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.