Midway between Lucile Ball and Julia Child lands the personality of Chef Michelle Bernstein. Like Lucy, the red haired cuisinier lights up the TV screen with a wide, engaging smile; and like Julia, she makes culinary technique look simple in front of our eyes. She creates food that is elegant, unpretentious and sophisticated without cumbersome complications. “I cook how I feel, with the flavors I was either born with or developed through the years,” said the chef during our interview.Bernstein is no stranger to fame, and her friendly demeanor shines in front of the camera.
This James Beard Award winner was the co-host of Food Network’s The Melting Pot and currently hosts Check Please South Florida! on PBS, making her one of our most beloved TV personalities. Her numerous television appearances in Top Chef, the Today Show and the Martha Stewart Show have made her a household name, and she secured her position in America’s culinary pantheon when she defeated Bobby Flay in battle ‘sweet onion’ in Iron Chef America.
Things were not always easy for Chef Bernstein. As a Latin woman, she had to break barriers to achieve due recognition in a field dominated by men. “In the early 90′s it was overwhelming, and now, it’s just a world apart from when I started. There weren’t laws protecting women in the restaurant industry,” she tells us. She has since been named “one of the 15 Top Latinas in the Nation” by Latina Magazine, and “Top 10 Jewish Women in America” by the Jewish Woman International Federation, both tributes to her talent in the kitchen and her community involvement.
Michelle discovered her passion for cooking at a very early age, “when I was just 7 years old, for my birthday, I asked my mother to teach me how to make escargot; I think that says a lot about what I was destined to do in life,” she comments. But the realization of that destiny would have to wait before reaching fulfillment. The young Michelle also wanted to be a ballet dancer, when she enrolled in a nutrition course. Her affinity with food (and its preparation) ensued, and she would soon replace her ballet slippers for the rigors of cooking school in what seems today a logical exchange. She applied the same dedication to cooking as she had done in the dance studio. “Being a chef requires discipline, hours of physical activity and I’m always on my feet. I think dance choreography is like composing dishes of food,” she points out recalling the time when she was a ballerina.
Bernstein graduated with honors from Johnson & Wales University and soon began working as executive chef for some of Miami’s top eateries. Her tenure at Tantra brought international attention to the South Beach haunt. She would later elevate her profile as executive chef of Azul at the Mandarin Oriental, where she dazzled diners and critics alike with a sophisticated, but approachable, menu and beautiful dish presentation. In 2001, Esquire magazine’s food critic John Mariani, named Azul the “Best New Restaurant in America.”
In 2005 she left the comfort of her executive chef position at Azul to open Michy’s, a sophisticated but unassuming neighborhood restaurant in Miami’s Biscayne Corridor, which helped establish the area as the new hot dining destination in town. Together with husband David Martinez, they opened several other dining venues in South Florida, including Sra. Martinez, Crumb and Parchment and Michelle Bernstein at the Omphoy Ocean Resort in Palm Beach County, as well as dining outposts in Cancun and the Cayman Islands. The busy couple credits the consistency and success of their venues to the support of a great team. “It’s essential to have great staff; they are truly the key to help a restaurant succeed.“ Esquire also declared Sra. Martinez one of the best places to dine in America in 2009.
The chef sources ingredients locally whenever possible. She has established a close relationship with fishermen and farmers in the areas where she operates and has a particular take on sustainability. “I totally endorse and I’m an advocate of sustainability; however, many people and programs have conflicting information so it is tough to decide what’s really a true, correct and unbiased opinion.”
The queen of Nuevo Latino cuisine as she has been dubbed, Michelle was born in Miami with Latin and Jewish roots. She has incorporated the flavors from her childhood into an elegant repertoire with international overtones. Her cuisine is “about amazing ingredients, layered flavors and simplicity. My style of cooking is inspired by my own food memories, and it’s the simple, soulful cooking that stays”, says the chef. Latin cuisine is in her blood, but her Jewish mother has also contributed to her culinary vocabulary. “I take her recipes and give them my own spin. I also incorporate new ingredients and trends to her dishes.” But her love of food transcends her heritage, as she delves into different cultures to draw the essential elements and techniques that have made her a culinary star. “There are so many flavors, cultures, (culinary) traditions, and they are all wonderful and unique in their own way,” Michelle told azureazure.com.
Married to a Mexican restaurateur, Michelle is mother to Zachary, their two-year old son. At home, she pulls her culinary authority “I rule the kitchen. He rules everything else. We share the role of educating Zachary, and I love working with him (David) because he’s the best business partner I will ever have.” The couple has recently closed Sra. Martinez, their acclaimed Midtown Miami tapas restaurant as the family wants to spend more time together. When asked about future plans, she tries to keep a secret. “It’s too early to talk about (future plans). I love to keep some things a surprise, but I have a big mouth when it comes to my own life,” concludes Bernstein. Whatever those plans may entail, we are filled with anticipation about the new azure moments Michelle and David will bring us in the future. ■