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'Check, Please!' names its five finalists for hosting gig

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And then there were five.

The field of 17 finalists vying to be crowned the next "Check, Please!" host has been narrowed down to five. Their names were made public Wednesday on the WTTW restaurant review show's website.

Here's who made the cut:

Senam Amegashie
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This stay-at-home mom was on the way to Evanston from her West Rogers Park home when she got the news Tuesday morning that she made the Top 5.

"I pulled over and got out of the car to scream, I was so excited," said Amegashie, 33, whose trip to Evanston included a stop at Edzo's Burger Shop to sate a specific craving.

"If Jesus had a flavor, it would be the lobster fries from Edzo's," said the graduate of Bolingbrook High School, where she was class president and prom queen. She studied broadcast journalism at University of Missouri and poetry at Columbia College Chicago.

Amegashie's first name mean's "God's gift" in Ewe, a language spoken in the West African nation of Ghana, where her parents and three older brothers were born.

"My mother had a catering business while I was growing up," Amegashie said. "I pride myself on being a fantastic home cook."

She has three children: a daughter who's 7 and 4-year-old twin boys named Cassius and Clay in honor of one of her heroes, Muhammad Ali. She's also stepmom to her husband's two teenagers. Her kids often make appearances in the humorous videos she shoots for her YouTube Channel, SistaTV.

"I don't have the super wine knowledge like Alpana," she said, "but I love food and I love laughing."

Donny de Castro
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Acting is what this Kentucky native -- who's been in a few national commercials and had a bit part on "Dawson's Creek" -- studied at Wesleyan University in Connecticut.

"As they say, acting often leads to restaurant work," said de Castro, 41, a managing partner and co-owner of Tavern at the Park.

He moved to Chicago nine years ago to open the upscale eatery across from Millennium Park, along with his brother and the other partners behind Keefer's Restaurant. He lives in Bucktown with his wife and 3-year-old son, Luke.

De Castro's theatrical side shines through in his comical audition video, where he smiles for the camera with a big chunk of parsley stuck in his teeth.

"Normally when you try out for a new job you don't tell a lot of people in case you don't get it," de Castro said. "This has been the complete opposite. With the voting, you had to tell everyone. People I hadn't talked to in 15 years were getting emails from me."

Catherine De Orio
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This former litigation attorney should have no problem grilling guest reviewers about what they did or didn't like at a particular restaurant.

While working as a lawyer, she took classes at Chicago's Kendall College to become a chef. Her passion for food was a byproduct of growing up in a large Italian-Lithuanian family.

"My nana always used to say, 'I don't care if you learn to read or write, but you need to learn to cook,'" De Orio says in her try-out tape, where she makes her case to be the next host while seated in the witness stand of a courtroom.

A writer and consultant, De Orio owns a small business called Culinary Curator, where she's served as a spokesperson for myriad food-related brands, such as Sara Lee Corporation, Hillshire Farm and Godiva Coffee, according to the company's Facebook page.

She's a bit of a globetrotting bon vivant, having worked in England, Italy and France. De Orio also has spent plenty of time in front of TV cameras, making appearances on the "Today" show and "Rachel Ray," to name a few.

Sarah Levy
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Singh's expertise is wine; Levy's is sweets. Her 3-foot-tall moving dinosaur cake won her top prize on the TV show "Food Network Challenge." She's authored a cookbook, "Sweetness." Until recently, the French Pastry School of Chicago grad owned a couple of eponymous retail stores called Sarah's
Pastries & Candies.

The 32-year-old West Loop resident is into the savory side of things, too. A food blogger and dining editor for Today's Chicago Woman magazine, she eats out an average of eight times a week.

"I grew up going out to eat a lot -- I didn't know that wasn't normal until later in life," said Levy, whose dad, Mark, co-founded Levy Restaurants. He's now CEO of Mastro's Steakhouse.

An alum of Francis Parker and Northwestern, Levy wrote her senior thesis on "kitchen culture." She owns S. Levy Foods, which does business in the airport concessions arena.

Levy's audition video featured a shout out from a familiar face: Jim Belushi. She went to preschool with the Chicago-born actor's son, Robert.

"Jim's been a really great, supportive friend," she said. "He sent me four videos and told me to pick the one I liked best."

Ina Pinkney
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At age 70, Pinkney is the most seasoned of the bunch. Known around town as the "Breakfast Queen," she's famous for serving up pancakes and frittatas as well as witty one-liners at her namesake restaurant, Ina's, on Randolph Street in the West Loop.

"Before I became a chef I had 21 jobs -- and was fired from 19," she told The Sun-Times in 2004. "But baking was my dream, and I knew I had to corner the market on brunch."

Pinkney also likes to stir the pot when it comes to politics. She ran as a write-in candidate
for mayor in 2007 and for President Obama's former U.S. Senate seat in 2010.

Of course, 17 minus 5 means there are a dozen folks no longer in the running for the hosting gig. They are: Rochelle Trotter, owner of R'Culinaire and wife of chef Charlie Trotter; Cassidy Stirtz, a server/actor from Chicago; Tony Diaz, sous chef at Maude's Liquor Bar; Australian native Frank Brunacci, former executive chef at Trump Tower in Chicago who lives in Munster, Ind.; Flavia Magdalin, general manager at Ralph Lauren Restaurant; Tommy Walton, fashion design teacher and former "Check, Please!" All-Star; Emilie Rose Bishop, chief mixologist at iNG; Anthony Todd, food and drink editor at Chicagoist.com and Sun-Times contributor; Berwyn resident Cristiane Pereira, chef/owner of Taste of Brasil Café in Oak Park; Cleetus Friedman, former chef/owner of City Provisions; Alia Dalal, a Clarendon Hills native who's now a personal chef/food tour guide in Chicago; and Bill St. John, wine writer for the Chicago Tribune and professor at University of Chicago's Graham School.

WTTW-Channel 11 is airing a behind-the-scenes TV special featuring the five finalists on May 17. The new "Check, Please!" host will be announced May 29.

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9 Comments

I am not impressed with the final five.

Donny de Castro is your go-to guy for "Check, Please!" He outshines the crowd, although the other finalists are very strong. I'm a talk show host and I can honestly say this boy was born to do this! He's personable, knowledgeable and adorable - he's a triple threat!!!

Congratulations to all 5 Check Pease finalist!... For me personally, my first choice has always been Senam Amegashie....I also think Ina Pinkey would be an interesting host....As a Check Please fan and loyal viewer, I'm looking for someone with a vivacious personality...I think polished is boring.....Senam and Ina are funny and they love people as well as food that is what the new Check Please host should possess in abundance....Thanks for listening!..,,

Sadly, I agree with Jeff. I'm sorry but I am not impressed either. I would have picked some of the other runners to be in the top 5.

Find it rather dubious that Ms. Alia Dalal did not make the final five. Clearly her experience, expertise, enthusiasm and personality portrayed her as an ideal candidate...and this is based on her amazing video. Granted I wasn't a fly on the wall during the face to face interviews, but I was bummed to see her name cut from the final five. Although, three of the five finalists were ones I leaned towards voting for.

I know this is a tough decision and I hope the best host wins!

I truly am not impressed with anyone except Donny. There is an overall lack of talent, and he is the only one that shines through.

Ina is awesome!!!

Having reviewed each video, it's clear to me Donny de Castro should be the next Check, Please! host. He really has the whole package: wit, intelligence, eagerness, affability, and relatability.

Ms. Pickney would be my choice for runner-up. She's down to earth and doesn't seem too caught up in her own celebrity.

Levy and Di Orio seem one-dimensional, lacking in substance. Pretty? Sure. And I don't doubt their experience. But neither possess any pizzazz, that certain something that keeps us coming back every week.

Finally, I like Amegashie's upbeat attitude, but I think she's a bit TOO upbeat, TOO cutesy. That can grate on one's nerves after a while.

Personally, I think y'all missed the mark by cutting Chef Cleetus, but dems da breaks, as they say.

Donny rocks!

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