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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!

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/

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.

My Fake Vintage Gucci

8 Sep

This handbag has a story that began a few decades ago. My Mom, who died in 1990, was a shopper. She would buy and return as a pastime. Her favorite store was Hudson’s, and if you are from Motown, and of a certain age, you remember it well. (Hudson’s later became Dayton-Hudson’s, Marshall Fields and now Macy’s.)

Although she did not buy this purse at Hudson’s, she bought it at Northland, a mall that no longer exists. She showed it to me, and said it was a Gucci purse. I really didn’t want it at that time, so she said she would put it away for me. When she passed away, I rediscovered it and kept it.

My daughter enjoys designer handbags, and I told her about the Gucci purse. I really built it up, saying it was a vintage handbag that’s probably valuable. She was excited, and the last time she visited, I pulled it out. She looked at it, and started laughing. “Mom look at the G’s–they’re not G’s, they’re E’s.”

So, I have a fake Gucci. My mom was bamboozled. It’s probably one of the first dupes. I’m really not sure what to do with it. Any ideas?

Stunning Corvette

11 Jul

Aretha may have her Pink Cadillac, but my friend has the finest, red Corvette. It’s candy-apple red, and it’s just as delicious as that juiciest fruit. The interior is a rich, caramel color. Being from Detroit, cars are just a part of my psyche.

When I worked in Detroit as a journalist, I had the opportunity to write about cars. I interviewed the late Kenneth Neumann of Neumann Smith & Associates, an architectural firm. He designed the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky, which opened in 1994.

The car rides exactly as it looks–fantastic

Zooming It

11 Jun

Yes, we are leaving a post-Covid world and venturing outside. But, I must admit that I have enjoyed my Zoom experiences with best-selling authors.

I have had the opportunity to listen to President Bill Clinton, James Patterson, Jennifer Weiner, Jodi Picoult, Walter Mosley, Kristen Hannah, Dan Abrams and more.

Better yet, most of the talks have been free. I was able to access many authors through the Streicker Center and my local JCC. In fact, here is the recording of President Clinton and James Patterson talking about their new book The President’s Daughter, where the President’s daughter is kidnapped. (It’s fiction!) Click here to view their dynamic talk with moderator Walter Mosley.

Fun, Fashion, Frivolity: An insider guide to Metro Detroit and beyond

Have you heard any interesting book talk?

A Fashionable Ending

12 Apr

Retail maven and fashion icon Linda Dresner closed her Motown store recently. Linda was a “Stylemaker,” when I was editor of Style magazine (now defunct). As I wrote several years ago, she exudes a quiet elegance just like her posh stores. She previously had a retail establishment in New York, which closed in 2008.

Linda has a passion for making women look beautiful. Her store in Birmingham, Mich., was minimalistic in black and white and like her clothing, it never seemed dated. As she stated in a New York Times article, she just didn’t feel comfortable renewing her lease at her age.

Many fashion designers owe Linda’s fashionable eye to their successful beginnings. She was the first retailer to highlight Jil Sander, Claude Montana, Commes des Garcons and Yohi Yamamoto in the Detroit area.

Her store closing is a loss to all fashionistas, but let’s look forward to the next fashion icon retailer. If you know of anybody, please let us know.

And to Linda. . .You are always in vogue!

Photos by Glenn Triest

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