Jerry Davich: Chef from Northwest Indiana cooks up shot at becoming ‘Check, Please!’ host
March 28, 2013 11:08PM
Frank Brunacci, of Munster, is former executive chef at Trump International Hotel and Tower Chicago, current chef at The Chefs Diamond Co., and Australian native. Brunscci is among the 17 finalists for WTTW-Channel 11âs popular show, âCheck Please!â | Provided Photo~Sun-Times Media
Updated: May 1, 2013 2:47PM
Frank Brunacci has all the right ingredients to be the new host of “Check, Please!,” the popular restaurant-rating show on WTTW.
The 42-year-old father of two from Munster is affable, knowledgeable, and his native Australian accent can spice up the show. He also has the right chops considering he’s the former executive chef at Trump International Hotel and Tower Chicago and current chef at The Chefs Diamond Co., a home-grown imported truffles business with his wife, Lillian.
Brunacci is one of 17 finalists for the “Check, Please!” position, who will take former host Alpana Singh’s spot at the table. He’s the only finalist from Northwest Indiana and he can use your help by casting an online vote for him.
“I can’t act but I can certainly put on a good show,” Brunacci told me Thursday morning from his Munster home. “I’m 100 percent transparent, honest to a fault, and I love the Chicago area. It’s very much like my home, Melbourne.”
Melbourne, he says, is similar to Chicago because it’s surrounded by suburbs with commuters entering and exiting the city each day. Plus, both cities are built on architecture, good people and an international reputation.
“People here are just as friendly as they are back home in Melbourne,” he said. “Plus, Melbourne has a bay and Chicago has a lake. It’s a great fit for me and my family.”
Brunacci came to this region in 2007, choosing Munster for its proximity to the city, its lower cost of living and its top-notch school system.
“My neighbors have been great, too,” he happily told me.
Brunacci, who arrived in the states in 1997, is a longtime fan of “Check, Please!” He sent in his low-key but charming two-minute audition video to WTTW producers and hoped for the best. Obviously, it worked.
“This is about take 30 of doing this audition,” he tells viewers with a laugh, adding a little self-effacing humor to set the table for his digital introduction.
As a kid, he wanted to be a chef or an actor, he explains on the video.
“I’ve done the chef thing and I’m not much of an actor, but I’m very personable and very engaging. And I love to talk to people about what’s going on in society, especially in the restaurant industry.”
His wife, Lillian, began importing truffles from Australia, going from about 80 pounds a year to 1,500 pounds a year. This year, the couple will probably import about 2,500 pounds of truffles through their business, The Chefs Diamond Co. (www.thechefsdiamond.com).
Brunacci could talk for hours about truffles, a type of subterranean mushroom that is highly volatile, time sensitive and very expensive. His company’s niche involves freshly unearthed truffles from farms in Australia and delivered to local chefs within 72 hours.
“Truffles are an excellent way to enhance the flavor of a dish, but only four out of 10 chefs know about Australian truffles,” he told me. “Chicago is one of the best cities in the world for food. It’s very chef-driven.”
Beyond truffles, “I want to do so much more,” he says on the video.
There is only one recipe for delicious, he says flatly. “And it’s delicious.”
A timer then went off, notifying him that his time was up, just like for every palatable dish he has created.
“That video is who I am,” he told me.
Brunacci faces tough competition for the “Check, Please!” opening, including Rochelle Trotter, owner of R’Culinaire and wife of chef Charlie Trotter; Tony Diaz, sous chef at Maude’s Liquor Bar in Chicago; and Anthony Todd, food and drink editor for Chicagoist.com and Chicago editor for Citysearch.com.
In 2011, Brunacci announced his surprise resignation at Sixteen, the restaurant on the 16th floor of Trump International Hotel and Tower. He also helped launch Franks ‘n’ Dawgs, the “five star dining on a bun” business in Lincoln Park, now run by his brother, Alexander.
“I would be the best next host for ‘Check, Please!’ because the restaurant industry consumes me; I have been a part of it for many, many years,” he writes on his bio at http://checkplease.wttw.com/checkpleasehost.
“I love the stories that are told about dining experiences, and the fact that being a chef for so long allows me to penetrate a conversation within the industry that only someone who has been there before has access to.”
“Making people feel comfortable, asking the right questions, getting provocative responses, engaging in meaningful and truthful accounts of our dining experiences … then sharing them with the community and hopefully attracting more people to follow in the conversation.”
Keep in mind that WTTW isn’t leaving the decision for a new “Check, Please!” host entirely up to fans and online votes. The voting tally will be considered in combination with input from WTTW producers and the show’s producers.
Voting ends on April 17 and a public announcement of the winner is expected to be made on May 1. (Only one vote per IP address will be allowed, and additional votes from the same IP address will be disqualified.)
“My video on YouTube went from 30 views to 1,400, so that’s encouraging,” he told me.
Northwest Indiana residents typically whine or complain about our inferiority to Chicago and its cultural amenities. Yet here’s a chance to trumpet one of our own, sort of, by voting for Brunacci and showing our support.
It’s irrelevant that he was born in Australia and eventually found his way here after stops in Atlanta, New Orleans, Sedona, Ariz., and Naples, Fla. His path not only reflects our region’s diverse ethnic landscape, it personifies it. Plus, Brunacci hopes this column will help his chances. I do, too, and I already voted for him.
“To be honest, I just don’t want to be last,” he joked.