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Behind the Scenes at Check, Please!

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You don't have to be a foodie to be a guest on WTTW's Check, Please! In fact, your chances might be better if you're not. David Manilow, creator and executive producer of the weekly show, which features ordinary people discussing their favorite local restaurants, doesn't care nearly as much about expertise as he does about personality and diversity. Funny is good, as is having an underrepresented profession. "I got enough lawyers," he says.

When the show started taping in 2001, the guests on the first few episodes were all friends or acquaintances of Manilow's--everyone from a magician he met at a party to Barack Obama (Obama's pick: Hyde Park's Dixie Kitchen). Now, however, almost everyone gets on by going to the show's Web site (wttw.com/checkplease) and submitting a couple of paragraphs about a favorite restaurant. About 15,000 people have applied so far, and Manilow can fill just 36 spots per season.

One of the first things to catch Manilow's eye is an interesting restaurant pick--a place where, he says, "there's things to talk about besides the service and the quality of the food," such as history, decor, or unusual amenities. (Restaurants aren't featured twice. There's a list of already-featured restaurants on the Check, Please! Web site.) Manilow also has to be confident that the guest will feel comfortable on camera. If he's intrigued by someone's application, he calls for an interview. "If they're nervous talking to me, they're going to be really nervous on the show," he says. And, last, Manilow looks for personality: "If you make me laugh, that always helps."

Manilow aims for a mix of races, ages, income levels, and professions. If you pass the interview he writes your name, profession, and restaurant pick on a card, pins it up on a wall with a bunch of others, and rearranges the cards into groups of three, looking for the perfect blend of restaurants and people. "I might say, 'Oh, the fashion designer is going to be really interesting with the cop,'" he says. "These people are not sitting down together anywhere else."

Once in a while someone just gets lucky. "So I'm scouting a restaurant called the Raw Bar in Wrigleyville," Manilow says. He routinely scopes out restaurants that might be on the show. "I go there one night at 11 o'clock and have a couple martinis, and somebody says, 'My friend wants to be on the show, and she's right over here. She's a belly dancer'--this tattooed, pierced, beautiful belly dancer. I looked at her and I went, 'Oh, you're on the show. I'll call you tomorrow.'" The dancer ended up talking restaurants with a car salesman and a theology student (she chose Raw Bar, the salesman chose the Millrose Brewing Company in Barrington, and the student picked Siam Noodle & Rice in Uptown).

Manilow, a former sports producer for Channel Seven, devised the show's concept five years ago. "I grew up in the city, and among my friends I was kind of the go-to guy for restaurants," he says. He moved to the suburbs (Winnetka, then Glencoe) about 12 years ago after getting married; at the time he was president of an independent video-production company. After his divorce he started Semaphore Media, which produces Check, Please!, moved back to the city, and ecstatically reacquainted himself with its dining scene. "I was like, 'Oh my god! I forgot! Look at all this! There should be a show about restaurants!'"

During the first season, hardly anyone who watched Check, Please! seemed to remember its name, Manilow says--it was just "that food show on Channel 11." Four years later, WTTW reports that between 250,000 and 300,000 households watch each episode, and the show won Emmys in its first two seasons for best conversation program series. Host Alpana Singh, who took over from original host Amanda Puck last year, gets recognized everywhere (including, recently, at a Las Vegas gym at 2 AM).

Hosts are already being auditioned for a San Francisco version, and programs are being planned for New York, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles. Manilow is working on a cookbook featuring recipes from restaurants discussed on the show.

The show sparks so much new business for many of its featured restaurants that complaints about the "Check, Please! effect"--the downward turn small venues risk taking when they can't keep up with swelling crowds--have popped up on online food-chat boards such as EatChicago.net and LTHForum.com. Some local foodies cite Hema's Kitchen and Noon-O-Kabab as unfortunate examples of this phenomenon. Jason Hammel, co-owner of the recently featured Lula Cafe, attests to the show's ability to pull in patrons: "It's February, and we're busy like it was summer." He says that while his place can handle the extra business, "it's hard for some restaurants that don't have a large employee structure in place, especially if it's a place that hasn't really done any advertising." (Still, an EatChicago.net post nobly proclaims, "It is our duty to tell other food lovers about the places we love.")

On the morning of the last taping of the current season, Manilow sits in the WTTW studio's greenroom, chatting with the guests--Kevin Coval, a writing teacher and hip-hop performance poet from Pilsen; Brenda Machalk, a realtor and deli-counter clerk from Somonauk, a small town west of Aurora; and Luis Ortega, a television producer from Lakeview. It's the first time they've met, and they're not allowed to talk about the restaurants before taping starts. Manilow wants all that energy saved for the show. Instead they fill out a detailed questionnaire about their restaurant experiences and talk to Singh one-on-one, so she knows how to guide the on-air chat. "We look for layers of conversation," Manilow says. "We don't want Alpana to do 'How was your experience? Oh. And how was your experience?'"

Many guests start out a little reserved and gradually loosen up, but there's always the exception. Like Machalk, who's brought homemade key lime pie for everyone. "I wanted to make you homemade kolacky, but I drank too much last night," she tells Manilow. "I'm glad you let me come on the show."

"I'm glad too," Manilow says, laughing. Guests whose conversational skills don't require coaxing are always a bonus. "You make my life easier."

By the time taping's supposed to start, the greenroom conversation sounds like the most animated stage of a cocktail party, the one where the wine's just kicked in. Manilow knows from experience, though, that this off-air conviviality doesn't guarantee a good show. That's why the episode with Obama never aired: one of the guests, a fireman who'd entertained the others in the greenroom by wearing plastic vampire fangs, froze up when the cameras rolled.

Sure enough, the camera immediately subdues everyone, even Machalk. The spirited conversation from the greenroom has dissolved into wooden comments on Coval's pick, Red Light, such as "It was delicious. I want to go back." During a break, Manilow refills everyone's wineglasses and tells them, "Get into it a little bit more."

The mood eases up during the second segment, when everyone considers Machalk's pick, Bobak's Sausage Company in Burr Ridge. She loves the chicken consomme there. "It's like Jell-O with meat, but it's not sweet," she tells the others. "You have to be a real strong person to take that first bite." Machalk and Coval are enthusiastic about Ortega's choice, Andersonville's Tomboy, though there's some discussion about the chef's affinity for goat cheese.

Afterward, Manilow shakes the guests' hands and tells them the show is scheduled to air February 25. Machalk, Coval, and Ortega go back to the greenroom to chat some more and have pie. On her way out Machalk asks the makeup woman, "Did I smile good?" Despite the slow start, Manilow's pleased with the way the energy level recovered. "These are my people," he says. "They showed up."

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