On a recent culinary crusade up north to New York, the Miami-based, self-proclaimed “Princess of Offal” Michelle Bernstein shared an early morning with Dish Trip’s Amy Strauss.
During their one-on-one, the petite James Beard Award-winning powerhouse chit-chatted about her love affair with being a new mama, the closing of her critically-acclaimed Sra. Martinez, her favorite Top Chef challenge to date, how to host a successful summer soiree, and much more.
Dish Trip: To allow for more family time in your wonderfully jam-packed schedule (congrats on being a new mother to your nine-month-old Zachary, by the way), you have decided to close your celebrated Sra. Martinez of Miami’s Design District as of July 6. Could you share your most cherished memory of cooking there?
Michelle Bernstein: There are a lot of sweet memories, and I can’t pick just one favorite. In the restaurant business, everything is so crazy, so everything gets pushed together into one, big memory. But, a lot of great food recipes and ideas came out of that restaurant.
Luckily, we have always been so busy at this restaurant, so Saturday nights have been wonderful—just looking across all the people and being able to cook out in front of the people in the restaurant, enjoying the music and my husband, and the great bar program he put together there was just unbelievable.
DT: Sra. Martinez was the third restaurant you teamed up with your main squeeze/business partner, David Martinez, which opened back in 2008. Where did this love story embedded in the Miami’s culinary scene first spark?
MB: The Mandarin Oriental is where we met, when I was a chef at their fancy restaurant [Azul] in Miami. And luckily, he was working there too. I fell instantly in love—I don’t think he did, but I did. But once he tried my food, I was good to go.
MB: I have to say it must be how I grew up. I come from a Latin and Jewish background, with really wonderful, warm moments in the kitchen, and always delicious food. Something as basic and simple as chicken noodle soup (I think) can go a long way. So, nowadays when I cook, either at the restaurants or at home for my husband or the baby, I remember that chicken soup recipe and that is the base of a lot of my cooking. As simple as it sounds, it can be quite complex, and I want the execution to be perfect every single time.
DT: Being that it is summer and we think that everyone deserves a night off—especially you with owning two Miami restaurants [Crumb on Parchment and Michy’s], as well as dedicating time to Common Threads, an after-school program for underprivileged kids; serving as a member on Macy’s Culinary Council, and making regular television appearances (excuse me while I take a breath). What’s on the menu for your casual summer soirees?
MB: I am from Miami, so I do love my mojitos. We make mojitos out of Cava. So, if I have watermelon that I am cutting up and any watermelon pieces that may not be “attractive” [for a salad], I puree them with either a little simple syrup or agave, maybe some basil too—that would be delicious. And then, when people arrive, I pour that mixture into little glasses and pour Cava right after it, and it makes a wonderful, mojito-style cocktail.
DT: And, for your bash’s food menu? How do you eliminate the stress of being a host?
MB: Luckily, because I am a chef, I know about organization in the kitchen and it being the most important thing there is. So, for example, the Chorizo Tacos that I am preparing today [pictured, to right; recipe below], I grind my own meat—I have beautiful pork that I grind together with all kinds of delicious spices. I would grind that two days ahead and cook my meat the day of the celebration, right when people get there. I would heat up the tortillas right before everyone arrives, but everything else can be made ahead.
I also have pickled onions [recipe below] that can be done at least a week/five days ahead and they just get better with time. So, when everybody gets there, I just want them in the kitchen with me, heating up the chorizo, eating their tacos, tossing a salad together, and having a good time and enjoying each other, rather than having to work very hard.
That’s how I set up my dinners at home — everything that can be made ahead of time will be made ahead of time, and things like sautéing a piece of fish which I wouldn’t do ahead of time, can be done when everyone is sitting down, but the sauces will be made and the vegetables will be roasted, whatever I’m putting together with that meal will already be thought of way ahead of time.
DT: You speak so eloquently and graceful about cooking and being a chef—you even give me confidence in the kitchen and that says a lot. What is your greatest satisfaction as a chef?
MB: The fact that I can create something new every day and put it into fruition, and live the execution of it. There are artists all around the world that may have not seen their final execution of what they created, and every night I can create something new, see it happen before my eyes and teach it to a really beautiful staff.
DT: You make numerous television appearances, including being a contestant on Iron Chef, a guest on The Today Show and The Martha Stewart Show, and a judge on Top Chef. Being a loyal Top Chef viewer, I have to know—what was your favorite challenge to judge to date?
MB: It was one of the first times I did Top Chef and it was a challenge for innards and offal. Nobody knows, but I consider myself one of the princesses of offal just because I grew up with it, I love to cook it, I love to eat it.
Some of the dishes were a little scary to dive into to—in fact one Padma said she wouldn’t even try, but Sam [Talbot, of Season 2] made a sweetbread dish that I will literally never forget from that episode.
DT: To conclude, in honor of your recurring role as judge on Top Chef, answer the following ‘Quickfire’d’ questions:
Finish this sentence:
MB: I like food that inspires young children to cook.
DT: What ingredient can’t you live without?
MB: Fennel! It’s so versatile and I think that is why I love it. I love it shaved raw, braised, roasted, mixed into risottos; I’ve made sauces and soups out of it. I think it is one of the most versatile vegetables out there and I don’t think people know quite what to do with it yet. I think it’s getting out there and has gotten out there in the last few years, but people are still a little afraid of it and really, there is nothing more wonderful.
DT: How many years have you been a chef?
MB: Almost 20!
DT: Are you going to celebrate?
MB: Heck no, I’m going to lay down!
Learn more about Michelle Bernstein and her South Florida-based restaurants by visiting chefmichellebernstein.com. Chef Michelle was kind of enough to share her recipes as she mentioned above, with their step-by-step instructionals below. Dive into and start cooking!
Michelle Bernstein’s Pickled Onions
- 1 red onion, thinly sliced
- ¼ cup cider vinegar
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
- Place the onions in a bowl over a larger bowl of ice water.
- In a small pan, combine the vinegar, sugar, salt and ¼ cup water and bring to a boil.
- Pour over the onions and allow to macerate until they cool.
- Drain and store in the refrigerator for a few days.
- Before serving add in ¼ cup chopped cilantro.
Michelle Bernstein’s Chorizo Tacos
- 2 pounds pork butt
- 2 tablespoons garlic, chopped fine
- ½ cup yellow onion, chopped fine
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1¼ teaspoon chili powder
- ¾ teaspoon smoked paprika
- ½ teaspoon cumin
- ¼ teaspoon cinnamon
- ¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
- 4 Dried guajillo chiles
- 4 Ancho chiles
- 4 tablespoons cider vinegar
- In a large bowl, mix the pork butt with the garlic, onion, salt, chili powder, smoked paprika, cumin, cinnamon and black pepper.
- Run pork through a meat grinder with spices two times.
- In a skillet over high heat, toast the dried guajillo and ancho chiles on both sides for a few seconds.
- Cover the chiles in warm water and let soak for 1 hour. After an hour, remove the chiles from the water, remove the stems and seeds from the chiles.
- Chop the chiles and place them in a blender with the vinegar, puree until smooth.
- Combine the spiced pork with the puree. Heat a large skillet over medium high heat. Cook the pork for about 10-12 minutes or until cooked through. Set aside.