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NewsTribune photo/Scott Anderson Chicago WTTW TV camera man Rob Jackimiec films Cajun Ron McFarlain as he chops an alligator tail in his kitchen at Cajun Connection in Utica. Ron says the restaurant gets their food from Louisiana and serves more than 6,000 pounds of alligator tails a year. The WTTW TV had a crew of four people who were filming Ron for an upcoming episode “Check Please!”
A producer from WTTW called Ron McFarlain to say Cajun Connection, his Utica restaurant, was under consideration for “Check, Please!” a restaurant review show broadcast on Chicago’s PBS affiliate. But first, the producer had a question: Was he, in fact, a real Cajun? “Yep,” replied McFarlain, a native of Lake Charles, La. “Whatever we killed, we cooked, cleaned and ate it.” Satisfied with his authenticity, the producer dispatched a film crew to Utica on Sunday to film McFarlain and manager Amy Martin for a segment to be aired in spring 2014. TV host Catherine De Orio was on hand to sample a few Cajun favorites including fried alligator, gumbo and pecan pie. After filming at Cajun Connection, the film crew followed former L-P resident Alicia Guillet (nee Stanmar) of Evanston, who had recommended Cajun Connection, to local sites including Starved Rock State Park. Guillet said she contacted WTTW and recommended the Cajun Connection, believing it to be the “obvious” choice for La Salle County. WTTW later telephoned her, wanting to learn what else there was to recommend the Illinois Valley, and Guillet suggested Hegeler Carus Mansion, Starved Rock, Illinois and Michigan Canal and, for its architecture, La Salle-Peru Township High School. “They called a couple of weeks later and said, ‘We’d love to have you show us around,’” Guillet said. “The taping went really well and I think they liked our little town.” In coming to Utica, “Check, Please!” not only strayed beyond the Chicago city limits but also from its usual format. Typically, producers dispatch city residents to Chicago-area restaurants and then film a tableside panel in which they discuss their dining experiences. Not this time. WTTW opted this time to profile five downstate communities and a signature restaurant in each. WTTW’s crew visited Utica after stops in Effingham, Carbondale and Peoria and wrap up their production this week with a trip to Galena. Jacqui Wedewer, producer of “Check, Please!” said the Cajun Connection had repeatedly been recommended as a film site, but WTTW needed a resident (past or present) willing to be on film. Until they identified Guillet, Cajun Connection was buried on the program’s to-do list. “We had an inkling we wanted to do Cajun Connection, but it ultimately has to come from the guests,” Wedewer said. “They have to have been here, recommended it and loved it.” The segment includes McFarlain and Martin discussing the evolution of Cajun Connection. McFarlain was a former skilled laborer who won a small following by making gumbo and his secret-ingredient fried seafood for friends and coworkers. McFarlain and Martin first opened at Utica’s four corners in 1995 and gradually introduced Cajun dishes to local diners who initially were wary of eating gator. By the time they moved outside village limits into the former Lone Tree Inn in 2001, the menu was all Cajun. Cajun Connection has been televised before, most recently in 2010 when ABC’s “Nightline” named it a national finalist in the “People’s Plate List” competition. That appearance boosted monthly sales by 20 percent and brought in diners by the truckload. McFarlain said he was stunned by the scope and reach of the TV coverage — he once heard from a viewer aboard a U.S. Navy vessel in Japan — and thus expects a sea of “Check, Please!” followers to pour in after the already-busy Mardi Gras season. “This here’s going to really get ‘em in here,” he said. Tom Collins can be reached at (815) 220-6930 or email@example.com.
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