the featured restaurants, there is definitely a beneficial “Check, Please!” effect. Many have told me that they have received three times or more business after a show airs. And then when the show re-airs, they get another big surge in business. It’s the best feeling when you talk to a chef or restaurant owner and they tell you what a positive impact it had on their business.
What does the Kendall College do for the future of food in Chicago?
We raise scholarships for culinary, business and hospitality students. During my tenure, I started a culinary camp for kids in Chicago Public Schools who are a part of the Chicago Culinary Arts Program. We do a summer program for high-performing students, mostly from the West Side and the South Side, who come and stay with us for a week. They stay overnight at the Kendall dorms, and they spend the day in the kitchens with our instructors. At night, they do a “cultural excursion.” And some of these kids, amazingly, have never been in downtown Chicago. So being exposed to new experiences, meeting new people, those are the things that spark ambition, a passion to do more.