Chef Michelle Bernstein is no stranger to the kitchen. With two successful South Florida-based restaurants, Michy's and SRA. Martinez, most people would think that's enough to keep the 2008 James Beard Award (Best Chef South) winner busy. With a cookbook (Cuisine a Latina) and a co-hosting appearance (Food Network's Melting Pot) under her Chef's hat as well, chaos is all part of a day's work for Bernstein. Fortunately, she was able to take the time to answer some insightful questions for us.
I'm sure all the dishes on each of your menus are like your children, but if you had to choose only one dish from each of your restaurants, which ones are you most proud of?
At Michy's, the croquetas. It took me so long to perfect that oozy consistency. At SRA. Martinez, it might be the Patatas Bravas. They are my take on a very traditional Spanish tapa. They are a huge pain to make - tiny potatoes roasted, scooped out perfectly, fried in olive oil and filled with aji Amarillo sauce and crispy Jamon Serrano - but so worth it.
Miami is such a huge mix of cultures, ethnicities, flavors and palates. I was born here and I still question my menu choices for the crowd. Because of tourism, the Miami "dining crowd" can be so inconsistent regarding a pervading "taste" and hard to predict. In the end, you have to focus on flavor and hope that as you evolve as a chef, your diners evolve with you.
Did you consciously place your restaurants in the locales/neighborhoods they're in according to the aesthetic you wanted to draw from them?
I don't know about the aesthetics but I can tell you I consciously thought about the locals that live in the neighborhood where my restaurants are located, especially when we opened Michy's. They know good food, eat out at least 1-2 times a week and I'm happy to consider myself one of them. We wanted to be there for the locals, though we're blessed to have attracted people from as far as Palm Beach, folks who have become regulars in fact. Who knew our "local diners" would be hours away?
At what point did you realize you were destined to be a chef? Was it something you've always wanted to pursue or was there a turning point in making you realize this career path was for you?
I think just last week I realized this was my destiny. I was working at Michy's, running around cooking and feeling very connected. I felt like at that moment I could take on any recipe. It might sound silly but it's very powerful to feel so natural with food and cooking; there is nothing I would rather be doing than just cook. In truth, however, years ago I knew I loved the industry the second I walked into a professional kitchen.
How do you keep yourself sane with all of the projects you have going on?
The question pre-supposes that I am sane, which I don't often feel when things get completely hectic. Getting in the kitchen and cooking helps center me. It requires focus and attention to detail and allows me to put other matters out of mind. It's physical and mental exercise and very freeing, though it has stresses all its own.
The 5 ingredients every home kitchen should have?
Good olive oil, kosher salt, black pepper, shallots or onions, lemons.
The 5 utensils every home kitchen should have?
Whisk, good quality knife, sauté or frying pan, a large spoon (not too big, one you can handle comfortably but that will pick up a lot of liquid or oil), cutting board.
What motivated you to start the Miami chapter of "Common Threads?"
I discovered Common Threads in Chicago and fell in love with it. I always wanted to help kids and somehow positively affect their futures. What better way than to teach them to cook and lead healthier, more fulfilling lives?
Which chefs inspire you?
Your fondest food-related memory?
Sitting on a milk crate with my mom in KL Malaysia eating curry, flatbread and sipping hot goat's milk.
Favorite dish to make at home?
Cornish hens slow roasted over sweet potatoes, parsnips and turnips, served with a fresh green salad.