Chef Michelle Bernstein is the taste of the town these days with three popular Miami eateries: Cena by Michy, Seagrape and bakery/café Crumb on Parchment. The Miami native recently re-opened her eponymous landmark, Michy’s, as the former to much fanfare from foodies and devotees. This move came on the heels of opening Seagrape at Thompson Miami Beach just last fall. In April, Bernstein also began hosting the new weekly television show SoFla Taste — and that was on top of hosting duties she already had on Check, Please! South Florida. So, to say that the seasoned culinary veteran who beat out Bobby Flay on Food Network’s Iron Chef America is a busy woman would be an understatement. Still, she somehow graciously made the time to catch us up on all of her exciting epicurean endeavors.
How has Miami’s unique culture influenced the way you cook?
People in Miami want flavor and they want to be dazzled, so it makes chefs cook more intensely — expanding on every flavor and texture. We’re located at the crossroads of the Americas, so all of these influences are blending and coming together in a really amazing way. Combined with the abundance of Florida’s fabulous local fish, pork, vegetables and fruit, it’s a culinary playground for chefs and eaters!
What’s your favorite ingredient to cook with and why?
Seasonal vegetables. I feel it wakes up my creativity and allows me to use literally every style of cooking and method, plus they make you feel good! This season I’m cooking with corn, snow peas, snap peas, artichokes, English peas and summer squash.
What spice can’t you live without?
Cancale, a blend of spices made by my favorite spice master, Lior Lev Sercarz of La Boîte. It’s salty, herbaceous and goes beautifully with fish, any kind of meat, salad preparations and roast vegetables, but my favorite thing to season with it is lamb.
What’s your favorite dish to cook at home?
A steak on the grill with a big delicious salad and two to three veggie sides. I always forget about dessert! I love quickly cooked meats, as close to rare as possible rather than your long cook braises or stews. Maybe it’s my Argentine blood that makes me crave meat once a week! I can’t think of anything more instantly gratifying than a well-cooked steak. I could care less about sweets when I’m making them myself. If Johnny Iuzzini was coming over to bake for my family and me, then, yes, I would want dessert!
What are your favorite cities for dining in the U.S. and abroad?
Chicago and San Sebastian. One of my favorite chefs in the country is [Blackbird’s] Paul Kahan, which is probably 75 percent of the reason why I think Chicago has some of the best food in the country. You can find some of the best Mexican thanks to Rick Bayless (Frontera Grill) and Priscila Satkoff (Salpicón) and some of the best Asian thanks to Takashi Yagihashi (Takashi). They’re all around wonderful, warm people with incredible technique.
San Sebastián has not only the [second-most] Michelin stars per capita of any cities, but their tapas restaurants are some of the best I’ve ever experienced. The heart and soul of San Sebastián is its food. The ingredients and cuisine are some of the best I’ve had in my entire life! And if anybody loves food and wants to learn about the culture of cuisine, San Sebastián is where to go.
You recently opened Cena by Michy. What can diners expect on the menu and in the newly remodeled space?
The menu is fun, light, flavorful, always changing at Cena (translated from Latin as “the most important meal of the day”). I love that you can come in every week and taste something new: The seared cauliflower steak with pickled garlic, Marcona almonds, raisins and capers, or the new peach and cress salad with warm bacon drizzle and mustard.
What are your favorite dishes on the menus at Seagrape and Cena by Michy?
At Seagrape, it’s easily the uni toast with avocado and lardon created by chef de cuisine Steven Rojas. At Cena, it’s the beet sorghum risotto with beet fennel reduction and horseradish.
I love your new show SoFlo Taste. What do you hope viewers will take away from watching?
I just hope they really attempt some of the recipes. The best part about hosting the show is encouraging people to cook and eat more at home, whatever home might mean to you. Learn little takeaways and try a new flavor. (Editor’s Note: If you like mussels, check out this episode of the show where chef Bernstein pairs the mollusk with pasta and lettuce wraps.)