Three guests sit in the green room of KAET studios. They are dressed nicely and sit in comfy chairs. They are nervous but excited. They listen as Suzanne Guery, the coordinating producer of Check Please!, gives them final instructions.
“If you can avoid profanity,” Guery says, “we’d appreciate it.”
“We want normal energy,” adds Margery Punnett, the show’s lead producer. “Like you’re having dinner with friends. Just be yourself and be comfortable.”
The guests are Amanda Kozitzky, Mike Bishop, and Crystal McGraw. Only McGraw has been on television before, some years ago when her infant survived a car accident. Otherwise, they are three average Phoenicians, hand-picked to appear on Arizona PBS’ most popular local program.
“All right,” says Punnett. “Are we ready?”
Punnett, a chipper redhead, smiles at everyone like a proud mother. A Chicago native, she has the kind of friendly, polite personality you might attribute to her Midwest roots. She escorts her cast down a corridor, and into the sound stage. The trio sits down at a rounded wood table, and they chatter through makeup.
Then, their host appears. Mark Tarbell is a petit man with curtains of silver hair. He leans over the table to shake hands with everyone, then seats himself at the head.
As a technician clips a lavaliere mic to his lavender dress shirt, Tarbell says to the group, “Normally, I’m very soft spoken and quiet.” When they chortle at this, he adds, “People always laugh when I say that. But it’s true.”
Everything is so sedate, and yet the scene is full of extremes: Tarbell is one of the most well-respected chefs in Phoenix. He owns two restaurants, Tarbell’s and the Tavern, and has appeared on Iron Chef America and various Food Network programs. Tarbell’s episodes of Check, Please! won’t air on PBS until January 2017, but in this moment, he's taping his sixth episode.
Meanwhile, Check Please! is one of the most beloved TV programs in Arizona, and has won four Emmy Awards since starting in 2011. For the past five seasons, the face of Check Please! was James Beard Award-winning chef Robert McGrath.
The show is fairly simple: Random people from the community recommend a favorite restaurant and provide some information about themselves. The producers trawl the suggestions and find three people for each episode. Usually, those three people have never met, and only a fraction have ever been on television. Then, they are invited to dine at the restaurants the other two guests recommended. In the end, they all sit down and discuss.
The show is a mix of round-table dialogue and mini-documentaries about the restaurants featured in the show. The guests can say whatever they like; they can praise their peers’ favorite haunt, or they can trash it. But the profiles balance things out. No matter what the guests think of an eatery, owners and chefs have a chance to explain what their place is all about.
By reality-show standards, Check Please! is downright genteel. The guests behave themselves. The set is generically elegant, with earth-toned décor and a rack of wine affixed to the wall. Guests drink from crystal goblets, but the dark liquid is grape juice. When they critique restaurants, they share their experiences earnestly. There is no bombast, no raised voices, no tense disagreements.
“It doesn’t compare to any other kind of television,” says Tarbell, who is more accustomed to two-minute cooking segments. “Reading off a teleprompter and facilitating a conversation is different. It’s intense. There’s a lot of integrity in this show. It’s real. I like the honesty.”
The original show was cooked up in Chicago, and it premiered on public radio station WTTW in 2001. For such a stately show, Check Please! has a ravenous following: More than 35,000 people have sent applications to star on Chicago’s version. There are spin-offs in Seattle, San Francisco, Kansas City, Miami, and of course, here in Phoenix.
The show is popular enough that prospective guests often have to wait for a long time before they are selected.
“I applied pretty soon after we moved,” says Kozitzky, a Chicago native who moved to Phoenix nearly three years ago. “They said it would take six to eight months. I kind of forgot about it. And then a year and a half later, Margery called me.”
For producers, the challenge is to find restaurants that haven’t been covered and guests who can speak intelligently about food. Since episodes aren’t filmed live, Margery can shoot multiple takes, ensuring that the guests sound like a polished version of themselves. But the ideal guest can describe the particulars of a restaurant experience, from the taste and presentation of the food to the atmosphere of the dining room.
“I like to describe things in detail,” McGraw says. “Margery said they needed a lot of material and then they would edit it. And I said, ‘Edit me!’”
Some guests have openly disliked the eateries they visited, but for the most part, Check Please! celebrates local cuisine. This benefits viewers, of course, who seek unique dining experiences scattered among the oceans of chain restaurants. But it’s also handy for local chefs.
“I get in a bubble,” Tarbell says. “I think we all do. I also work in a restaurant, so I don’t get out much. I already knew there are a lot of things to get excited about. But it is surprising, when you go out to a restaurant, to see what people’s visions are and how cool [the culinary scene] is. It’s making our Valley more robust.”
As the film rolls, a live feed played in the green room. Nancy Bishop sits in a cushioned chair and watches her husband talk about their favorite restaurant. Mike Bishop is an older man with a quiet disposition, and his voice came from the TV’s speakers in a folksy baritone.
“He’s doing really well,” Nancy says. “I told him, ‘You can’t just go in there and say, ‘This was good, that was okay.’ You have to talk. But I think he’s doing well.”
The new season of “Check Please!” airs in January 2017. Check out past seasons at the Check, Please! Arizona website.