Michy Displays Her Might

Often referred to as Miami’s representative female chef, Michelle Bernstein downplays the gender card, saying, “I have always just wanted to be a great chef. Being female is secondary.”
Often referred to as Miami’s representative female chef, Michelle Bernstein downplays the gender card, saying, “I have always just wanted to be a great chef. Being female is secondary.” Michael Pisarri

After opening two restaurants in the last year, Chef Michelle Bernstein is riding the Magic City wave.

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.


Add new comment