JC native Figgy DiBenedetto brings Missouri flavors to her takeout restaurant in Maine.

Home is where the Heartland is. 

Natalie "Figgy" DiBenedetto

Or at least it is in the kitchen for Jefferson City-native chef Natalie “Figgy” DiBenedetto, owner of Figgy’s Takeout and Catering, in Portland, Maine, specializing in refined comfort food and skillet-fried chicken.

It’s February 2018, and Figgy stands mic’d up, outfitted in a gray chef coat in Food Network’s Chopped studio. Her hair is pulled back into a bun on top of her head. Intense lights glare from above. Cameras infringe her work station. The three other competing chefs are fierce. Figgy’s anxiety crashes like the Atlantic waves on the beaches in Portland. 

The theme of this episode (season 41, episode seven) is “Dollar Dishes.” The competitors open their black wicker baskets, which hold the ingredients they’re to build dishes from, to find $10 worth of thrifty staples: frozen taquitos and corn along with eggs and homegrown basil. Ah, basil — Figgy’s son’s name. The bespoke culinary herb feels like a good luck charm. The ingredients in the basket begin to wash her nerves away, and the clock starts to tick down. Figgy’s chorizo and taquito hash with a poached egg and crispy tortilla bits sends her into Round Two.

Figgy opens her second basket to find more budget-friendly ingredients: beer tripe stew, instant mashed potatoes, beef tripe stew, broccoli, and chicken legs. Her expertise is in fried chicken. Her relief is tinged by disappointment. 

“It was my one time to shine,” Figgy says. “I could have shown the world, ‘See, I know how to do other things than chicken.’ As soon as I saw the chicken in the basket, though, I was like, ‘Just go with what you know.’”

A little bit of chicken fried

Fried chicken is what Figgy knows. Her cooking story begins in Jefferson City, where she grew up eating mid-Missouri favorites: pork tenderloin sandwiches, creamy mac and cheese, and Southern-fried chicken.

Figgy spent her grade school summer vacations indoors, shielded from Missouri’s sweltering heat, reading cookbooks. As young as age six, she was preparing meals for her family. Her grandmother and mom taught her to fry chicken in a cast-iron skillet.

Missouri fried chicken is simple; it isn’t boastful. To prepare it, Figgy uses salt, pepper, flour, cast-iron pans, good oil, and good chickens. When frying chicken in a cast-iron pan, some chicken fat melds into the oil, and this oil–chicken fat mixture can be reused several times, which makes for a more flavorful dish.

“It was my one time to shine,” Figgy says. “I could have shown the world, ‘See, I know how to do other things than chicken.’ As soon as I saw the chicken in the basket, though, I was like, ‘Just go with what you know.’”

“The difference between a cast-iron pan and a deep fryer,” she says, “is when you deep fry something, all that delicious chicken fat is getting wasted away. And [in the cast-iron] you also get a little contact with the pan, so you get a little extra crispy skin, which is the best part.”

After graduating Jefferson City High School, Figgy had free reign of her parents’ kitchen, where she experimented with gastronomy. She regularly invited over her boyfriend at the time and other couples to try her creations at dinner. She remembers guests were particularly enthralled with her stuffed mushrooms.

In the early ’90s, Figgy attended the University of Missouri to study speech communications and cooked on the side. She prepped gourmet to-go items at the since-closed Village Wine and Cheese in Columbia before working as the manager at upscale steakhouse Chris McD’s.

After getting her degree, Figgy was ready to professionally pursue cheffing. Figgy relocated to Hyde Park, New York, in the fall of 1996 to attend the Culinary Institute of America, honed her culinary skills, and graduated in 1998.

Chop it like its hot

Over the next decade, Figgy cheffed her way around fine dining on the East Coast before opening Another Fork in the Road, a farm-to-table concept, in 2006. In 2009, she became a widowed single mother to a toddler. Figgy craved more family time. The Midwestern-like neighborly charm of colder Portland’s West End called home to her. 

“I always thought I was going to live right in Manhattan and do this whole thing,” Figgy says. “But I always came back to wanting that small-town feel. That’s why Portland is so perfect because it’s a city, but we all kind of live right on top of one another and never leave our neighborhood, and everybody knows everybody.”

Figgy purchased the coffee shop neighboring her single-family home in West End, leased the building, and, in the coffee shop’s back lot, built her storefront from the ground up. Figgy’s Takeout and Catering opened in 2014. In 2017, she applied for Chopped

She intentionally created the menu reflecting comfort food and those homey Missouri flavors Figgy grew up eating and still orders when she visits.

On the menu, patrons can order Figgy’s skillet-fried chicken; pork tender sandwiches served with iceberg lettuce, molasses, and garlic mayonnaise over a cheddar cheese biscuit; market green salads; hearty sides, including buttermilk mashed potatoes and German potato salad; and decadent banana vanilla wafer pudding and rotating gelato-based ice cream sandwiches.

Back in the Chopped studio, Figgy is competing for a $10,000 check in the final dessert round. Her carrot and blueberry crisp with indulgent cream cheese gelato, similar to the one she sells at Figgy’s, and dreamy buttermilk fried chicken saves her from the chopping block. She’s just won Chopped. She calls her son and husband to tell them the news. The recognition from her family and her passion for food is a bonus prize — in addition to $10,000.

“Just hearing the validation and happiness from them, I was happy to do [the show],” Figgy says. “I love them!”

Midwest is best

Figgy sits in her office space in the restaurant. It’s an early September Monday afternoon on her day off, but she’s here prepping for the week ahead. Though Figgy’s is closed, the phone doesn’t stop ringing, and it hasn’t since the Chopped episode premiered on March 26.

“The first couple weeks after the show aired, our business tripled,” Figgy says. 

She thinks the novelty of delicious Midwestern food coupled with Portland’s tight-knit community helps her business thrive.

“A lot of people don’t get to experience [Mid-Missouri cuisine] because it’s not a huge tourist attraction out there,” Figgy says.

“This food is me,” she continues. “It just comes naturally. I don’t have to try. I think Mid-Missouri food is really honest. There’s not a lot of bells and whistles to it. They’re hardworking people, and they need their belly full, and we do a job of that. Maybe too good of a job.”

Figgy’s favorite: 
serves 4-6 


Super Creamy Mac 'N' Cheesey
Super Creamy Mac ‘N’ Cheesey
  • 2 quarts of cooked pasta preferably short and tubular (penne, cavatappi, macaroni)
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 5 cups whole milk (or more depending on consistency)
  • 2 ounces cream cheese
  • 1 cup shredded cheese (Cheddar, Gouda, Parmesan, Colby, American, or a combination)
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • Salt and pepper to taste


  1. Melt the butter over medium heat in a heavy-bottomed pot.
  2. Whisk in butter to form a roux having the consistency of wet sand.
  3. Whisk in milk, and continue to whisk until mixture comes to a  simmer.
  4. Add the cream cheese and the cups of the cheese of your choice, and continue to whisk and simmer.
  5. Season with nutmeg, salt and pepper, and adjust with more milk if needed.
  6. Add mixture to cooked pasta of your choice and serve immediately.

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