Alpana Singh | Interview
Is the Check, Please! host the same offscreen?… Please.
After tapping top local chefs for our Cheap Eats issue, we opted to finish it with a different sort of culinary luminary: Alpana Singh, host of WTTW’s Check, Please! The 31-year-old daughter of immigrant Indians, Singh became the host of the popular PBS-affiliate show in 2003. By day, Singh—whose name is almost invariably followed by the phrase “the youngest woman to become a master sommelier”—works as the director of wine and spirits for Lettuce Entertain You.
Time Out Chicago: Onscreen, you don’t seem the likeliest TV personality; you’re fairly retiring, soft-spoken.
Alpana Singh: The way I am onscreen is deliberate. You notice, I never give my opinion of the restaurant. I’m there just to keep the conversation going. It’s not really about what I think. People tune in to watch the reviews by three everyday Chicagoans.
TOC: You’ve gotten a bit of criticism for your TV persona, like, “Why is she monotone?” I’m sure you’ve heard that.
Alpana Singh: Um, no, this is the first I’m hearing it. I’m not trained in the media. But when people meet me they’re like, “Wow, you’re so much different than you are on camera.” We tape an hour, and you only get to see 30 minutes of it.
TOC: What doesn’t make it on air?
Alpana Singh: Well, cussing. [Laughs] People cuss or they stumble over their words. They’re very nervous, they’ve never been on TV before, and my job is to get them to relax. In person, I’m actually kind of funny, you know?
TOC: Sometimes it feels as if the guests are less happy with each other than they’re letting on.
Alpana Singh: These restaurants are a very personal thing. You’re staking your reputation on it; you feel a connection to it. And then all of a sudden a person’s like, “Oh, I didn’t care for it.” It’s like, “What didn’t you like about it? How could you not like it?”
TOC: As if they’re saying, “How could you not like me?”
Alpana Singh: Exactly. They take it very personally. But some people are like, “Eh, not for you but I like it. Works for me.”
TOC: Any bad guest experiences?
Alpana Singh: I’m pretty forgiving when it comes to the guests. Sometimes somebody will have a little too much to drink.
TOC: So that is real wine you guys are downing.
Alpana Singh: Oh, yeah. You get nervous and you’re like, “Oh, I’m thirsty.”
TOC: There seems to be a pattern to the guest spots: flamboyant gay guy, foodie woman and working-class, meat-and-potatoes straight guy.
Alpana Singh: People probably perceive a pattern. [Executive producer] David Manilow selects the guests and the restaurants, and his main goal is diversity. It’s no secret gay men love to go out to dinner. So if they’re signing in, then yeah, we will pick them. Gay men are fabulous diners.
TOC: What about the “I just like my steak” guy?
Alpana Singh: It’s to create that diversity. If you spend the day with me, the type of people that come up to me and say, “Oh my God, I love your show,” it’s all across the board.
TOC: The “Check, Please! effect”: Some say it’s good for the business, not so good for the customers.
Alpana Singh: We all like to have our secret spots that we don’t like to share. But you don’t pay the bills for these people; these people need to survive. Other people do need to know about them.
TOC: But the complaint isn’t just that they get busier; it’s that the quality declines.
Alpana Singh: I can’t respond to what somebody decides to do with their establishment. I as a diner hope that somebody keeps the standards up. But I don’t have any control over that. Neither does the show.
TOC: What’s your favorite cheap eat?
Alpana Singh: Sultan’s Market, the North Avenue location. I have cravings for their falafel.
TOC: The cheap eat you know is bad for you but you can’t stay away from?
Alpana Singh: Jibaritos! They should just come with, like, a coronary, seriously—I think they do. It’s a Puerto Rican dish. Borinquen Restaurant serves them. Oh my God, it’ll change your life.
TOC: Your parents used to run a grocery store in Monterey, California. How does that inform you?
Alpana Singh: My parents were struggling to keep the business open, first generation. And a lot of the restaurants we do on the show are ethnic little spots. So you ask me about the “Check, Please! effect.” If it means somebody came here and they’re struggling and maybe weeks away from closing and all of a sudden they’re on the show and they’ve expanded, I don’t see anything wrong with that.
Check, Please! airs on WTTW 11.