Interview With Celebrity Chef Michelle Bernstein, Part 2

Today we are back with Michelle Bernstein as she gives us the lowdown on Common Threads, the foundation she champions in Miami, and how she is aiming to expand Common Threads throughout Florida and beyond. We also get her view on where to eat in South Florida, the trials of dessert, and why meatloaf shouldn't be called "your mom's."  If you missed part 1 of the interview, click here.  

Stay tuned as tomorrow, Bernstein will share her recipe for fried chicken, a major hit at her Miami restaurant, Michy's, and at her Palm Beach restaurant, Michelle Bernstein at the Omphoy.   

New Times: Tell us about Common Threads? 

Bernstein: In order to invest in our future, we have to invest in our children. They are our future, and we need to keep them healthy. We do this by showing them how to cook and stay healthy, and at the same time, we teach them cultural diversity by learning about and cooking food from different cultures. There is nothing more gratifying that being able to make something to eat and then sharing that with your family and friends. It's great to see how proud these children are of what they have produced. 

Common Threads has an ambition agenda to grow throughout Florida and beyond -- how difficult has that been?  

Common Threads is my favorite subject, but it's hard too, because in order for Common Threads to survive, we have to raise money, and that means that we have to ask people for money. I find that really hard. Initially there is the romance of being part of the foundation, but then you realize that if you want to grow and if you want the foundation to become bigger and stronger, then you need to raise money all the time. That is definitely the hardest part. But in my view, there is nothing better than teaching children to cook for themselves and learn all about nutrition and leading a healthy life, so it is worth it.   

What kind of food are you teaching the children to cook?

Oh my God, there is nothing typical! We love to share cultures with the children, and we do that through the food that we cook. Often we will bring in a master chef to teach them a specific culture. For instance, we were doing Japanese day recently, and we were rolling sushi rolls together and making a nice salad, and then we'll talk about the cultures and the traditions of Japan. It's great; they make all of the food themselves. The whole semester is the children's choice, and we take a vote on what they want, and generally they all pick pizza. We have a rule, though: There has to be at least two vegetables on each pizza.      

That's sneaky! Do they complain about the vegetables?

Well, we have to cut them into tiny pieces so that they can stand swallowing them!  

What is the toughest culinary skill these kids have been learning? 

We had them rolling their own pasta. It was crazy; they were so proud of themselves. They had only seen pasta in packages, and now they were making it by hand and sharing it with their families.     

From a culinary standpoint, what would you like to see more and less of in South Florida?

I think I'd like to see less sushi bars. I don't know what is about this part of the world, but they think that if you put a sushi bar in, it will do well, regardless of how well the sushi is made. It's odd; it just ruins beautiful food.   

I wish we had Korean food and more Thai and Vietnamese food. It's some of my favorite. I think it has more umami than any other cuisine [umami is considered to be the fifth taste, essentially a savory flavor]. I also wish we did more with fish. You'd think that it would be a dime a dozen to have really good fresh, sustainable fish on menus, but it just doesn't happen. 

What do you think is the greatest attribute of the South Florida dining scene?

I think we have a lot of flavor in our food, definitely a lot more than other cities. I think because there is the Latin influence, people are not afraid of flavor; they are not scared to be sweet and salty and sour and all-round spicy!  

What are the secret spots where you like to eat in Florida?  

They're not so secret, but my favorite is La Camaronera. It's just a counter; you order fried fish. Honestly, it's the best fried shrimp you will ever have. Everything is superfresh, and everything is caught in Florida. I also love Vietnamese Hy-Vong. It's wonderful; I was very small when I started going there, and I'm still going there to this day. Another great spot is Sushi Deli; it is a little Japanese market, and there is a genius master sushi chef -- he makes some of my favorite sushi.  

If you could visit any restaurant in the world, where would you go?

The Fat Duck -- gotta try it one day!  [The Fat Duck is three-star Michelin chef Heston Blumethal's restaurant in Berkshire, England.] 

What food trend is inspiring you right now?

Tacos; the taco trucks are inspiring.  

What cookbook do you return to, time and time again? 

I'm always trying to learn how to become a better pastry cook. I'm not a pastry chef. I'd never call myself a pastry chef, but I'm always looking through Maida Heatter's Book of Great Desserts so that I can become better.  

How good are you with pastry at the moment? [Bernstein's cookbook, Cuisine a Latina, has the shortest dessert section ever -- one page long!]

It is tough [sigh]. You have to be totally devoted, and that is the hard thing. 

If you are dining at your restaurants, what dish would you choose to eat?

Michy's -- I normally choose the Malaysian snapper, because I learned how to cook it when working in Malaysia.  

Sra. Martinez -- I'm a sucker for the galbi pinchos, short ribs with green tomato slaw.  

The Omphoy -- The roast turbo with braised fennel and fennel purée.  

We are featuring your recipe for the fried chicken tomorrow. Is that one of your faves?

Everyone talks about the fried chicken, and it is damned good. I just can't eat another piece of it... 

What do you think about these "All American" comfort dishes coming back into style?

I think we all want comfort. Everything is so messed up right now, and I think we are all looking for something comforting. The old classics are what people crave. I love it; I really embrace those classic dishes.  

We are just about to put a meat-loaf sandwich on the menu at the Omphoy. I wanted to call it "not your mom's meatloaf," but the other chefs did not agree. We have also got a doughnut on the menu at the Omphoy that is filled with molten chocolate. It is so ridiculously good and comforting.   

What projects are you working on at the moment?

I am writing new menus for all of the restaurants, and I'm also writing the new menu for Delta Airlines. [Bernstein is consulting chef for Delta's business and first-class foods.] We also have a big fundraiser for Common Threads on November 1 that we are getting ready for. 

Last question, and it's random: If you could describe your food by the name of a song, what song would you choose?  

"Give Me Love." 

Come back tomorrow for Michelle Bernstein's recipe for fried chicken, and believe me, this is much better than what the colonel has to offer!   

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Lyndsay Anderson
Contact: Lyndsay Anderson