On the Upper East Side of Miami, an area many consider to be the city's next big neighborhood, there's a bright new storefront surrounded by motels with hourly rates and a smattering of boutiques and design shops. It's called Michy's and—like its namesake, chef Michelle Bernstein—this 50-seat restaurant is quintessential Miami: high-energy, colorful, sexy, a little Latin, totally cosmopolitan. At the same time, both Michy's and Bernstein possess something far more familiar to locals (who do, after all, live in the deep, deep South): a hometown sense of hospitality.
Michy's feels like the Miami version of those mom-and-pop Michelin one-stars in the French countryside. Walk in, and David Martinez, Bernstein's husband, greets you at the door ("I always know I don't have to worry about the front-of-house," Bernstein says). The room, designed by Bernstein's sister Nicky, is set with an assortment of late-'60s vintage chairs plucked from Miami's spectacular thrift shops, painted high-gloss white and upholstered in bright flowery fabric. Orange Ultrasuede banquettes line one wall, where Bernstein's parents are having dinner for the third time this week; a breezy white curtain lines the other. A plate-glass window faces Biscayne Boulevard, where customers can occasionally glimpse one of the neighborhood's working girls, um, working. (Don't worry, valet parking is in the back.)
Bernstein is in the kitchen, cooking, for the first time in her career, food that is exactly hers, a reflection of her Latin upbringing, French training, Asian travels and deep affinity for Italian, Spanish and Southern flavors. Add to that her impeccable sourcing of local ingredients and a kind of elegant rigor that threads through her life and her cuisine, and this restaurant isn't just owned by the chef, it's a perfect portrait of her. She cooks the same kind of food on her days off, when she's been known to commandeer a boat for an impromptu picnic lunch on the water.
Born and raised in Miami by an Argentinean mother and a Minnesotan father, Bernstein grew up believing she would become a ballerina. She studied with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York until an intense bout of homesickness (and a general distaste for the competitive culture of dance) brought her home. At her mother's suggestion, she attended cooking school, then headed north again to work under megawatt chefs Jean-Louis Palladin and Eric Ripert. When it came time to take an executive chef position, Bernstein returned to Miami. "This is what I know," she explains. "I know the people and I know what they want to eat. I know what I want to eat." She took the helm at several South Beach restaurants until finally landing in 2000 at Azul, a multimillion-dollar marble, glass and metal restaurant, designed by Tony Chi, in the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Miami. At the Mandarin's request, Bernstein created an Asian-inspired menu heavy on seafood with some inspiration from local products and cuisines, which gave her a strong regional, and subsequently national, following. She started co-hosting a show called Melting Pot on Food Network, with a focus on her mother's Latin home cooking, then opened MB, a restaurant at the Fiesta Americana hotel in Cancún.
In 2004, Bernstein left Azul. She had fallen in love with David Martinez, an assistant manager there, and together they decided to strike out on their own. That's how Michy's came to be.
The food at Michy's draws on all of Bernstein's heritage, history and interests, and then weaves those influences seamlessly into a bright, refined, multicultural cuisine. She cooks conch escargot-style in parsley, butter and garlic, giving the Caribbean mollusk a French-style makeover. She sautés sweetbreads with bacon and sour orange juice, which adds a Spanish twist to the dish. Her blue cheeseandham croquetas with fig marmalade are the upscale version of a snack that's served at every Cuban cafecito joint in the city. Everything at Michy's is meant to be shared and is available in full or half portions, a smart move from a chef who knows how important variety is to Miamians. "It's not really a concept," Bernstein explains about Michy's. "It's kind of just a restaurant."
The same can't be said for her other big project at the moment, creating all the menus for mega-restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow's Social restaurants, which serve globally influenced food with a local bent in cities across America. Chodorow—the owner of 26 high-energy, high-end places in the United States and Europe, including China Grill and Asia de Cuba, and a collaborator with chefs Alain Ducasse (happily) and Rocco DiSpirito (unhappily)—picked Bernstein to be "concept chef" for Social. Among other reasons, he saw a talented chef with a perfectly marketable package—female, pretty, ex-ballerina, Miami-based, Latina, trained by some of the top-name chefs in the world—who hadn't ever marketed herself.
"When I met her I said to her, 'Who's your PR person?' and she said, 'I don't have one.'" Chodorow has already changed that. "We're going to give her tremendous exposure," he promises.
That may be true, but Bernstein still seems to prefer being a working chef, who stays behind the stove, to becoming a globe-trotting megabrand. As she puts it, "When people ask me to come out into the dining room, I think, 'Wouldn't you rather taste my food than see me?'"
Today, Bernstein has taken a rare afternoon off from the restaurant—though certainly not from cooking—for an intimate party on a yacht in the middle of Biscayne Bay. She carries a bunch of Bollywood-colored pillows up the stairs to the top deck of the Miami Viceworthy boat, where her husband is passing around umbrella-topped passion fruit caipiroskas and arepitas, mini cornmeal pancakes with chorizo and mozzarella. Bernstein disappears inside to the galley, then reappears with a tray of elegant shot glasses filled with black-bean espuma—a frothy version of the classic Cuban soup—topped with skewers of grilled shrimp.
Next comes a mixed grill of skirt steak, chicken, chorizo and chicken livers (Bernstein normally uses foie gras at Michy's, but chicken livers are a delicious substitute). She serves them with three chimichurris, including a sweet and spicy ají, made from ground sweet peppers dried in the sun. For dessert, there will be grilled pound cake with mango, papaya, Mexican chocolate sauce and spiced-rum whipped cream.
But that's later. First the chef will become the dancer, joining her husband in what she describes as "a kind of a salsa." Bernstein is quick to add, "You know I have to throw my tango kicks in there." Even in dance, the chef can't help throwing everything she loves into the pot.
Jennifer Rubell, a hotelier and writer based in New York and Miami, is the author of Real Life Entertaining. She is also a contributing editor to Domino.