Taste of our journeys
For this South Florida chef, blending her family’s flavorful Jewish and South American culinary traditions comes naturally.
Q&A with Chef Michelle Bernstein by Dalia Colón
ichelle Bernstein started cooking fusion food dishes long before fusion was a buzzword. The Miami chef, restaurant owner and TV personality made a name for herself combining flavors and techniques from her Latin-Jewish heritage.
And it works. In 2008, the James Beard Foundation recognized Bernstein as the best chef in the South.
Bernstein and her husband/business partner, David Martinez, oversee a culinary empire that includes Michelle Bernstein Catering (MBC), and Little Havana’s Cafe La Trova, a collaboration with celebrated bartender Julio Cabrera.
In addition to her back-of-house chefdom, Bernstein also displays her cooking talents on camera as the host of local Channel 10’s SoFlo Taste and the Emmy award-winning series Check, Please! South Florida on PBS. She’s also an author, capturing favorite recipes in the 2008 cookbook Cuisine a la Latina: Fresh Tastes and a World of Flavors from Michy’s Miami Kitchen, and is currently at work on a new book.
Bernstein recently spoke by phone with FORUM contributor Dalia Colón from Miami, where she lives with Martinez and their 8-year-old son, Zachary.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Hollywood, Florida. When I was 1½, our family moved to Miami Shores, and we didn’t leave until I graduated high school…. I went to Johnson and Wales [to study culinary arts]. I went away to Atlanta. I went to school to study biochemistry and nutrition at Georgia State and then Emory University.
Before that, I was a professional dancer, and I moved to New York. I got a summer scholarship with Alvin Ailey [American Dance Theater], and I was hoping to dance with either Baryshnikov or Balanchine. By the time I was 20, I was told that I had the talent, but I was too short, and my legs were too strong, so that I should go be a modern dancer or a Vegas dancer. I was so let down that I quit everything, and I came back to go to college.
What made you pivot to cooking after your dance career?
Who says I’m not still dancing?
How did you become a chef?
I dreamt of becoming a great cook. I was hoping to combine cooking and my nutrition schooling. The cooking stuck, nutrition was there, but became more of a background. I fell in love, wanted to be better, be a better cook, a great cook; I never thought I had the talent to be a chef until I was offered the opportunity and went for it. The rest came together like a 300- piece puzzle.
You’re South Florida born and bred. South Florida is such a melting pot, and you embody that. How does your heritage influence your cooking?
I am fully Jewish and very Latin. Our background from South America is Argentina. Although my grandmother was from Chile, she moved to Argentina very young, and she met my grandfather. His side is about five generations Argentine. We were some Jewish gauchos. My dad [David Bernstein] is from Minnesota. His family all came from Ukraine, but some of them came to [the] United States, and some of them actually went to Uruguay. When Daddy… went to meet for the first time the Bernsteins — or as we call them, the Ber-en-stines – in Uruguay, he met my mother [the late Martha Bernstein, who was from Buenos Aires and vacationing in Uruguay at the time]. They fell in love and moved to Minnesota only [for] a couple of years, because he was ready to get out of the cold. So they came to South Florida.
That’s such an American story. Your last name, Bernstein, doesn’t give you away as a Latina. Did you ever have any issues with that? Did you ever feel like you had to prove yourself?
Always. So, it’s funny. Going to North Miami Senior High in the late ‘80s, where a lot of Cubans arrived, they stuck me in a beginners’ Spanish class. When I started speaking to my teacher — I’ll never forget Mr. Guerra — he says to me, “Why are you here? You’re obviously not born in this country.” I was like, “Of course I was born in this country. I’m American. I’m super gringa!” He says, “Well, why do you have an Argentine accent? You need to be with the Spanish speakers who were born in Latin countries.” I’m like, “No, no, no. Don’t do that to me.” Sure enough, I got stuck in there.
However, moving forward, I got my first TV gig with Food Network on a show called Melting Pot, and I was only strictly doing Latin food — whatever it was. My take on a lot of different typical Latin-culture food. People would write in saying, “Why is this Jewish woman talking about our culture, when Jewish people would know nothing about the Latin culture?” … My argument was, “You know that you can be both, right?” …. I married a Mexican Catholic, and he got it.
How did you get into owning restaurants and cooking on TV?
The TV part came to me, it wasn’t something I ever thought I would be good at. Luckily, all the stage work I did with ballet prepared me for my TV debut. I might not be the best TV personality, but I am definitely very, very comfortable doing it. I love it in fact. As for the restaurants, that is thanks to my husband, David. He really gave me the strength, cojones and confidence that allowed me to leave a cushy job and venture into our own. We never looked back.
What are some of those dishes from your first TV show that you mentioned or even today that embody both sides of you?
It’s more about the flavor. … Let’s say I’m making my mother’s arroz con pollo. The chicken and rice dish, to me, it couldn’t be more Latin. But when some people eat it, especially some people who happen to be Jewish, they tell me that it tastes a little on the Jewish side, which I think is so funny. I debone a chicken [At my Miami restaurant, Café La Trova], we would sous vide it a little bit in a marinade, which maybe is where the Jewish flavor comes from, ‘cause it did have a lot of dill in it. And to me, the dill and fennel flavors and caraway flavors are more, obviously, on the Jewish side. You know, rye bread. And then you’d push it on the plancha [grill] really hard to get it super crisp on one side. Then we’d slice a half a chicken over the rice, which by the way, was very Latin. It had a little bit of jerez [sherry], and it had sofrito. So I don’t know.
My matzo ball soup, I make mine with chayote and corn. Sometimes, I’ve even done it pozole [Mexican stew]-style, and it’ll have cilantro and lime. Now that’s not Argentine at all, but it’s the flavors that I grew up with in my later career, probably thanks to my husband, David, and traveling to Mexico. So, yeah. Not only is it my background, but let’s face it: The way you cook is also where you’ve been and the cultures that you’ve been exposed to. It all kind of combines into one big mishmosh, which happens to be my nickname.
Sounds like a delicious mishmosh. Do you observe Shabbat, and what does that look like at your house?
We do not observe Shabbat, but I do cook for other people’s Shabbat. I get asked a lot to make people Shabbat food, and I love, especially nowadays, to gift people Shabbat dinners. It could be anything from my mother’s delicious mustard-crusted brisket that I now do on the grill with a splash of a mustardy chimichurri sauce, it could be a whole roast duck, even, with glazed peaches. We turn it very much into our style when we do food for the holidays. Israeli couscous always is on the table, which I come very close to burning on purpose, ‘cause that’s how my son loves to eat it, where you toast it in oil until it’s brown, brown, brown, and then saute vegetables into it and mushrooms and sometimes dried apricots, and it’s just lovely. Finished with a lot of fresh herbs and a squeeze of lemon, it’s really creamy and delicious. So I try to combine a little bit of my heritage with the traditions of the holidays, ‘cause the High Holidays are such a favorite time for us to cook together, now over Zoom. So it’s bittersweet.
Chef Michelle Bernstein on cooking,
and life, in the time of COVID-19
“It is what it is. I have an 8-year-old who’s dying to be outside and play with his friends. … I’m feeding him absolutely everything. And I think that’s where I’m actually most frustrated [because] my son was the most curious, adventurous eater. And right now, the kid is pushing my food away, and all he wants is packaged mac ‘n cheese and packaged [breaded cutlets]. He won’t eat my food anymore, and I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t know if it’s an anxious thing, but he’s done. He’s done with my cooking. He’s done with the kitchen. He does not want my food, and I feel like a failure as a mother and as a chef, I think, because I can’t get him to eat better right now.
“Once to twice a week now—I can’t handle not cooking for people—we text random people to come and pick up food or to drop off. … The neighbors are benefitting. I gave my next-door neighbor lasagna yesterday, and I did fried chicken day, which used to be Wednesdays at [my restaurant] Michy’s. So I decided to do fried chicken day. We just sent a text out—whoever wants it, come and get it—and put little cute packages outside, and I made biscuits and fried chicken. Whoever wanted it came and got it. But then I forgot to leave any for my husband, so I had to make more!
Cafe la Trova is closed for now but will reopen when we feel comfortable doing so. We are delivering fried chicken on Wednesdays through MBC Catering and on Saturdays we are delivering pop-up menus, this week it’s old- school Michy’s!
“I feel as a restaurant owner and bar partner/owner scared to death. I was just this morning having a conversation with my husband, who is my partner in everything. We were saying, ‘Okay, it’s time now to evolve. It’s time to be something else.’ We’re trying to figure out now how we can turn into a great takeout restaurant.
“I still am doing my TV show. Everything has to be different: the way we touch food, the way we touch even our faces. The other day, I was filming my show, and I was like, ‘Oh my god, I have a hair in my face. What do I do, what do I do, what do I do?’ I was terrified of pulling a hair out of my eye… I don’t want people to think that I keep my hand in my face, but I’m human.
“I have one cameraman. He comes through the side of the house. He never comes inside the house. We stay more than 12 feet apart. We film in my backyard. I’m standing in front of a hedge, and I have a burner in front of me, and my barbecue. And I film. I’m in a T-shirt. There’s no covering my gray hair, and it’s just, I don’t know. As rustic as possible.”
2 cups finely chopped fresh Italian parsley
1 cup olive oil
4 tablespoons fresh oregano leaves
6 tablespoons red wine vinegar
4 tablespoons finely chopped garlic
4 teaspoons dried crushed red pepper
Kosher salt and black pepper
In a food processor, combine the parsley, vinegar, garlic, oregano and crushed red pepper. Process until smooth; season with salt and pepper. Transfer the sauce to a bowl and pour the olive oil over the mixture. Let stand for at least 20 minutes.
1 (4-pound cut of brisket), fattiest you can get
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
1 tablespoon hot paprika
1 tablespoon sweet paprika
1 ½ tablespoons kosher salt
1 ½ tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cups beef broth
2 tablespoon red wine vinegar
Chimichurri (recipe below)
Whisk together the dry ingredients for the spices. Rub the brisket with olive oil then the spice mixture.
Grill brisket on all sides over medium heat until well seared.
In a pot, heat the vinegar and broth together. Place the brisket in a roasting pan with the warm broth, cover and cook for about 3-4 hours or until tender but not falling apart.
Remove from the pan, allow to rest at least 20 minutes before serving with the chimichurri.
WHITE GAZPACHO, MARCONA ALMONDS, GRAPES, AND CUCUMBERS
1 ½ cups Marcona almonds (salted)
½ teaspoon fresh, peeled garlic
½ tablespoon peeled shallot
2 cups cucumbers, (I prefer English if available), peeled and chopped
2 cups seedless green grapes
1 tablespoon fresh dill
1 ½ cups cold vegetable broth
½ cup excellent quality extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
2 tablespoons dry sherry wine
Salt and black pepper, to taste
In a blender, add the almonds, garlic, shallot, cucumber, grapes, dill and broth and puree until very smooth. While blender is running, add the vinegar, sherry wine, and drizzle in the olive oil. Run the blender for at least 4-5 minutes, until the soup is very smooth. Place finished soup in the cooler until chilled. Serve with a garnish of sliced grapes, crushed almonds and dill.
Story of My Life Chicken Soup
1 chicken, about 4 pounds, skinned, rinsed, patted dry, and cut into 6 pieces (2 legs, 2 thighs, and 2 breasts)
2 cups minced Spanish onion
1 cup finely diced celery
1 cup finely diced carrots
1 bay leaf
About 4 quarts chicken stock
2 cups chayote, ¼-inch diced (can be replaced by pumpkin, calabaza, or jicama)
2 cups peeled sweet potato, ¼-inch diced dice (from about 1 large potato)
2 medium ears of corn, cut into ¼-inch rounds
½ cup dill leaves
1 serrano chili, sliced very thin
¼ cup chopped cilantro leaves and stems
1 lime, quartered or cut into sixths (1 wedge per person)
Salt and pepper
*1 cup cooked farfel or 12-24 (if small) of your favorite matzoh balls
Put the chicken, onion, celery, carrots, and bay leaf in a large stockpot and cover with cold chicken broth or cold water by 1 inch. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer until the chicken is cooked through, moist, and tender, about 1 hour. Use tongs or a slotted spoon to transfer the chicken to a plate and set aside until cool enough to handle.
Add the chayote, sweet potato, corn, dill, and habañero to the pot. Simmer until the vegetables are cooked but with a little crunch, about 20 minutes.
Shred the cooled chicken meat by hand and return it to the pot. Stir in the cilantro and cook for about 5 minutes to re-warm the chicken and further develop the flavor. Season with salt and pepper. Add the cooked farfel or matzoh balls, heat through.
Ladle the soup into 4 to 6 bowls, making sure to get a good mix of vegetables in each bowl. Serve with a wedge of lime.
Dalia Colón, an Emmy Award-winning multimedia journalist, is a producer and co-host of WEDU Arts Plus on Tampa Bay’s PBS station and produces WUSF Public Media’s food podcast, The Zest. A native of Cleveland, Ohio, Colón was a staff reporter for Cleveland Magazine and The Tampa Bay Times. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Los Angeles Times, on NPR, and Visit Florida. She lives in Riverview with her husband, two young children and cocker spaniel, Max.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2020 Issue of FORUM Magazine. Visit our collection at the USFSP Digital Archive by clicking here.
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