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One of Miami’s few native chefs, Michelle Bernstein has spent her career mining the city’s diverse cultural landscape for inspiration.
When chef Michelle Bernstein tells you about her hometown it can be a real spectacle. She laughs and she shimmies; slips between English and Spanish to find the right words. You get the sense that her fabulous metropolis defies summary. That it is as equally influenced by its legacy of Cuban refugees as it is by its its Caribbean community, its South American “Doralzuelans,” its blingy tourists or even its snowbird retirees. You understand that favoring any one of these angles to tell the whole story of Miami would somehow miss the point. Maybe Tom Wolfe got it right when he wrote "Miami is a melting pot in which none of the stones melt. They rattle around.” That would certainly account for all the dancing.
Michelle was born in Miami, the daughter of an Argentine mother and a Russian-Jewish father. And, in a display of civic loyalty she says is rare in these parts, she stayed in Miami. “Most people who are born here get the hell out,” laughs Michelle. And to be fair, for a while anyway, it looked like she might leave too. She wanted to be a ballerina and, as a young woman, moved to New York to study with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. “When I was dancing, I was constantly cooking to fill a void in my soul,” she says. “I was without my parents, away from my friends. I decided that that void was something I had to look at and face.” So she came home and enrolled in culinary school, juggled three industry jobs to “get really good, really fast.” She jumped onto the fish station one night when a line cook went down and held steady against the male staffers who said they’d taken bets against her. “In a few years when I am a great chef and you are all still line cooks, I'm gonna laugh at you,” she remembers saying.
Michelle moved around after that—cooking in New York, South America and France; when she came home in the 90s she was quickly offered a chef position at Tantra in Miami Beach. The gig was grueling, serving 500 covers a night, but it was her first star turn. “There were no women doing it. No Latin women doing it. No Latin-Jewish women doing it. You want to talk about niches—I had three,” says Michelle, who would land on the national radar a few years later, when she opened Azul at the Mandarin Oriental. “At the time, that was the most upscale restaurant that had ever opened in Miami,” she says. “That was truly the beginning.”
But it wasn’t until she peeled off in 2005 and opened her own restaurant, Michy’s, that the extent of the city’s influence on her work really began to reveal itself. Michelle may have studied classical technique and established herself in the kind of glamorous restaurants favored by the South Beach beau monde. But she had come of age in Miami frequenting more humble, family-owned restaurants and immigrant institutions like Islas Canarias and La Camaronera—places where food was a way to preserve and transmit identity for a displaced culture; where the welcome was always warm. At Michy’s, somehow, she managed to split the difference. She wanted a neighborhood restaurant, so she opened not in touristy Miami Beach, but in up-and-coming MiMo, not far from where she was raised. Michy’s was small by Miami fine dining standards—just 50 seats or so—and her husband and partner, David Martinez, greeted guests at the door, setting an intimate tone. She found ways to fuse her training and her heritage in the kitchen: A take on Gallic escargots made using local Florida conch; a delicate revision of the fried croquetas she had snacked on growing up; forays into the Jewish flavors that were also a part of her childhood. “I wasn't hiding [when I was a young cook], but I also wasn't quick to show my cards. There was a time when I would be afraid to put real Jewish-flavored food on a menu, and if I did anything Argentine it would maybe be something like chimichurri. Suddenly I could do matzo ball soup if I wanted, and gefilte fish and blood sausage on the grill,” she says. “I feel like all the different cultures of Miami have made me more comfortable with who I am—that I can show who I am with my cuisine.”
Michelle won a James Beard Award in 2008, cementing her role as an advocate for the region’s diverse culinary culture. She’s expanded her footprint in Miami, opening a cafe, Crumb on Parchment, and supporting the city’s ascent in the art world as the official caterer for the Art Basel festival. She’s watched local agriculture catch up to growing culinary demand, as ingredients that were once impossible to cultivate in the area began to sprout—fresh beans, almonds, greens. She’s seen chefs around the country wake up to the city she has championed for so long and rush to open restaurants there, creating a culture of competition that feeds her. “If you aren't constantly moving and evolving you truly get lost,” says Michelle, who transformed her flagship Michy’s into CENA in 2015, serving simpler, ingredient-driven food that squares with Miami’s modern, healthful ethos. “I have a fight and a fire that pushes me to stay relevant. I need to think not just about what’s happening today, but also what will happen tomorrow.”
Miami has indeed transformed itself in recent years. Today, the city is packed with excellent restaurants that trade on imported buzz—from D.C., José Andrés; from New York, Dale Talde; from Peru, Gaston Acurio to name just a few. But Michelle, as ever, sees the city through the eyes of a native. “Miami is a crazy mix of cultures and flavors and languages and music. It is vibrant and powerful and loud. It can be obnoxious but it has a beauty and a sensuality that you can’t find anywhere else in this country,” she says. “The feel is different today. The skyline is different. But this city is my hood. I’m always going to be here. Miami is embedded in my soul.”