To say that Alpana Singh is over the moon about her return to the hit WTTW-Channel 11 series “Check, Please!” is an understatement. In a phone chat over the Memorial Day holiday weekend, Singh’s voice exudes joyousness.
“‘Check, Please!’ is an institution, and it’s an honor and privilege to be able to host it and be the caretaker of the conversation about what people look for in a dining experience,” she says excitedly.
“Food is very political, when you think about it,” she continues, with a hearty laugh. “You don’t discuss religion, politics or barbecue! People have very passionate views about what they want out of their food.”
The news about her return to the Public Television series was reported late last week. She will be replacing her successor, Catherine De Orio, who has hosted “Check, Please!” for the past five seasons.
“I haven’t seen a lot of the show since I left because I’m so busy on with the restaurants (Singh currently owns two eateries), but from what I have seen, Catherine has done a tremendous job,” Singh says emphatically. “I have a lot of respect and admiration for her. She’s super-smart, brilliant, hardworking. I think she was an excellent ambassador for the program. … I heard people used to tell her she had huge shoes to fill when she took the job. [Laughing] Now it’s me who has big shoes to fill.”
In a statement, “Check, Please!” executive producer Dan Soles said De Orio expressed interest “in developing a new concept for a national food and travel show“ and is discussing the project with WTTW. “We were excited by the prospect, and are eager to keep her in the public television family,” he said.
Singh departed “Check, Please!” in 2012 after 10 seasons to open her first restaurant, the tony, upscale American/wine-inspired The Boarding House in River North. It was followed by two other ventures: the Italian/Mediterranean-inspired Terra and Vine in Evanston and Seven Lions on South Michigan Avenue. (She sold her interest in the latter this past October.)
“I was 26 years old just and had just passed my Master Sommelier exam,” Singh says of her first go-around at “Check, Please!” “I’m a very goal-driven person but I also live my life in a way that’s intuitive — what feels right to be the next step. It took me 7 years to pass that test (it’s a grueling, multi-year exam process; she became the youngest woman ever to achieve Master Sommelier rank). I moved across the country [from Monterey, California] and I was like, OK, now what do I do? I needed a new challenge.
“[‘Check, Please!’ creator/executive producer] David Manilow called me and asked if I wanted to audition for the show and I’m like, OK, universe —thank you! It was literally a gap of six months between passing my test and getting that phone call. … I needed something different, a new focus, a new challenge. And I wasn’t thinking past the first season, to be honest. I was supposed to move to Chicago for two years — and here I am 18 years later!”
A bit “older and wiser,” Singh, 41, makes it clear she’s not the same person she was when she first hosted the series. Most notably, she now brings the voice of a seasoned restaurateur to the mix.
“That’s something I didn’t have before because I didn’t own a restaurant yet. … [The past five years] gave me this tremendous insight into how vast and varied the restaurant business is and how it definitely brings people together, literally around a table.”
Hosting the show also gave her perspective on the restaurant business.
“Listening to the guests, listening to them talk about what they look for in a restaurant, what keeps them coming back, what makes you want to tell your friends about it — and conversely what are the things you don’t like about a restaurant. To be clear, the ‘Check, Please!’ host does not have an opinion. The role of the host is to facilitate the conversation and extract information that gives the viewers an understanding of what the guests’ experience was like.”
For Singh, returning to host “Check, Please!” was a case of deja vu. “I got a phone call [from show executives] and one thing led to another and I said I would love to host again. It was literally another case of, OK, what do I want to do with my life now?”
That’s not to say Singh wasn’t weighing other options at the time. She seriously considered a run for Cook County Commissioner last September and was two days away from filing her official campaign paper work.
“I was just deeply affected by the [presidential] election and the call for women to get on board and dig deeper,” Singh said. “I’m at a point in my life where I want to be part of something greater than me and give back to the city that has given so much to me. … I’ve been slowly getting more involved (she was instrumental in bringing the James Beard Awards to Chicago). I’m on the board of Choose Chicago, and the Advisory Council for the Illinois Restaurant Association. … But I just had this feeling that it wasn’t the right time in my life to pursue the political career, just yet. And six months later I got the phone call about returning [to host the show].
Singh said the show will begin taping this summer, with new episodes airing in the fall.
“Life always has a very funny way of knocking on my door [and saying], ‘This is next, Alpana. Get ready!'”