When Alpana Singh moved to Chicago in 2000, she recalls going to the same buzzy new restaurant here some eight times in a single year. “Now you can go to a perfectly delicious, fabulous restaurant, but you may not make it back for two years,” she says. “It’s not to say you didn’t like it – there are just so many other places you need to go to.”
It’s a striking example of how much the food scene has changed in Chicago and the world in the eighteen years since Singh came here at the age of 23 to run the wine program at the renowned fine-dining institution Everest. And it’s not just the number of restaurants: it’s also how people learn about, share, and approach food now, with social media and the proliferation of food publications, apps, and programming. “How we choose our restaurants has changed,” she says. “Now it’s almost like a sport.”
So as Singh returns as host of WTTW’s Check, Please! on October 26, she’s doing so in a vastly different landscape from when she first took the job, back in 2003, or even from when she left the show and was replaced by Catherine De Orio in 2013. Not that she ever left the food world; she has simply changed and evolved along with it. Back when she first joined Check, Please!, she was simply the youngest woman ever to pass the rigorous Master Sommelier exam. Now, she is also a restaurateur three times over, a member of Choose Chicago’s board of directors and the Illinois Restaurant Association’s advisory council who helped bring the James Beard Awards to Chicago, and even a possible political candidate – she seriously considered running for Cook County Commissioner last year. (She has also served as Lettuce Entertain You’s Director of Wine and Spirits.)
“I know a lot more sitting here at 41 than when I started at 26,” she says. “I’ve eaten a lot more food, I’ve traveled to a lot more countries. You can’t replace time and experience. Operating a restaurant of my own, I get it now when I meet restaurant owners: that tired look in their eyes, but also the passion. And I understand that really more than anything they want people to have a great time at their restaurant, and how disappointing it is for them when people don’t.”
Singh is still involved with her newest restaurant, Evanston’s Terra & Vine, but cut ties with her previous ventures The Boarding House (now closed) and Seven Lions last year, and she hopes to bring that restaurateur perspective to Check, Please! “Anywhere that I can insert a little tidbit that can help a viewer at home have a better experience, it just bridges that gap between what the restaurant wants to do and what you experience,” she says. “For instance, to advise someone with a dietary restriction that calling ahead really helps from the restaurant’s perspective.”
She also wants the show to reflect the way younger people approach food now, incorporating commentary about Yelp reviews, the suitability of a restaurant’s lighting for photography, and researching menus online. “I’m most excited about reaching out to a new generation of PBS viewers,” she says. “Kids are so much savvier now. I didn’t have Thai food until I was 20; my 15-year-old niece knows like six different Thai places. She’s got her list of restaurants that she wants to go to. And when she met Rick Bayless for the first time, I thought she was going to pass out: that was more exciting than Cardi B for her!”
But Check, Please! doesn’t only feature the hot new places appealing to Instagrammers and Snapchatters, which Singh cites as a strength. “Given that there’s always buzz around the next new thing, what I love about the show is that we do restaurants that have been around for decades. They’ve just stood the test of time, and we need to be reminded of them. People have literally raised their children in those restaurants and now their kids are going with their own kids. And then they become cool!”
It’s that sense of a shared past, of family, of eating with other people, that Singh most loves about food and is pleased to find in food-loving kids now. “Generation Z are such incredible gatekeepers of authenticity,” she says. “They really want to experience the wholeness of it. They want to go to places like Little Village and eat Mexican food, they want to go to Albany Park and have Middle Eastern food, they want to go with their diverse groups of friends and be able to eat like their friends do. I find it so comforting to know that we have this entire generation that wants to make sure we always have those things and that ability. That’s an incredible lesson that I’ve picked up from them, that this is a privilege.
“Nothing will teach you more about a culture than eating the food. Because what is food? It’s the sharing of a culture, and I think we need that more than ever right now. Food opens the door to conversation, and we can’t accomplish anything without conversation, we can’t accomplish anything if there’s a wall. Food really speaks to our shared humanity, and it brings home this notion that we’re really not that different: we all love good food. How lucky are we that we can experience all that in this city?”
In an nutshell, that’s what Check, Please! has always been about – disparate groups of diners who would otherwise never have met, having a great time bonding over food – each making the case for his or her favorite spot to get it. That the show has inspired countless audience members to check them out as well is just the icing on the cake.
This season, Alpana and Check, Please! creator and executive producer David Manilow will dish about what goes on behind the scenes of each episode in a new digital video series that premieres each week on Facebook on Fridays.