She hosts Chicago’s favorite food show, can be seen on the Today Show, and spends serious time giving back to the Windy City. She does all this while still keeping date nights with her husband, growing her social media presence and STILL saying “no” to some projects in order to put her own well being first. If you think you know Catherine De Orio from her hosting job on Check, Please! you have a lot more to learn.
HOW DID YOU FIRST GET INTO THE CULINARY WORLD?
I grew up in a large Italian-American family in Chicago—so cooking and eating well has always played an integral role in my life. In my family, learning how to cook was considered something you needed to know, but wasn’t necessarily seen as a career path. I was encouraged to pursue a career as a doctor or lawyer. I started in pre-med, ended up in law school. After almost five years as a litigation attorney I enrolled in culinary school at Kendall College and worked as an attorney for another year while attending classes at night and on weekends. From there, I was recruited as a culinary spokesperson for Sara Lee Corporation. This opened the doors to culinary media and I began doing more broadcast work, and soon after editorial. Fast forward almost a decade, the “Check, Please!” host position became available, and I threw my toque in the ring.
WHAT DREW YOU TO IT, ESPECIALLY COMING FROM A LEGAL BACKGROUND?
After years in the practice, I was completely miserable, so I decided to make a change. I grew up cooking and interested in food and I’ve always loved to entertain. My creative outlet as an attorney was to throw very lavish parties and do all of the cooking myself. I was always asked who catered the party, and when I would tell people I did—many remarked that I should leave law and start a catering company. After a particularly challenging day at my firm, I made the decision to enroll in culinary school at Kendall College and pursue my passion.
YOU’RE BEST KNOWN NOW FOR YOUR WORK WITH CHECK, PLEASE!
It has been a great experience for me. Each year gets better as I become more comfortable and continue to develop my style. I worked in TV for almost a decade before I became the host of Check, Please! […] By the end I was making regular appearances on Today Show, Better Homes & Gardens TV, Rachael Ray Show and Good Day LA, but to start, I was in towns that didn’t even seem to have a large enough population to support a TV station! It was a great experience for me and live TV really taught me to be prepared for anything and also to go with the flow.
Check, Please! is taped and edited, but it’s not scripted, so in that way it is similar to live TV. The big difference has been that I am now the pacesetter for the show as the host, which took a little getting used to my first season. And the pace isn’t always the same—some groups I know are more serious and others I know are going to be a lot more lively—so it’s my job to decide what will work best with each group in terms of extracting the best information from them and then move forward from there.
WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR FAVORITE MEMORIES SO FAR?
On Check, Please! I’d say when I meet owners of mom and pop restaurants—they are so proud of what they are doing and they are so excited to be on recognized. They don’t have budgets for PR teams, so it is not always something they are used to and they get very excited. After the show airs when I go back to the restaurant, so many have told me they have had 3-4 times increase in business—that is the absolute best part of the job. The restaurant business is VERY hard—long hours, small margins, physically grueling labor—it is done out of love and passion. So being a part of showcasing the hard work of these individuals is incredibly gratifying.
On the Today Show, my favorite memory is when I was doing a New Year’s Eve entertaining segment with Savannah Guthrie and Tamron Hall. Savannah is a self-proclaimed terrible cook, so I gave her the simple task of spooning whipped mascarpone cheese into a crystal brandy snifter. I turn to answer a question from Tamron and then “CRASH!!” I turn around and Savannah had smashed the snifter to hundreds of pieces with the spoon when trying to perform the task. It was great! It’s live TV—so you just have to keep going—but Matt Lauer ran into the side of the set to tease her, the entire crew broke out laughing.
HOW DO YOU PREPARE FOR TV APPEARANCES?
For Check, Please!, I visit all of the restaurants, interview the chefs and/or owners and beverage directors, and do preliminary calls with all of my guests. I also research the types of cuisine or cooking methods if I am not familiar with them already. Even when I am, I do research. Since I am not able to give my opinion on the show, I like to give our viewers some takeaway—that could be an interesting fact about the cuisine; how something is made; what a certain ingredient is; tips for creating a great dining experience, etc. I really enjoy learning about cultures and their cuisines. People say I am like an Anthony Bourdain—with less curse words in my sentences.
TELL US ABOUT YOUR WORK WITH KENDALL COLLEGE TRUST?
I serve as the Executive Director of the Kendall College Trust (KCT), a not-for-profit that provides resources and educational opportunities for students pursuing careers in business, hospitality and culinary arts. I develop and execute the organization’s strategic plan, which encompasses administrative, marketing, financial, fundraising and programming.
Fundraising is a large part of our organization’s focus. In my first two years at KCT, I’ve assisted in increasing the corpus by over 25 percent with over $1.5 million in new donations and programming, and we are hopeful to continue this rapid growth. An individual endowment program has also been put into place as well as new programming and fundraising initiatives.
Our scholarship program awards need-based scholarships to promising students completing their degree at Kendall College. A new initiative started under my tenure is the KCT Summer Culinary Camp, which launched in 2016. We have partnered with C-CAP (Careers through culinary arts program) and CPS to hold an immersive, one-week overnight summer camp (two sessions) for high school students from under-served communities. The camp serves to expand our campers’ horizons at a critical point in their lives while focusing on building culinary skills, culture and community. […]
Another exciting initiative is our signature fundraiser, Fried Chicken & Champagne Fest. The event brings together 12 amazing chefs in Chicago to dual it out for the ‘Golden Hen’ title for best fried chicken.
WHAT ARE YOUR FAVORITE SPOTS TO DINE AND DRINK IN CHICAGO?
There are so many places I like to dine — it seems unfair to single any one out. With that said, I love Ristorante Agostino’s on Harlem Avenue. It is some of the best Italian food you will eat in the city and I have been going since I was a young girl. I always order the fish salad and I love the zuppa di pesce—but it’s enormous so I usually talk my dining partner into splitting it with me. Generally, I enjoy homey, rustic food that is easy to share and enjoy with a group of people. For me, food is inextricably linked with friends and family.
I love grabbing wine at the bar at Monteverde — it’s close to my house and always bustling! I also enjoy Billy Sunday for a proper cocktail—they get it right every single time! I really love champagne, so RM Champagne and Pops for Champagne are always in my rotation. Sparrow is a fab little bar in the Gold Coast (I feel like it’s a little hidden treasure).
HOW DO YOU MAINTAIN A WORK/LIFE BALANCE?
I always joke that I’m either totally on or totally off—I am very much an extreme person; my extremes end up evening out and creating a balance. The one thing I have worked really hard at, and am getting slightly better at, is making sure to take care of myself by getting plenty of sleep, exercising and carving out time for things that nourish me, and I would recommend that to anyone trying to achieve balance.
I am heading into my fifth season of Check, Please! – we begin shooting in June. I am trying to grow the culinary camp. I continue to run my culinary consulting firm, Culinary Curator, which provides recipe development, spokesperson work and trend reporting for companies. In the coming year I will be launching a health & wellness brand—it is a culmination of all of my experience and my lifestyle. Stay tuned for more!