Like the city in which she was raised and educated, Chef Michelle Bernstein is a chameleon. Born to an Argentine-Jewish mother, whom she often credits with being her biggest inspiration, and a father whose background is both Jewish and Italian, Bernstein has come to personify Miami itself: Just when you think you’ve gotten to know her, she reinvents herself.
Intending to be a professional ballerina, Bernstein trained throughout her youth and, upon graduating from high school, departed for the prestigious Ailey School in New York City. Plans didn’t pan out the way she had anticipated, however, and a career-ending injury led her back to her mother’s multi-cultural kitchen. It was there, after studying nutrition at Emory and Georgia State universities, that she had her epiphany moment—she wanted to cook. She traded in her toe shoes and tutus for clogs and chef whites, and signed up for classes on what was then a fledgling North Miami satellite campus of Johnson & Wales.
Although Bernstein’s innate talent almost immediately landed her internships and jobs with award-winning chefs in well-known restaurants, such as Mark Militello of Mark’s Place in North Miami, Bernstein needed to call on the same perseverance that had led her through the physical and mental demands of a career in dance. Cooking was sweaty, exhausting work, and women—especially young, slender women with big, wide smiles—weren’t exactly what the chefs of the time considered top material. In fact, they were targets.
Still, Bernstein had found her grit, and it wasn’t only the kind that’s stoneground and slow-cooked. After a couple of lauded but lamentably brief executive chef positions at South Beach supper clubs such as The Living Room and Tantra, Chef Bernstein found firm footing at Azul, the elegant restaurant that had debuted in the Mandarin Oriental, Miami. There, her blend of Latin, French, Asian, and Caribbean flavors won her the regard of Esquire Magazine’s John Mariani, who granted the establishment the “Best New Restaurant in America” title in 2001.
While at Azul, the approachable Chef Bernstein became a media darling, co-hosting the Food Network’s show, Melting Pot, where she highlighted the cuisine of her childhood; appearing frequently on The Today Show; and competing—and winning—on Iron Chef America. Her recipes appeared frequently in Bon Appétit and other top food magazines, newspapers including The New York Times, and women’s glossies such as Elle and Redbook. She also met husband and business partner David Martinez there, and the pair left Azul in 2005 to open their first restaurant together, the Spanish-influenced Michy’s.
After being named one of the “Top 50 Restaurants in the Country” by Gourmet Magazine and “Best New Restaurant 2006” by Food & Wine Magazine, Michy’s brought Bernstein more fame when she was honored with the James Beard Award for Best Chef: South in 2008. Also in 2008, her first cookbook, Cuisine á Latina: Fresh Tastes and a World of Flavors from Michy’s Miami Kitchen, was published.
Never one to rest when she could multi-task, Bernstein added Sra. Martinez and Crumb on Parchment, two concepts in the Design District, and Michelle Bernstein at The Omphoy Ocean Resort in Palm Beach. Meanwhile, she was also consulting for Delta Airlines and Lean Cuisine; hosting a long-running, Emmy-nominated PBS series called Check, Please! South Florida; and developing a line of cookware for the Home Shopping Network.
Then, a few years ago, Bernstein and Martinez became parents to son Zachary, and commuting to Palm Beach became impossible. Bernstein and The Omphoy split in late January 2012. Six months later, they closed Sra. Martinez, a popular tapas establishment, so they could spend more time with their son.
But the shocker came in June 2014, when Bernstein and Martinez announced that they’d be closing the eponymous Michy’s just short of its 10th anniversary. Fortunately, it wasn’t the end for the family; it was a new beginning. Bernstein and Martinez re-entered the market at the end of the year with the 267-seat brasserie Seagrape at the Thompson Miami Beach—where Sra. Martinez made a surprise re-appearance as a pop-up one evening in another part of the renovated property. And, after a complete renovation, the couple re-introduced Michy’s in May, this time under the banner: CENA by Michy.
While launching two properties within the same year wasn’t exactly the plan, Bernstein knows from experience that the path one expects to follow is rarely the path one takes. FSR sat down with her to find out about her journey from stage to stove to resident Magic City diva.
You’re often referred to as the representative female chef of Miami. Do you think that’s a fair assessment?
I am not sure I agree with that assessment. I’ve always just wanted to be accepted among chefs, period. One day I’d love someone to say Michelle is really a chef’s chef; the kind of chef other chefs love and appreciate [for her] food, hard work, and community efforts. The kind of person you can easily talk to and have a drink with. I am proud of being a woman, a mother, a daughter—but as far as being a female chef … I have always just wanted to be a great chef. Being female is secondary.
What did it feel like to close your signature restaurant, Michy’s, just shy of its 10-year anniversary? What was the local community reaction?
I was worried I would go through a feeling of loss and sadness when we closed Michy’s. People were shocked we were closing. Everyone asked why. I have to be totally honest: The night we closed Michy’s was one of the most memorable and festive nights we ever had. I cooked off the cuff, whatever I was in the mood for; all my old cooks, chefs, managers, and customers came in to celebrate. We danced, ate, and celebrated an awesome run. At the time of closing, we didn’t really know what the heck we were doing. I knew I wanted to be with my son and husband more, and also knew I couldn’t keep that restaurant open one more day the way it was. I was going crazy! I felt limited by the old design and the menu concept. And the kitchen! It had to go. What would come I didn’t know, but my husband and I were really ready for a big change.
You and your husband opened two properties, Seagrape and CENA by Michy, within a 12-month time frame. How demanding did you find that process?
Demanding? It was ridiculous! It never is meant to happen that way, and for some reason it always seems to. The week we physically got into the hotel (with seven days to open), I landed in the hospital with bronchial spasms and asthma so bad I was on 800 CC’s of steroids a day. It was also two weeks before Art Basel, for which we are the official caterers—2,000 people a day in a makeshift kitchen in a botanical garden, it makes me laugh just thinking about it—and of course [we were] designing CENA. I was overwhelmed, emotional, missing my husband and son, and desperately trying to go over all the dishes with the chefs at [The Thompson] hotel through Facetime. CENA had a hard beginning. There are just no cooks to be had in Miami. We were so short-handed, so deep in the weeds.
Be that as it may, I felt stronger than ever about my menu; I was so excited about the ideas, the flavors, and the happiness I wanted to share with everyone. My cooking and I have changed in the last 10 years; it was time for a new style.
Recently, your restaurant Sra. Martinez re-appeared as a pop-up at the 1930s House at Thompson Miami Beach. Are there any more plans for nostalgic time travel back to former restaurants?
For now, Sra. is the only restaurant I can see being very present and exciting and conceptually strong enough to be a pop-up.
How would you describe your kitchen management style? How has it evolved over time?
I was a crazy bitch when I was younger; explosive, abrasive—at times, and a bit of a screamer. I was mentored by some very strong personalities who would use fear to train us. I am now a mom and more sure of myself. I no longer need to scream to get the respect and attention of my staff. I make people feel responsible for their actions—a little guilt goes a long way—and now I sleep at night.
How do you think your staff would describe your kitchen management style?
I hope [they think of me] as a good teacher and mentor and, as my husband says, one of the most patient people he knows. Then again, you never know.
Given that you and your husband operate your restaurants together, how difficult is it to parent a toddler? How do you divide responsibilities?
We share them all and are still learning how to be better teammates. We share the workload and wherever there is a need, whoever is free fills it. Obviously, I do the cooking but we share everything else. It’s not easy. But we figure it out, just like everyone else. The worst for me is traveling without them.
High-achieving chefs tend to be viewed by the public as gastronomic superheroes. In what ways are you more human than super?
If I eat too much butter, it feels like a golf ball develops in my throat that stops me from swallowing anything for 24 hours. My pants size has grown twice over the course of two years; I am desperately lacking sleep, exercise, and girl time. I also battle asthma on a daily basis, and I work with a spouse, so there’s always the stresses associated with that.
You’ve done a lot of work with the nutritional education program, Common Threads. What attracted you to working with underprivileged children?
They are our future; they are our lives. Without giving them a proper chance—a real start—we are nowhere.
You have a stable of loyal chefs who work with you, and you’ve trained many chefs who have gone on to run kitchens of their own. How does it feel to be considered a mentor?
Pretty damn awesome! I wish I could have always been a better teacher, with more time and patience, but I did what I could. I still do.
What advice were you given as a young chef that you followed, and what advice would you give young chefs beginning their careers?
A lot of chefs I grew up working for weren’t the type of people who hand out advice. But one did tell me when he fell ill, sadly just before he passed, that I had to live; take every opportunity and let life be my experience. … A coach once told me, “Stay dumb, Michelle; they love you dumb.” I know that sounds cruel, but I understood what he said; no one likes a smart ass! I tell my chefs, “You are only as good as the last dish you put out. Once you think you know enough about that technique or ingredient, go try the way [Joël] Robuchon makes it or [Juan Mari] Arzak or any number of incredibly accomplished chefs. You will realize how little you really know about everything.”
You and Miami have truly grown up together. What do you predict for both of you in the future?
Hopefully, very good things. More green spaces for families, better school lunches for kids, improvement in our education systems, a growing restaurant scene—and, please, more Asian cuisine.