Meet Chef Michelle Bernstein, a Jewish Latino Restauranteur with an Eclectic Cooking Style

8 Jul

By Carla Schwartz

 This an article that appeared in The Detroit Jewish News on July 8, 2022.

Arroz con Pollo
Arroz con Pollo. (Michael Pisarri)

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. 

Michelle Bernstein

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

Ingredients

  • 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

Directions

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:

Ingredients

  • 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

Directions

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.

Arroz:

Ingredients

  • 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)

Directions

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. 

A Trip to Remember

5 May

My first trip, after not travelling since the pandemic, was to the country of Jordan. I chose this country because my family relocated there. I hardly knew anything about Jordan, and I was stunned to find a beautiful country, wonderful people, fabulous food and exhilarating sites. We stayed in Amman and visited Petra, Wadi Rum, the Dead Sea and Aqaba.

Amman is a typical bustling, major city except for the archaeological site the Citadel perched on a hill. I did not visit it personally, but it was beautiful to see from afar.

A trip to Jordan must include the ancient city of Petra. Although the architecture seems to be Greek and Roman inspired, Petra was built by the Nabateans, an Arab Bedouin tribe. The Romans eventually ruled the city. When you arrive to Petra, the entrance is breathtaking (see photo below).

My family rode on a donkey with a Bedouin guide (below), while I zigzagged through the mountains on a golf cart before I walked the open terrain. For an interesting historical article about the area, read this article from the History channel.

Wadi Rum is the desert with rich, orange sand. The classic movie Lawrence of Arabia was filmed there. We took an all-terrain vehicle on bumpy ride with the backdrop of a mountainous view worthy of a picture postcard. Then we arrived at geodeisic domes (see below) or bubble tents. I guess you can see we went glamping. The arches, mountains and cliffs were breathtaking. Sleeping under the stars was beautiful.

The resort towns in Jordan are luxurious. We stayed in Aqaba with a view of the Red Sea. Then it was off to the Dead Sea, to swim and spa at at a luxury hotel. We treated ourselves to mud baths and sea salts. Please see a photo of my son below. After our spa treatment, my son described us as “glowing.” The photo below does not do it justice as I think we looked washed out!

Even if we did not sparkle, in my opinion, the trip and the adventure did!

You Gotta Have Friends

30 Mar

The Friendship in West Bloomfield, Michigan is an amazing place. The mission is “to create friendship in the lives of children, teens and adults with special needs and those facing isolation while providing opportunities to become contributing members of the community.”

Here is an article about a Friendship Circle event I wrote for the Detroit Jewish News.

Friendship Circle Showcases the Talent from Soul Studio Art Program During Elegant Evening in Palm Beach County

By

 Carla Schwartz

 

Dylan and Jeannine Somberg
Dylan and Jeannine Somberg. (Liza Kue/Friendship Circle)

“Soiree in the Sunshine State” was filled with extraordinary art, food and libations.

“This was a crazy idea we had a year ago, but our friends helped us” said Rabbi Levi Shemtov of Friendship Circle. The rabbi is referencing “Soiree in the Sunshine State,” an event filled with extraordinary art, food and libations. More than 160 patrons and friends attended the event and auction.

The evening began with schmoozing and viewing the exhibition at the Arts Warehouse in Delray Beach, Florida. A variety of media, from oil paintings to ceramics to digital art and more by Soul Studio’s participating artists filled the space. Upon entering the gallery, visitors were handed a booklet of the displayed artwork and an explanation of the artist’s inspirations. The auction raised $33,300.

Friendship Circle, founded in 1994 by Rabbi Levi and Bassie Shemtov in West Bloomfield, is a nonprofit organization that supports children, teens and adults with special needs and their families. One of its many projects is the Vera and Joesph Dresner Foundation Soul Studio. The studio is a professional art space and gallery encouraging the creativity of any individual with cognitive or physical disabilities, regardless of artistic talent. Completed artwork is displayed in a curated exhibition at the studio and other venues.

Left to right: Estelle and Phillip Elkus; Gail Danto and Art Roffey; and Rick and Dana Lowenstein.
Left to right: Estelle and Phillip Elkus; Gail Danto and Art Roffey; and Rick and Dana Lowenstein.

“The vision of the Rebbe inspired us to help one person at a time and to see the bigger picture,” said Bassie Shemtov. “We have many friends in Florida, and we needed to bring the artists and the artwork to the next level,” she added. She described the Arts Warehouse space as a new and exciting platform to showcase the talent.

Artist Dylan Somberg, 28, of Shelby Township, who has autism, had three artworks on display. One was a ceramic clam with a pearl inside and the others were multimedia paintings.

“I just love animals, and I’m very passionate,” Somberg said. One animal painting had a three-dimensional look with turtles, fishes and birds suspended. His fascination with nature and geometric shapes combines many processes and techniques.

Rabbi Levi and Bassie Shemtov
Rabbi Levi and Bassie Shemtov

Dylan’s mom, Jeannine Somberg, praised Friendship Circle and the Soul Studio. “This is a special place, because my son is safe there, and his self-esteem soared,” she said. “I know they don’t see a disability; they see an ability,” she added.

Proud supporters Estelle and Philip Elkus, of Bloomfield Hills and Boca Raton, were part of the host committee and have been involved with Friendship Circle since the beginning. They introduced others to the programs.

“My friends, Estelle and Philip Elkus, took me on a tour of Friendship Circle, and I was amazed,” said Rhoda Tobin, of Orchard Lake.

Rhoda Tobin
Rhoda Tobin

Friendship Circle is a family affair for Gail Danto and her husband, Art Roffey, of Palm Beach Gardens. “We were involved with the Soul Studio when it was just an idea,” Danto said. Her brother and sister-in-law, Jim and Sandy Danto, were also on the host committee.
Dana and Rick Loewenstein, of West Bloomfield, came to support their friend Ron Hodess, who is chairman of the board. The Loewensteins are longtime supporters of people with disabilities and are also supportive of the inclusive environment of the Soul Studio. Rick Loewenstein is the former CEO of JARC.

With the artists, the artwork and all the supportive friends, it’s evident the magic of the Soul Studio came to the Sunshine State. Bassie Shemtov summed up the vision: “Miracles do happen.”

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.

Detroit: Fashion Central

27 Feb

My friend and colleague, Chuck Bennett (above), celebrated Black History Month with a presentation of Detroit designers on Fox2Detroit. Some of the designers include: FlyTy, Donovan Dewberry, and William Palmer Homme.

The New York Times recognizes the fashion acumen of Motown. Jessica Iredale wrote about it in the article “Could Detroit be the Next Fashion City,?” Iredale showcases some happenings in Detroit and mentions fashion icons. Of course, there’s Linda Dresner, who ran boutiques in Birmingham, Michigan and New York and promoted designers that become famous. I’ve featured her on my blog here. Iredale talks about how Gucci collaborated with the Detroit Vs. Everybody collection.

Motown is home to many fashion designers including: Tracy Reese, Anna Sui, John Varvatos and the upcoming fashion phenom Carter Altman. Detroiters have always known about Carhartt, based in Dearborn, Michigan since 1889.

If you’re not sure that Detroit is a fashion city, check out Detroit Sewn. Or ask my buddy Chuck Bennett. He can be found on Facebook, Instagram (chuck_bennett) or Mr. ChuckBennett on Twitter.

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Pampering with Heart & Soul

14 Feb

Simply from the Heart is a non-profit foundation that brings complimentary bedside, beauty pampering to patients who are terminally ill or undergoing prolonged hospital stays. Founder Jackelyn Kastanis started the the foundation after the death of her childhood friend Brooke Bolley. Kastasnis was able to lift Booke’s spirit with a glam makeover. The addition of lipstick, hair styling, a coat of nail polished and mini-massages added pleasure and color.

Today Simply from the Heart has served more than 7,000 patients since its inception in 2014. The “Glam Squad,” a group of volunteers, visits the patients with pampering services and then leaves a “Glam Box” filled with more than 25 beauty products.

“We bring a distraction from the treatment and diagnosis and provide human connection and interaction.” says Kastanis.

I personally know Jackelyn Kastanis, and she is a dynamic, passionate founder with a huge heart! And, they service Beaumont Children’s Hospital in Michigan where I was the former director of community affairs for the hospital system.

You can touch the lives of ill children by participating in the upcoming Night of Giving event on Friday, February 18th at 6:30pm located at Paul Labrecque Salon and Spa in The Royal Poinciana Plaza. https://e.givesmart.com/events/p7d/

If you don’t live in the Palm Beach area, you can donate or get involved. Visit the link https://sftheart.org/

Custom Cookies

27 Jan

Looking for a unique, edible gift? Debi’s cookies are scrumptious, and you can decide the graphic to fit your taste buds. Valentine’s Day? No, worries — the heart cookies or the “Be My Valentine” message fits the occasion. Wedding day? Cookies with the photo of the bride and groom can be the giveaway gift. Hobbies? If you are a card shark, a football aficionado or even a fashionista, it’s the perfect hostess or holiday gift, and it’s nut free. The chocolate or vanilla-covered Oreos have a long shelf life, and they are available in white chocolate as well. Debi began this woman-owned, small baking business during COVID.

Here are some examples:

Besides the taste and the customized look, Debi takes the time to make the presentation perfect. It’s wrapped with a gorgeous bow.

“I love that they look so pretty, and they are personal,” says Debi. “It’s not just about the cookies, its a beautiful presentation.”

If you are interested in purchasing Debi’s cookies, please check out her Instagram Debi’s Cookies.

Nail it for the Holidays

18 Dec

Looking for the perfect gift for any age for your sister, mom, daughter, grandmother or even your teenager?

If you just can’t find a gift for the special female in your life, try the Olive and June nail polish kits.

They sent me a holiday package to try (above), and I loved it. The colors are stunning, and the polish is long lasting. It seems the founder, Sarah Gibson Tuttle, is on to something with her mani-system. She has revolutionized the at home manicure with these all inclusive kits, with a step-by-step guide including tools in addition to the polishes.

Sarah Gibson Tuttle switched her career, as she was formerly an equity sales trader at JP Morgan and Morgan and Stanley. True to her business acumen, she includes master classes, and you can even take a self quiz.

And, of course, it can ship overnight. Click here.

Take an Enjoyable Detour

10 Dec

Four of the five writer, (left to right): Marion Phillips, Rosemary Gensler, Nancy Sims and Ellyn Horn Zarek

Make a sharp right turn and get lost in the pages of the novel Detours by five authors. Yes, five–Rosemary Gensler, Phyllis Hoffman, Marion Phillips, Nancy Sims and Ellyn Horn Zarek,

The authors call themselves The Inkslingers as they weaved a story of sisterhood and bonding. Their real-life experience of meeting at a writing workshop became the setting for their book. The five authors collaborated over coffee, jellybeans and other delectable treats.

The women recently spoke at the Mandel JCC in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. This unique collaboration was a labor of love. The authors reminded the audience that the word labor is inside collaboration.

So, start the journey. . .

Oh Savannah

4 Nov

I just returned from Savannah, and I was enthralled with the city. The cultural and historical sites are plentiful. The town squares with the beautiful trees and all the flora and fauna are breathtaking.

As a savvy shopper, I loved the local stores — particularly, Satchel, Savannah Bee Company, Savannah Coffee Roasters and E. Shaver Booksellers.

Satchel is a favorite local store.

Satchel was established in 2006 by Elizabeth Seeger. It’s a hybrid store because it’s part studio and part retail. You can actually watch the leather being cut (see above). What’s great about the handbag is the customization from the color to the leather to the lining to size of the strap.

Next on the shopping trip was the Savannah Bee Company. There is an array of specialty honey from orange blossom to lavender and so much more. I purchased whipped honey with chocolate. (Yes, chocolate!) The Savannah Bee Company made the 2021 list of Oprah’s Favorite Things.

With all the shopping, the perfect caffeine boost is at Savannah Coffee Roasters. It’s a lovely, casual place to dine as well.

Before I went to Savannah, I read Surviving Savannah by Patti Callahan. This historical fiction book about a shipwreck was interesting. I learned the saying “Keeping up with the Joneses” is from Savannah. I went to Jones Street where the homes were beautiful. In the book’s acknowledgements the author mentions the bookstore E. Shaver. So, I went there and was greeted by the booksellers and the cats that live there.

Several years ago I read the Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt, a non-fiction book about a murder which was made into a movie.

I highly recommend Savannah as a place to visit.

Fashion Plates

22 Oct

Fashion, food and philanthropy collided at a wonderful event to benefit autism in Jupiter, Florida. Fashion designer Julian Chang presented his fashions, Eloquence Jewelry provided the gems and the restaurant 1000 North served the food, thanks to event host Sherrye Sammons Fenton (below) and Legends Radio emcee Mike McGann.

Miami is the inspiration for fashion designer Julian Chang (below). “We are all about colors and happy prints,” said Chang.

In addition to the vibrant prints, some of the collection contained black and white graphics, as seen in the example below.

The pop-up jewels on sale were from Eloquence Fine Jewelry & Gifts (below).

More than 100 guests attended the sold-out event. Here are two attendees, Lorraine Bolton (left) and Cindy Pollack, who supported the philanthropic happening.

A portion of the trunk show sales from the event supported the Els for Autism Foundation. The Els for Autism Foundation is international with an in-person facility in Jupiter, Florida.

Julian Chang summed up the afternoon perfectly while describing his fashions. “People want to feel happy.”

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