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‘Check, Please!’ host contenders get a taste of being on camera

Host hopeful Tommy Waltfashidesign teacher SAIC chats with panelists. As 'Check Please' searches for new host finalists do test runs

Host hopeful Tommy Walton, fashion design teacher at SAIC, chats with panelists. As "Check Please" searches for a new host, finalists do test runs of the show at WTTW television studios with mock contestants on Wednesday, April 10, 2013. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

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Updated: May 30, 2013 2:09PM

‘Check, Please!” host finalist Tommy Walton was on a roll. An egg roll.

“That sounds like an EGG-stravaganza!” Walton said to the amused trio seated around the dining table on the set of WTTW’s popular restaurant review show. “What makes the chilaquiles so EGG-citing?”

Walton, like all of the 17 contenders vying for Alpana Singh’s old job, was doing a dry run, hosting a mock “Check, Please!” show in front of the cameras. During this crucial part of the audition process, they read from a TelePrompTer and worked to keep the conversation flowing among people pretending to be guest reviewers.

“You can make a really great audition video but you can be a dud here,” said “Check, Please!” creator and executive producer David Manilow as he sized up the performances from the sidelines.

“The secret of the show is energy,” Manilow added. “If you have a host that has low energy, guests have low energy. Guests feed off the host.”

The on-camera tryouts marked the beginning of the end of a labor-intensive search to replace Singh. For 10 seasons, Singh helmed the show where — you know the drill — regular people from all over Chicago recommend and review their favorite restaurants. The personable master sommelier announced her exit in January to focus on her new River North restaurant, the Boarding House.

More than 900 people submitted videos of themselves lobbying for Singh’s spot at the head of the table. Manilow watched every one and whittled down the field, holding meet-and-greets with 140 of the more promising applicants at Kendall College and a restaurant in Andersonville. He culled the herd to 17 finalists — 10 women, seven men — and invited the public to weigh in on the candidates online. That voting ended April 17. (“Mum’s the word,” he said when asked for the vote tallies.)

The plan was to pare back the roster of would-be hosts to three and reveal their names Wednesday on the show’s website. Manilow instead settled on a final five — and one of the names on that list changed as recently as Friday. Those five final finalists will be featured in a “Check, Please!” special airing at 8 p.m. May 17 on WTTW-Channel 11.

“It’ll basically be the rough, raw auditions of the top [five],” Manilow said about the upcoming half-hour program. “We’ve never done anything that shows our process. Channel 11 wanted to do it.”

WTTW’s appetite for a behind-the-scenes special is understandable; “Check, Please!” is the Chicago PBS station’s highest-rated local program. The hunt for a new host has generated plenty of buzz among fans and foodies.

For two days earlier this month, the 17 hopefuls took turns hosting a fake episode reviewing John’s Place, a casual joint serving regional American food in Lincoln Park and Roscoe Village.

A fake episode is as close as John’s Place will ever get to being on “Check, Please!” That’s because Manilow’s brother owns it. If Manilow put John’s Place on the show and it got great reviews, people would cry foul. If it tanked, family get-togethers might be a bit awkward.

People posing as John’s Place reviewers were given notes about what they supposedly ate, what the experience was like, that sort of thing. I subbed in a couple of times as a mock guest who wasn’t crazy about my shrimp tostada — those tiny crustaceans were lost among the avocado-mango relish! But, boy, did I love that cowboy burger, topped with cheddar cheese and onion-bacon jam.

Finalists Flavia Magdalin and Catherine De Orio both commented that the cowboy burger won top prize at Roscoe Village Burger Fest. I tried — and probably failed — to look surprised by this bit of news for the camera.

After Tony Diaz’s audition, producer Jacqui Wedewer approached the table and asked the sous chef at Maude’s Liquor Bar how he thought it went.

“I’m trying to get my blood pressure down a bit,” confessed Diaz, adding a self-critique that he probably should have smiled more.

The hosting job is harder than it looks. You have to control the conversation without monopolizing it. It’s up to you to put at ease a trio of potentially polar opposite reviewers. You’ve got to be comfortable in front of the camera. And when it comes to food 411, you’d better be worth your salt.

Manilow plans to reveal his pick May 29 for a new host, who will be treated to a new set for season 13, airing in the fall.

We await the news, as Tommy Walton might say, with great EGG-spectations.

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