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Catherine De Orio: An Incredible Journey to Become Host of 'Check, Please!'

By Justin Breen | August 1, 2013 7:44am
 West Loop resident Catherine De Orio is the new host of "Check, Please!"
Catherine De Orio
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WEST LOOP — To understand Catherine De Orio and how and why she became the new host of "Check, Please!," it's important to look at her past.

De Orio was cut from her sixth-grade cheerleading team at St. Vincent Ferrer School, and she spent the next year voraciously poring over every cheer book she could find. As a seventh-grader, she was named the squad's captain.

"I learned every formation that I could. When I want something, I want it, and I take things seriously," the longtime West Loop resident said.

Her best friend growing up, Jessica Trzmiel, was killed in a drunk driving accident when she was 16 and De Orio was 15. De Orio said she never takes anything for granted.

 Chicago artist Matthew Lew created artwork with the image of new "Check, Please!" host Catherine De Orio.
Chicago artist Matthew Lew created artwork with the image of new "Check, Please!" host Catherine De Orio.
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Catherine De Orio

While in Washington, D.C., working in her early 20s for Dr. David Allen Brown, one of America's foremost scholars of Leonardo da Vinci, De Orio and her ex-boyfriend were in a cab when it was sideswiped. De Orio said the cabbie went after the other vehicle and its four passengers, on and off an expressway, until he finally pulled up next to them.

One of the men got out with a pistol.

"As I'm literally sinking down on the floor of the cab, the cab driver yelled — 'He has a gun! He has a gun!' — and he hit the gas and we were able to get out of there with no shots being fired," De Orio said. "Nothing bad happened to me, but because of that experience, I'm hyper aware of my surroundings, and I'm very in tune of what's going on."

De Orio will debut as the host of the WTTW restaurant review show either Oct. 11 or Oct. 18 — the date of the season opener hasn't been set. While her family members and best friends said De Orio was destined to be host of "Check, Please!," De Orio never believed she would beat out hundreds of other applicants to become Alpana Singh's replacement until she was told she had earned the gig.

"I was convinced I didn't get the job," said De Orio, who has a one-year contract. "I am definitely my own worst critic, which is good."

Dresses and high heels, even in college

De Orio, who says her name means "Of Gold," is the daughter of a retired surgeon, Anthony. Her brother Joe is a urologist and, like his father, a graduate of Loyola University medical school.

With the exception of Catherine's mother, Janet, who was a housewife, most of the De Orios are lawyers and doctors, so Catherine thought she too would follow in that path.

At the University of Wisconsin, Catherine triple majored in art history, Italian language and literature, and political science and philosophy. And while she was hitting the books preparing for a career as an attorney — to prep for the law school admission tests, she woke up every Saturday for two months early to take a practice test at the exact same time — she was also throwing lavish dinner and wine pairing parties and wearing high-end clothes and shoes.

"My first impression of her is I was sitting in Madison for a summer school class in sweltering heat, and in waltzes Catherine. She's in full Italian regalia, her hair is up and she's wearing heels," said her longtime friend Karyn Koven, the principal at High Tech Los Angeles, a renowned charter school. "And I'm like, 'Give me a break, what is up with this girl and where did she come from?'

"I just had to meet her, and she was extremely approachable. She invited me to her apartment, and she was throwing these elaborate dinner parties. I was used to keggers. It wasn't the typical drunken college party. Wow, that girl had it together."

That hasn't changed for De Orio, who showed up for an interview with DNAinfo.com Chicago on Monday morning at a West Loop coffee shop wearing a spectacular green Tracy Reese dress.

"This is casual for me," she said.

When she was a museum fellow at the Guggenheim Institute in Venice, she made friends by walking around the city for hours, talking to random people and then throwing parties and wearing evening gowns at her apartment overlooking the Grand Canal. When she was a practicing lawyer for five years, she'd finish her job and then organize events at her West Loop loft with her then-boyfriend and now-husband, John Gorey, who owns a law practice. A favorite was a "Tiki Party" where De Orio brought in sand, dressed everyone in leis and created bamboo walls.

For every event, De Orio always did the cooking. Her grandmother, for whom she's named, taught her the intricacies of Italian food when De Orio was a child. She created gravies (sauce), pastas, Christmas desserts and special Easter pies. Her mother Janet, who's Lithuanian, taught her how to make the best kielbasas and cabbage dishes.

"She has a love for cooking and food," said Anthony De Orio, whose favorite dish of his daughter's is a braised rabbit with ragu. "She has always loved it."

And so, despite a successful career as a litigator, De Orio decided to change careers and enrolled at Kendall College of Culinary Arts at night while she maintained her day job. It was a move that was a long time coming for De Orio who, even as a student at Loyola University law school, remembers crying uncontrollably while she studied a constitutional law book at her parents' Elmwood Park home.

"I don't think she wanted to be a lawyer to begin with," said her husband. "It's great that she was able to identify what she wanted to do. Most people would go on with the safe job and just keep the food thing as a hobby."

Said De Orio: "There were things I liked about being a lawyer, but I felt unfulfilled."

The makings of a successful host

So why will De Orio be a star on "Check, Please!"?

Aaron Rasmussen, a friend since college and a freelance writer, said she has a "unique and inherent talent for bringing people together."

"She can literally talk about anything with anyone, which means she can have many types of guests," he said.

Longtime friend Effie Gryfakis, of River North, said De Orio is a "great, genuine, real person with a positive energy." Abby Tegnelia, the editor in chief at Vegas Magazine, for which De Orio freelances, said the new host is "magnetic and people love her right away. ... There's no one better to represent the Chicago dining scene."

Guyanne Lufrano, a Gold Coast resident who considers De Orio "like a sister," said she "has a kind of knowledge that comes from having an incredible love for something and wanting to share it.

"And this girl works harder than anyone I know," Lufrano said. "She works nonstop, and she is completely committed to everything she does. I've always seen her as a Martha Stewart for our generation."

Kevin Hauswirth, of Uptown, said De Orio seems to know about every restaurant in every city in the country.

The two were recently on a road trip through California to promote eco-friendly eating and shopping, and De Orio had details on the key fine-dining establishments in each major city, he said. But when they ventured together to North Carolina on a media tour for a bread company, De Orio also insisted they go off the beaten path to Bill's Spoon Barbecue in Charlotte.

"She was the only woman in the restaurant," Hauswirth said. "All the food was in plastic plates and we had red Solo cups.

"It just shows how well rounded she is, and she's very down to earth. At the end of the day, for her, it's about the food."

Private in a public setting

With her personal life, De Orio hopes to remain as private as possible.

The Virgo was born Sept. 2, but she refused to say what year. She is in her 30s, has no children but hasn't ruled out being a parent.

"If I become a mom, I would hope to be like my mother, in the sense that I'll always be around," she said. "If I'm going to do it, I'm going to do it right, and at the end of the day, you have to make the time."

For now, her child is a 12-year-old female pug named Bailey, after Bailey's Irish Cream. The pooch, um, enjoys the good life, occasionally eating filet, shrimp and sushi.

"She will hear the word 'Gibson's' and turn around," De Orio said. "I call her the supermodel pug."

To keep up with a frenetic pace, De Orio runs six days a week, between 4½ and 8 miles on each jaunt through the neighborhood.

She has met her "Check, Please!" predecessor Singh one time during a wine-and-cheese class at Singh's restaurant, The Boarding House. De Orio said Singh told her that she'd "be amazed by how many people watch the show" and "how many people want to take pictures with [Singh] now."

De Orio said "Check, Please!" is the "perfect" fit for her.

She hates the word "journey" — De Orio still plays drinking games during the Oscars and takes a sip when the word is said during acceptance speeches — but decided to use it to describe her arrival at Chicago's most important culinary TV show.

"Getting to this point, it's something to be very proud of, and it was not an easy journey," she said.