Celebrity chef Michelle Bernstein serves up
her own brand of spice with a touch of Jewish
tradition in her new book Cuisine a Latina.
WRITTEN BY LYNNE KONSTANTIN
PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN KERNICK
As a child, Michelle Bernstein's Jewish mother made
her daughter old-fashioned chicken soup, using Streit's
matzah ball mix and finished with floating egg noodles
But because her mother was also Argentinean, and
because the family lived in Miami, Bernstein devel-
oped a taste for spicy foods. In Bernstein's own version
of her mother's classic, the chef and author adds cha-
yote, cilantro and corn.
Between Bernstein's mother (whose native Argentina
has a population that is about 65 percent Italian) and
her father, a Midwesterner with Italian Jewish roots,
"I grew up with a real mix of Latin, Italian and Jewish
food," she says. "All these different flavors came
together in my family's meals."
Scraping by as a trained ballerina dancing in New
York City with the Alvin Ailey Dance Co., she always
found a few dollars to indulge in her favorite handmade
tacos at a corner street cart or a Cuban-Chinese joint
on Broadway. "One day, home for the holidays and
cooking with my mom," writes Bernstein, "I turned
to her and said, 'Why can't I just do this for a living?'"
So she studied French cuisine at the Miami campus
of Johnson & Wales University and apprenticed with
famed chef Jean-Louis Palladin and in the kitchen of
La Bernadin before dazzling Miami as the head chef
FEBRUARY 2009 •
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at Azul at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel.
"Cooking is like dancing," Bernstein says. "It's the
same kind of discipline and hot, laborious work."
Today, she has achieved celebrity status as owner
of Michelle's in Key Largo and MB in Cancun. But
it's at Michy's (for her childhood nickname), the
high-energy casual bistro in Miami that she opened
with husband David Martinez, that the chef has built
a national following for her fresh new take on Latin
cuisine, filtering the city's colorful cosmopolitan heat
with the French and Italian flavors that are second
nature to her.
She has received accolades from Food & Wine and
Gourmet, made appearances on The Today Show, won
the prestigious 2008 James Beard Award for Best
Chef: South and was voted a "Woman to Watch" by
Jewish Women International.
Now, many of her favorite recipes, which she calls
"luxurious comfort food," can be found in the pages of
her new cookbook, Cuisine a Latina: Fresh Tastes and
a World of Flavors from Michy's Miami Kitchen ($30;
Houghton Mifflin). Packed with flavor, accessible yet
exciting, vivid but not fiery hot, Bernstein's creations
are fresh and ingredient-driven — and distinctly her
own, garnishing ceviche with popcorn instead of corn
or adding green grapes to Spanish White Gazpacho
"A lot of what I've included is 'Mama cooking,'" says
Bernstein. "Her meals, like mine, can take any direc-
tion. She taught me so much about sabores
for 'flavors.' Her food didn't set your tongue on fire,
but it had so much flavor — so much rrrrr!" Read on
for examples from Cuisine a Latina.