This James Beard Award and Iron Chef America winner is a chef, restauranteur, caterer and television persona juggling multiple projects with her husband and business partner, David Martinez.
Chef Michelle Bernstein mixes Miami heat, Latin spices and a Jewish vibe for flavorful recipes. Her personality is like her cooking — salty, spicy and, oh, so inviting. This James Beard Award and Iron Chef America winner is a chef, restauranteur, caterer and television persona juggling multiple projects with her husband and business partner, David Martinez. Bernstein spoke at a 2022 spring Jewish Women’s Foundation of the Greater Palm Beaches, where she discussed her background, journey into cuisine and her experiences as a woman in a male-dominated profession. In 2005, she received the Glass Ceiling Award from the Jewish Museum of Florida-Florida International University.
Her parents met in Uruguay where both were visiting family who escaped the Holocaust. Her mom is a Cohan from Argentina, while her dad, with Eastern European roots, hails from Minneapolis. She was raised in a Jewish/Latino household.
Early on in her career, people asked, “How can someone be Jewish and talk about Latin culture?” Years ago, she needed to explain that someone can be both Jewish and born in South America. Today, as a famous chef she doesn’t need to explain herself as she is known for world-class eclectic cooking.
Before the kitchen was her mainstay, the stage was her arena. Bernstein trained as a ballerina but pivoted to cooking after an injury. The practice and focus of dance prepared her for the culinary world.
“The ability and strength to stand for 12-14 hours a day, carry large loads and have an economy of movement needed to get things done in small spaces and in quick times” was the perfect discipline, she says.
Bernstein entered the culinary world three decades ago, when she was the only female in the room. She was ridiculed for being “too small, too Jewish and too feminine.” The verbal abuse and sexual harassment made her work harder and wear her lipstick proudly. One day, she sliced her finger in the kitchen and needed 20 stitches. The crew bet she would not return. She returned and said, “One day you will all work for me.” And that was exactly the case.
Dishes with Latin Flair
Today, she owns and operates a thriving catering business and several restaurants, all Miami-based. In 2019, she opened Café La Trova on Calle Ocho, which is in the heart of Miami’s Cuban district. Bernstein and her husband are also partners in the internationally recognized Miami Beach cocktail bar Sweet Liberty. They also opened La Cañita in Bayside, and soon she will open Sra. Martinez in Coral Gables, both in the greater Miami area.
“I feel my life (along with a lot of other people I know) can be told through food,” Bernstein says.
One example is her extraordinary “The Story of My Life Chicken Soup.” Dill, chayote, chili, cilantro and corn create a unique twist on Bernstein’s version of the classic chicken soup recipe. Because her mom always used Streit’s matzah ball mix for the base, she sometimes uses that, too.
“It’s a soup that takes some skill to make great — it’s gelatinous and delicate,” she says, adding that her signature recipe includes flavors and ingredients indigenous to Miami and other Latin countries. She also mentions the healing powers of chicken soup.
Her Latin flair is evident in another Jewish dish — brisket. She often serves it with chimichurri sauce. In her cookbook Cuisine à Latina, she also includes a mustard-crusted brisket recipe and an Israeli couscous dish. One of her favorite recipes is her mom’s arroz con pollo (chicken with rice). In this recipe, she reveals the trick of cooking rice in a large quantity of stock and then adding beer! She describes how the beer plumps the grains and acts like a sauce. The arroz con pollo uses sazon completa (complete seasoning), which is a blend of salt, pepper, cumin and other spices that can be found in most Latin grocery stores or in the international aisle of a supermarket.
What does she cook or cater for Friday night Shabbat dinner? She prepares simple food like roast chicken, latkes and a whole fish with fennel. Bernstein describes her palette as delicate even though she is of Latin descent. Her favorite herbs are tarragon, dill, parsley and mint and, as for spices, she prefers ground fennel and flavorful chili.
“I cook everything and anything; however, I begin with a sensibility that is overall Eastern European,” she explains.
Her nickname is Michy, which is what her family calls her. On Instagram, she’s
chefmichy. “The way you cook is where you have been and the cultures you have been exposed to, which all combines into on big mishmash.”
Carla Schwartz is the former editor of Style magazine, a former Jewish News columnist, community relations consultant and blogger. Visit her blog at motownsavvy.com
The Story of My Life Chicken Soup
- 1 chicken, about 4 pounds, skinned, rinsed, patted dry, and cut into 6 pieces (2 legs, 2 thighs and 2 breasts)
- 2 cups Spanish onion, minced
- 1 cup celery, finely diced
- 1 cup finely diced carrots
- 1 bay leaf
- About 4 quarts Chicken Stock
- 2 cups ¼-inch diced chayote (can be replaced by pumpkin, calabaza or jicama)
- 2 cups peeled sweet potato, ¼-inch diced (from about 1 large potato)
- 2 medium ears of corn, cut into ¼-inch rounds
- ½ cup dill leaves
- 1 serrano chili, sliced very thinly
- ¼ cup chopped cilantro leaves and stems
- 1 lime, quartered or cut into sixths (1 wedge per person)
- Salt and Pepper
- 8 ounces egg noodles
Put the chicken, onion, celery, carrots and bay leaf in a large stockpot and cover with cold chicken broth or cold water by 1 inch. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer until the chicken is cooked through, moist and tender, about 1 hour. Use tongs or a slotted spoon to transfer the chicken to a plate and set aside until cool enough to handle.
Add the chayote, sweet potato, corn, dill, and chili to the pot. Simmer until the vegetables are cooked but with a little crunch, about 20 minutes.
Shred the cooled chicken meat by hand and return it to the pot. Stir in the egg noodles and cilantro and cook for about 8 to 10 minutes or until the noodles are tender. Season with salt and pepper.
Ladle the soup into 4 to 6 bowls, making sure to get a good mix of vegetables in each bowl. Serve with a wedge of lime.
Serves 4 to 6.
Arroz con Pollo:
- 6 boneless skinless chicken thighs
Marinade for chicken:
- 2 Tbsp. olive oil
- ½ tsp. oregano
- Juice of 1 lime or 1 Tbsp. lime juice
- ¼ tsp. salt and black pepper
Combine all ingredients and marinate for 2-3 hours.
Heat a Dutch oven or a large deep skillet over medium heat. When hot, add the chicken thighs (you don’t need any oil as the marinade has enough oil) and cook until golden brown on both sides. Remove and set aside at room temperature until cooking the rice.
- 3 Tbsp. olive oil
- 1 cup Spanish onion, tiny diced
- 1 red bell pepper, tiny diced (no seeds)
- 1 green bell pepper, tiny diced (no seeds)
- Salt and pepper
- 2 cups chicken broth or stock
- 2 cups Valencia rice (Spanish short-grain)
- 1/₃ cup dry white wine
- 4 Tbs. unsalted butter, cut into 8 pieces
- 1 heaping tsp. saffron threads steeped in 2 Tbsp. boiling water for 5 minutes (don’t drain)
- 1 Tbsp. of sazon completa, optional½ tsp. ground cumin
- ½ tsp. ground turmeric
- 2 Tbsp. tomato paste
- 1 Tbsp. garlic, minced
- 2 Tbsp. flat-leaf parsley leaves, finely chopped
- 2 Tbsp. cilantro leaves, finely chopped
- 2 cups of your favorite pilsner — or pale-ale-style beer
- 1 cup green olives, preferably stuffed with pimientos (plus more for garnish)
- 1 cup frozen peas
- 1 tsp. of your favorite hot sauce (I like Cholula’s)
Heat the oil in a large, deep, heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onions, peppers and cook, stirring until softened, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the rice to the pan, stir for 1-2 minutes. Add the stock, wine, butter, saffron liquid, sazon (if using), cumin and turmeric into the pan. Add the tomato paste and cook, stirring to coat the other ingredients with the paste, for 3-4 minutes.
Add the garlic, parsley, cilantro and 1 cup of the beer. Season with salt and pepper. Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce to a low simmer and add the olives, peas and hot sauce. Place the reserved chicken thighs and any juice that has collected on its dish into the rice. Cover for about 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, uncover the pan and add the remaining beer to the skillet. Don’t stir! Cover again and cook until the beer is substantially absorbed by the rice and the chicken should be completely cooked through, about 10 more minutes.
Uncover the skillet and let simmer until the liquid is almost completely reduced, about 5 minutes. Garnish with Spanish olives and serve.