No doubt you’ve found yourself squabbling with friends over restaurants and your respective reviews of them. Now imagine going to a bar, sitting next to a stranger, and having the same debate. That’s the premise of Check, Please!, WHYY12’s latest series, premiering at 7:30 p.m. Thursday.
In each show in the 13-episode season, three guests (and strangers) separately visit one another’s restaurant recommendations off-camera over a six-week span. Afterward, they convene in the WHYY studio to discuss in a conversation hosted by South Jersey native and food writer Kae Lani Palmisano.
“In a best-case scenario,” says show producer Caitlin Corkery, “it feels like eavesdropping on a dinner party conversation.” We spoke with Corkery about choosing guests for Check, Please!, the process of filming it, and the hidden gems viewers will discover.
This transcript has been edited and condensed.
How do you pick the applicants for Check, Please?
For our first season, we were really, really nervous about applications, because it’s a brand-new show, so it’s kind of hard to get people to apply to something that they have no familiarity with. But thankfully, the show started in Chicago in 2001, so there’s some name recognition for some people. It’s also in the Bay Area. It was in Phoenix for a while, in South Florida. So when we opened applications, we were kind of crossing our fingers that people would apply, and we ended up getting 500 applications for the first season. It was totally unexpected and also just speaks to how much people love talking about food and what a food town Philly is.
From there, we would read them and flag them either for people who wrote about food in a descriptive way, where we were like, “Oh, this person loves food.” Or I would flag them if I had never heard of this restaurant and it sounds like it’s like doing something really interesting. We also wanted to be pretty representative of not just Philly, where there’s obviously tons of great restaurants, but all the areas that WHYY serves, so I’m making sure we get the surrounding suburbs, New Jersey, Delaware, and getting a good mix of things.
It’s also really challenging pairing guests. In every episode, the other guests can’t have eaten in each other’s restaurants before — which gets really, really tricky with people who love food, because if you’re a big foodie, you’ve eaten at most places. So we end up having to make sure that we’re getting places that are a bit out in the field or off the beaten path, just so there’s more variation and we have those interesting conversations that get into, even though they’re used to eating in Center City, why it’s worth driving over to Merchantville.
Once I go through all the paper applications, I set up calls with everyone to do pre-interviews. From there, we have to make sure all the restaurants are on board. If the restaurants are on board, then we start the serial killer-style process of Post-Its everywhere and trying to match guests up. It looks crazy.
Do you reimburse guests for their meals?
They’re offered a stipend of $50 for each restaurant. We encourage them to revisit their own recommendation so it’s fresh in their mind, as well as the others'. So it’s $150 total and that comes in the back end.
It sounds like there’s a lot of opportunity for surprises in this show.
Yeah, the conversations are so interesting. I start out with pairing the two most opposite people on my list. If a person seems like they’re a little bit more high-class and are really into this fancy French place, then I definitely want to send them to go get wings in Jersey. We try to put people at a table who you might not normally see sitting at a table together. And then we fill in that third one [by asking ourselves], “OK, how do we counterbalance these two?”
There were some episodes where I was a little bit holding my breath — like, “I don’t know how this is going to go.” And what’s interesting about it is, after every restaurant, we asked all the guests to fill out like a Google survey with all their feedback on the restaurants. And some people we know in advance, we’re like, “OK, this person is not crazy about this restaurant.” But then, once you get in the conversation, a really interesting side effect is — when someone’s sitting at a table across from you who is so passionate about a place — it is really hard to look them in the eye and say directly, “This place is terrible.” The conversation tends to be so much more democratic and balanced, and people are very diplomatic about the way they phrase things. People are way more willing to be graceful in their language, like “I think the servers were having a bad day,” or “This is not to my taste, but I appreciate what they’re trying to do.”
In our original story about this show, we mentioned that some of the restaurants to be featured include Bing Bing Dim Sum, Vernick, Little Fish, Sate Kampar, Hardena, Zeppoli, Victor Café, and Vedge — and we got a bunch of comments that said, “Oh, let’s hear some obscure places. Why don’t they ever go to the suburbs?” So, in that spirit, what are some of the more obscure places that people will discover?
Of course I read the comments on that article — how are you not gonna read the comments? What’s so funny is that one of the struggles in the first season is that restaurants that are bigger and more known have PR teams, and they’re quicker to respond and get on board with shooting things. It’s been much more challenging to get smaller places on board because it’s a two-person team, they’re not looking for these opportunities, [etc]. So it was kind of an uphill battle for Season 1 in terms of getting restaurants to commit to participating. My rule is that I won’t call a place more than 10 times, which is still a pretty high bar, and a few of them, we drove to in person because they just weren’t answering, so I was like, “I’m just gonna drive an hour into Delaware and talk to the person face-to-face.”
But a couple that we’re really excited about — the Delaware one is the House of William and Merry, which is in Hockessin. They have such creative, beautiful things there. The husband and wife live above the restaurant in this old country farmhouse. It’s amazing. In the same vein, in Merchantville, [N.J.], there’s Park Place, which is one guy in the kitchen, his wife up front, and one other staffer. It’s the three of them and he does foraged food, so he’ll forage over the weekend, then come in and have these incredible local menus.
A couple others we really liked: We have Heart Beet Kitchen in Westmont, N.J. We have Georgian Bread up in the Northeast. Bittersweet Kitchen in Media is run by the sweetest couple. Marsha Brown is in an old church up in New Hope. Ripplewood is out in Ardmore, right next to the Ardmore Music Hall.
I would say to anyone who’s worried about representation in the 'burbs and beyond, please apply to be on the show. We want to know about all of those spots.
So viewers will be seeing the conversation that guests have, as well as footage inside the restaurants?
Yeah, so there’s three restaurants per episode and it’s split into three segments. At the start of that conversation, we’ll air a one- to two-minute package where we’ve interviewed the owners or the chefs at that restaurant. They set up what their restaurant is about, what the philosophy is behind their cooking style, and what they like guests to take away from their restaurant.
And then we go to the studio and we have the conversation. Our host, Kae Lani, kicks it off and just asks the recommender why they chose this spot. And then it’s a really open free-form conversation. Our strongest episodes — it’s very funny, Kae Lani doesn’t talk that much, just because the conversation is carried by the guests and they’re all talking over each other and chatting.
You’ll see the food up-close. We shoot all of our food shots with two cameras, so it’s super-tight macro shots and a lot of beauty shots and pouring syrup and forks cutting things. And then you also get to see like the actual space, which is an interesting part of the show because you can tell: “Is it a small space? Will I be cold there? Is the lighting really dark?” The show is a lot about setting expectations for viewers at home — not just taking people at their word, but getting to know, “What would I experience if I went to this restaurant?”