Michelle Bernstein is arguably the busiest chef in Florida. She owns the
hugely successful Michy's and SRA. Martinez in Miami; won the James Beard award for Best Chef in the South in 2008; and kicked Bobby Flay's butt on the Food Network's Iron
She's also the author of
Cuisine a Latina; is a guest judge on Bravo's Top Chef (catch her on
Top Chef tonight!), and heads the Miami chapter of Common Threads, a
foundation that teaches low-income children good nutrition and cooking
A Miami native of Jewish and Latin descent, Bernstein attributes her cooking style to her "Mama" but also trained in French technique under the famed Jean Louis
Palladin. Her food is described as "luxurious but approachable," and
according to Anthony Bourdain, Bernstein has been "kicking ass and
taking names for a long time."
Would she kick my ass? Hardly. With the biggest smile in the business, Bernstein is warm and open. Frankly, that is a feat when you have as much going on as she does.
caught up with her to talk about her newest restaurant, Michelle
Bernstein at the Omphoy, in Palm Beach and find out why she is
still being hard on herself regardless of her success.
Your signature restaurant at the Omphoy has been open for nearly a
year; how is it going?
Bernstein: We are fine-tuning it
all the time. We want it to be a real local hangout, and it's getting
better and better by the day. It's a work in progress, though.
The Palm Beach crowd seems really different from the Miami crowd. How is that reflected in the menu?
The menu seems to have a real focus on healthy dishes; was that the intention?
When I first opened at the Omphoy in Palm Beach, I thought, it
can't be that different -- it's only 45 minutes away. But it's just amazing -- there is a real demographic difference in what people like to eat
compared to what we like in Miami. You go from superspicy to more
delicate, from a lot of meat to a lot of fish. It is interesting how 45
minutes can really change a menu!
I think on the whole, we are trying to get healthier all the time. When I started out, I was cooking with butter; then we progressed into olive oil, then grapeseed oil, no oil at all, and then vegetable broths as a substitute to oil or butter. We're all just trying to get a little healthier all the time, and we keep our menu open so that it suits people with different dietary needs.
How has the disaster in the Gulf affected your ability to get fish and seafood for your restaurants?
It's been horrible, and I don't know what's going to happen. We are really on hold at the moment to see if the fish has been affected. Right now, we are getting our fish from South Florida and the Northeast and not the Gulf. The worst thing is, we really don't know how best to help out the people in the Gulf yet.
As your fame has risen, have you found that more people have applied to work alongside you?
(laughs) I don't think so; I hope not! I really don't think so. I just hope that the people that want to work with me want to learn about the food.
What do you look for when you hire someone?
Humility and passion. You really have to keep your mouth shut and listen and learn and make sure that you write everything down. There has to be excitement too so that you can take on new challenges in the kitchen.
What piece of advice would you give to any aspiring chef?
I love it when people can just listen rather than trying to talk and show off all the time. It's important that people soak up knowledge. My advice is, be humble.
You have said in the past that the best piece of advice you were given was: "You're not as good as you think you are -- keep trying to get better." With that in mind, when did you become confident in your abilities as a chef?
I haven't yet, no, not yet. Maybe it's better that you don't feel 100 percent confident. That way, you always try and do a better job. I know I'm great with flavors, and I know I can cook, but as far as being a great chef and being proud of everything, I don't think that feeling ever comes. I think all chefs are basically masochistic!
With the advent of technology, it seems that everyone is a food critic these days. How do you deal with that?
I know I can't stop it, and I get it that good and bad press is still good for the restaurant, but it is tough, particularly when people don't understand what it is that you are trying to do. I appreciate that a lot of people just won't like my cuisine, and that is fine, but when you don't like something because you don't understand it, that is a problem, and a few bad reviews can really ruin it for everyone.
Who has been the greatest influence in your cooking style?
My mom has been the greatest influence in my cooking style, but my husband has been the greatest influence in the concept of the restaurants and the business style, and now his influence is the reason that I cook certain things or take on certain jobs.
What was the biggest break that you got in your career?
Definitely the Mandarin Oriental; they took a big gamble on me. I was somewhat a nobody, though I was becoming better-known locally and in the foodie circle, but they basically just threw me in there. [Bernstein had previously been executive chef at Tantra, the famed Miami restaurant, before being invited to take over the helm of Azul at the Mandarin Oriental in Miami in 2001.] They gave me a chance, and I worked hard for them to prove myself and take that restaurant to the level it deserved to be at. [Bernstein garnered critical acclaim from a number of sources, including Esquire magazine food critic John Mariani, who dubbed Azul Best New Restaurant in America.]
Tomorrow, we'll talk with Bernstein about one of her favorite subjects, Common Threads, the foundation that teaches children age 8 to 12 how to cook and lead a healthy life. We'll also get the lowdown on the South Florida dining scene, where she eats, and what trends she's hot on right now.