For Madison resident and chef Michael DiIonno his appearance on Food Network's Halloween-themed "Chopped" episode “Trick or Treat, Chicken Feet” provided him with more treats than tricks as he came away the winner of $10,000.
The cooking show, which pits four chefs against one another in timed challenges, requires speed, skill and creativity as the accomplished culinarians must use surprising ingredients to prepare a three-course meal for a panel of judges.
DiIonno said since the episode in which he appeared was geared toward Halloween, the ingredients he was given to work with were even more unusual than ever.
"The first course is the appetizer and you have 20 minutes to prepare it," DiIonno said. "We were given chicken feet, black radishes, poblano peppers, and fruit-flavored candy."
The chef, with three decades of experience, used them to create a curry-dusted chicken feet with pepper, radish and fruit candy salsa.
"I'd never worked with chicken feet before," he said. "The second round was the entree and that was blood sausage, frogs legs, sea beans and candy corn."
DiIonno whipped up an unconventional Halloween surf-and-turf that didn't necessarily combine all the ingredients, something for which he said he took a bit of heat with the judges. Still, he went on to win that round and move on to the third and final course.
The father of five then faced off against a pastry chef, something that he acknowledged did scare him a bit, and was asked to create a dessert using "bones of the dead" cookies, something he likened to crumbled biscotti, Ricotta Salata, black licorice and apple cider.
"I made a layered Napolean with an apple cider sauce," he said. It was this dish that led to his victory and pastry chef getting "chopped."
To celebrate the episode's airing on Tuesday, Oct. 18 at 10 p.m., DiIonno hosted a party at his Verona-based restaurant, Avenue Bistro.
"It was great," he said. "It was a big bash. We had several hundred people here. Our kids' friends and their parents and our regular customers. We have TVs in the restaurant but we also set up a projector outside and we had heaters and fire pits so it was nice and cozy."
Prior to opening Avenue Bistro, the chef spent a decade at The Huddle Inn in Fairfield. He also owned 3 Central in Madison and Lulu's Bistro in Livingston.
Despite his wealth of experience, DiIonno said he was "reluctant" to try out for the show. A coworker, who repeatedly told him he'd be a good candidate, completed the application for him.
After several interviews in what he referred to as "an extremely long process", DiIonno was selected and crews came to the restaurant to watch him in action. They also filmed footage of him with his children and driving around the area.
From host Ted Allen to the production crew, DiIonno said everyone was very friendly.
"It was a great, great experience," DiIonno said. "I had some anxiety about doing it but when the time came, I felt extremely comfortable. I gave it my best shot. It was just a great day."
The winning chef will have an opportunity to enjoy it all over again when he competes in "Chopped Champions" for a chance to win $50,000, which could begin filming in February, he said.
As for what he'll do with his winnings, DiIonno said he hopes to take his family on vacation.
For those who missed DiIonno's Halloween-themed debut, the chef said fear not, it will reair on Thursday, Oct. 27, at 9 p.m. EST, and Friday, Oct. 28, at 12 a.m. EST.