Verona just might be the next hot dining destination thanks to a local chef hitting it big in a nationwide cooking competition.
The town’s claim to culinary fame follows Avenue Bistro and Pub‘s chef Michael Dilonno’s win on the Food Network’s “Chopped” last fall.
As the last chef standing, Dilonno was anointed “Chopped” Champion, proving he’s got the chops to compete against the best in the business. But the title and the $10,000 that came with it might just as easily never have come to pass.
If Dilonno had it his way, that is.
While Dilonno has spent 40 years in the business and has run several restaurants, he said he never planned on entering the competition. It was a member of his staff who suggested the idea. At first Dilonno flat out refused. But the employee kept at him, and when she couldn’t get him to fill out the application online, she printed one out and presented it to him. Dilonno took it and threw it in the garbage. Undaunted, the employee decided to submit the form for him herself.
Although Dilonno said he knew what she was up to, he wanted no part of it.
“I was just like, ‘whatever,’” Dilonno recalled. “Leave me alone.”
Then he got the call. The Food Network wanted to meet him and asked him to a preliminary interview in New York.
“The interview went well,” Dilonno said, “but I still wasn’t sure I wanted to do it.”
Chosen as contestant
“Chopped” made the choice for him. Dilonno was selected for the show, and film crews were soon taking over his restaurant. For six hours they filmed him, his family and his business. Then it was on to filming the actual show.
Arriving at the studio early one morning, Dilonno walked in to find smoke machines and spooky props. He knew then the episode was going to be a Halloween special, one he later learned was titled, “Trick or Treat Chicken Feet.”
According to the show’s rules contestants remain uninformed about the ingredients they must use to create a dish until the start of each of the three timed rounds: Appetizer, entrée and dessert. After every round, one contestant gets chopped with the rest going on to compete until two are left to battle it out in the final dessert round.
For Dilonno the worst ingredient came in the first round when he opened the mystery basket to reveal Skittles. The basket also bestowed chicken feet. Out of the four mandatory ingredients, Dilonno had never cooked with two.
“The whole thing is for real,” Dilonno stressed. “You have no idea what you’re doing.”
He quickly decided to make curry dusted chicken feet with a pablano pepper and Skittle salsa. And the judges liked it.
“I was surprised,” Dilonno said when he won the first round. “I was happy some people did something more awful than I did.”
But not to worry patrons of Avenue Bistro. Dilonno has no intentions of including his “Chopped” creation on the menu.
“I would never serve chicken feet,” Dilonno insisted. “Or Skittles.”
For the next course Dilonno created an unconventional surf and turf dish from frogs’ legs and blood sausage, made the mandatory candy corn ingredient into a caramel sauce for candy apples and came up with an imaginative way to highlight the holiday theme.
“To give a Halloween effect I carved potatoes into mini jack-o-lanterns.” Placing them atop a pile of sea beans serving as haystacks, he said, “It looked like Halloween. It was so cool. That was the high point of the day.”
For the final round Dilonno was hit with an Italian cookie called Bones of the Dead, ricotta salata cheese, black licorice and apple cider. And he was going up against a skilled pastry chef.
“Then I was kind of freaking out.”
He raced to the kitchen’s pantry to grab a piece of equipment when he spotted muffin pans. And it came to him. He would make a Napoleon-style dessert using only the ingredients in the basket. While contestants are allowed to incorporate ingredients from the stocked pantry, without using anything other than the ones required Dilonno was increasing the level of difficulty for himself. This he hoped would impress the judges and help him clinch the title. But it was risky.
“What I was doing didn’t look like it was going to work,” Dilonno said. He even overheard the judges comment, “’Either this guy is a genius or an idiot.’”
It wasn’t until the very last two minutes of the round that the dish came together. Dilonno presented his dessert to the judges then stood before them in silence awaiting their reaction.
After a lengthy and nerve-wracking pause one of the judges finally spoke. According to Dilonno he said, “’This is really delicious. We couldn’t believe where you were going with this. It looked ridiculous, but it worked.’”
Despite Dilonno reluctance to do the show and his nervousness prior to the taping as soon as he walked into the studio, he came to a realization. “If you don’t know what you’re doing after 40 years” you’re probably not in the right field.
“You can pretty much throw anything at me,” Dilonno asserted. He’s certain after all his years in the kitchen he’ll be able to deal with any situation.
“Chopped” certainly threw everything they had at him. Still they couldn’t throw Dilonno off his game. And winning for Dilonno “felt really good.” He added, “I felt validated.”
Life after the show was pretty good too.
“It was amazing after it aired how many people came in and wanted autographed pictures with their kids,” Dilonno recalled. “It was very flattering.”
Now it’s back to business for Dilonno who originally planned to take a family vacation with the winnings but instead put the money into the restaurant.
“It’s a crazy industry,” he acknowledged. “I’ve been off once on a Saturday night in 35 years.” He added, “I just started taking off Mondays so I’m here six days a week every morning and night.”
Dilonno dedicates himself to the restaurant because as he said, “It’s got to be perfect all the time.”