By David Minsky
By Jen Mangham
By Bill Wisser
By Laine Doss
By Bill Wisser
By Dana De Greff
By Laine Doss
By Zachary Fagenson
There was one line in there that hit me hard," Michelle Bernstein said, her cutting board directly opposite mine at the far end of the long, narrow kitchen at Michy's. "And it has stuck with me ever since."
She was referring to my review of Azul when it opened at the Mandarin Oriental in 1999. I rapidly ransacked my brain for the sentence to which she might be alluding, but all I could remember writing about was being hustled to the bar for overpriced predinner drinks and expressing the fear that waiters were going to pick me up, turn me upside down, and shake me until the loose change fell from my pockets. I did compliment the cuisine, but in light of the unanimously luminous praise heaped upon Michelle for her star-making turn there, I'm pretty certain my qualified endorsement was the most negative note sounded. So I just stood there, looking uncomfortably puzzled for a second or two, until she recalled the criticism for me: "You wrote that I was playing it safe."
If that was ever true, it certainly is not anymore. Bernstein is, after all, Miami's hottest culinary star, smack-dab in the prime of her career and garnering kudos coast to coast I mean, not every local chef has flayed Bobby Flay on Iron Chef America. Here's one of many ways Bernstein could be playing it safe right now: She could have multiple backers build her a big, posh dining establishment in South Beach (or New York, Napa, anyplace), where her neon-lit name would do all the work. She would merely have to show up in town now and then, don a designer chef jacket with her name embroidered across the pocket, and make an occasional foray into the dining room. Instead she is sweating it out, literally, over a hot stove in a modest 50-seat restaurant on a not-yet-up-and-coming stretch of Biscayne Boulevard (she was raised just a few miles away in Miami Shores). The intimate, intensely personal nature of the venture is risky as well. Bernstein can no longer take refuge in the Mandarin's five-star setting or be privy to its voluminous purchasing power. Although Steve Perricone is a partner in this venture, Michy's is all Michelle. With her hair down.
She exhibited more courage in allowing me to write about her restaurant from behind the scenes especially considering Michy's had been operating for barely three weeks, which isn't nearly enough time to get all systems down pat. Granted, I wasn't there simply to observe; I also used my incalculable culinary skills to help out during morning prep. For starters, I peeled a bulb of ginger and squeezed lemons and limes for the daily ceviche that Bernstein was in the process of preparing. "If there are any pits in there, I'm going to blame you," she said, which I took to be a subtle hint I should have juiced the citrus into a separate container rather than directly onto the fish. Oops, too late. Of course, I performed more integral tasks. I picked herbs, diced potatoes into little cubes, sliced potatoes and celery root on a mandoline, and, um ... well the important thing is I didn't get in the way of the rest of the crew very often, which was no small feat in such a cramped space.
The kitchen isn't necessarily small, just crowded. The dishwashing station sits up front. A lengthy bank of reach-in refrigeration units and a pastry/salad station span one side of the room. Equipment such as the stove, grill, fryer, and oven line the other side. Running down the center are work counters where food is plated and garnished, which leaves a narrow pathway on each side of the kitchen and a host of workers to fill in the space. During dinner hours, this includes a pastry chef, salad cook, prep cook, three line cooks, two dishwashers, a Johnson & Wales intern, various waiters bustling in and out to pick up food, Bernstein, and on this particular day, a restaurant critic. Two of those line cooks are likely to be chef Jason Schaan and sous chef Jacob Crabtree, the designated iron men of the kitchen. Both start work at 7:30 a.m. and end their shifts at 11:30 p.m. They do this six days a week.
Altogether it's a young, talented team with a shared goal perhaps even obsession to produce gloriously delicious food. Seriously. Bernstein leads the mission and relates to the two J's in an easy, professional manner (they worked with her at Azul). For the first hour or so that I was in the kitchen, Bernstein was all sweetness and smiles, like an Argentine-Jewish version of Reese Witherspoon. Chefs, though, are like heads of state: As charming as they might be, you know they have to possess a tough side to have gotten where they are. Sure enough, when it came time to tackling the pluckier tasks, Bernstein's less Reesey, more cheflike bearing emerged. A spat between a couple of dishwashers was one such incident. After taking the antagonists outside individually for a brief chat, Bernstein gave the sous chef a quick appraisal of the situation, which basically consisted of her not being enthralled by one of the two dishwashers. Judging by her tone, I'd be very surprised if that worker were still washing dishes the next day.