When chef Michelle Bernstein was working at her first restaurant job in Miami, she'd show up three hours earlier than her male colleagues to make sure everything in her kitchen area was ready. By the time they got there, "I'd be all set to go, so I started to help them with their
prep," she says with a sly smile. In the guy-centric restaurant world, the former dancer—who once trained at the Ailey School in New York City—quickly learned to get tough. "I could talk and act just like a boy," Bernstein says, explaining that as recently as a few years ago, it was assumed that "you had to be as physically strong as a man in the kitchen" to keep up with the grueling demands of the job. She made it through years of juggling restaurant jobs and cooking school by telling herself that her hard work would pay off. "I wanted to be great," she says. "I kept telling myself, 'Get faster, get better, get competitive.' By the third year, I knew I was onto something."
Now the 39-year-old James Beard Award winner glides into the dining room at Michy's, the whimsically chic Miami restaurant she opened in 2006 after making her name as chef at the city's glamorous Azul restaurant and hosting a Food Network show, Melting Pot.
Beaming diners stop to take her hand, raving about their dishes, which might include a sweet, creamy white gazpacho made with almonds and grapes, or Caribbean conch roasted escargot-style with garlic and butter. Locals and out-of-towners come in as much for Bernstein's boldly flavorful, elegantly crafted dishes as for her effortlessly hospitable personality: "If there's something you want that's not on the menu," she says, "I'll make it for you."
Bernstein, who grew up in a Latin-Jewish family in Miami, refined her cooking skills at top restaurants in Europe and the United States. She is one of the rare cooks who can seamlessly and judiciously weave together culinary traditions from around the world—Latin America to Asia to the Mediterranean—and create vibrant, memorable dishes. "I want a pear to taste like a pear," she says. "And for every bite to be as true to the ingredients as can be."
Now, fresh from the launch of her new Miami tapas restaurant, Sra. Martinez (a playful allusion to her married name), and a new cookbook, Cuisine à Latina
—a collection of her favorite Latin American dishes, including her mother's Argentinean recipes—Bernstein has an even bigger fan base. She's also flying to Cancún regularly to oversee MB Restaurant at the Aqua hotel, where she is consulting chef. But her travels only increase her craving for the comforts of Miami. "I have a longing to be near home," says Bernstein, who lives with her husband and business partner, David Martinez.
At a recent beach party she threw, Bernstein built a bonfire and grilled ears of corn, which she slathered with queso fresco and ancho chili powder—Mexican street-food style. On the menu: skirt steaks with red and green chimichurris
, grilled lobsters with spicy sauce
, and one of her favorite barbecue side dishes, a watermelon-and-feta salad
. "I'm here to serve," Bernstein says happily as she leans back with a pineapple-cucumber mojito
. The cookout is a treat: "I don't have days off," she confesses.
Even if she did give herself time off, chances are she would spend it behind a stove. "You have to realize what makes you happy," she says. "The kitchen always does that for me."