Latin-fusion-cuisine dynamo Michelle Bernstein, creator of Miami’s famed Michy’s restaurant, joins Lexus’ elite club of top chefs.
The setting, April’s 2012 Pebble Beach Food & Wine, is ideal for introducing food-appreciating Lexus fans to Michelle Bernstein, the seventh celebrity chef to join the esteemed Lexus Culinary Masters.
The other six have been cooking up a storm in a private ballroom at Pebble Beach’s Inn at Spanish Bay for hours, as culinary-minded Lexus fans mill about, enthusing over the food stylings of chefs Michael Chiarello, Michael Symon, Dean Fearing, Masaharu Morimoto, Christopher Kostow, and Daniel Boulud.
After serving Morel Stuffed Chicken Wings and Veal Portugaise with his team, the legendary Daniel Boulud takes the stage in the center of the ballroom; soon he’s flanked by his fellow members. The announcement is swift: Miami-based chef Michelle Bernstein, renowned for her Latin cooking at Michy’s and two other Miami venues, has become the newest Lexus Culinary Master.
“Now you can come to Miami,” Boulud quips to his colleagues, “and Michelle will drive you around in a Lexus.”
Fresh from the excitement of her crowning, Bernstein, who co-hosted Food Network’s Melting Pot and authored Cuisine a Latina: Fresh Tastes and a World of Flavors from Michy’s Miami Kitchen, retires to a quiet corner of this elegant hotel, places a graceful elbow atop a piano, and talks passionately to Lexus magazine about her career and its new phase:
Lexus: What would you say to Lexus owners is one ingredient or method that’s essential in the kitchen?
Bernstein: To be able to shave things very finely with an inexpensive plastic Japanese mandolin. It’s a chef’s secret weapon. It gives great texture to a salad or a topper for a piece of fish. And I love poaching—it’s the only way I’ll eat salmon, and I poach skinless whole chicken with dashi in the broth for flavor.
Can you tell us more about what you cooked for Lexus fans tonight—Raw & Poached Spring Vegetable Salad with Salmorejo Jamon Serrano?
The direction tonight is natural, not that I don’t cook naturally in Florida. But Californians get excited about the ingredients. They love their veggies. In Florida people expect seafood, but here I knew that a beautiful vegetable dish could stand alone. The colors are really bright and the flavors are really bright.
What did it feel like to be on stage with those illustrious fellow chefs and have Daniel Boulud introduce you?
Like I’m not worthy! I dreamt of meeting them one day and working in their kitchens when I was young, and now to be standing here as an equal is pretty humbling. I’ve always wanted to achieve a level where I was taken seriously for my food, and I never thought about maybe being different because I’m a woman. However, I was very proud to stand there as the first woman inducted. Women love cars, women love food!
How would you describe your contribution to South Florida cuisine?
I was born and raised in Miami, and I was trained by chefs in the “Floribbean” concept. It’s been something I’ve been trying to shed as I’ve matured because I wanted to have my own style. My style is as Latin as it is Mediterranean as it is sometimes Jewish as it is sometimes French.
What is the Jewish influence?
Once in a while you’ll see a latke or a matzo ball and the chicken soup my mother taught me how to make. It’s as much about the ancient Hebrew recipes as it is about my style, for example the appearance of dill. And I’m trying to make that gefilte fish that’s so perfect that even my husband who’s not Jewish will eat it! And I will not eat anyone’s brisket but my mother’s.
Tell me about your restaurant Crumb on Parchment.
It’s in Miami’s design district, it’s a breakfast and lunch spot and bakery, and it has this weird cult following. My mother makes layer cakes for it, and if we Tweet about the layer cakes, people wait in line and they sell out in an hour.
How did you become involved in Common Threads?
Teaching underserved kids about nutrition and teaching simple cooking classes was a natural for me. It’s inspired the kids not only to cook at home, but also to shop for the ingredients. The obesity numbers in this country are staggering. Some of these kids had never tasted vegetables in their lives. If this works in Miami, it could become national.
You trained as a ballerina. Do you see connections between cooking and dance?
Sometimes when I’m especially “on,” I almost feel like I’m choreographing a dance. It’s just as creative, just as disciplined, and you’re on your feet just as much. I started ballet at three, and when I was twenty I had an injury. Once the career of ballet was no longer a possibility I had to find another outlet. I went to college to study nutrition, and one day I was cooking in the kitchen with my mother—which always brought me so much tranquility—and she just looked at me and said, “Why don’t you just go to culinary school? This is what you love.”