A somewhat weary-sounding Michelle Bernstein is on the other end of the phone line. She explains that she's just returned home from a television taping and finished putting Zachary to bed.
"Zachary?" I ask, feeling as though I was about to be the last to find out about something. Sure enough, a moment later I am congratulating Michelle and husband/partner David Martinez on recently becoming proud parents of baby son Zachary gray Martinez (apparently "gray" isn't capitalized, which makes it a colorful name).
To go along with her new chores as mother, Ms. Bernstein manages to keep busy with Michy's, Sra. Martinez, and Crumb On Parchment in Miami; with Michelle Bernstein at the Omphoy in Palm Beach; and with Michelle Bernstein Catering (MBC). She also hosts the PBS television show Check, Please!, serves as menu consultant with Delta Airlines, has authored a cookbook and helped launch (and works with) the Miami chapter of Common Threads, an after-school program that teaches underprivileged kids about food, cooking, and eating right.
Starting October 29, Bernstein's signature collection of Michelle B cookware and cutlery sets will go on sale at Macy's stores throughout South Florida; a couple of months from now they will roll out in New York and elsewhere. Michelle serves on Macy's Culinary Council too. And the October issue of People En Español names Michelle as one of the 25 Most Influential Women -- along with Gloria Estefan and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor..
New Times: When do you ever find time for a good afternoon nap?
Michelle Bernstein: I'm hoping that I can today, because if not I'm going to plotz.
If someone were to return to Michy's or Sra. Martinez after not having been for a year or so, would they notice any differences?
They would definitely see new things on the menu. More than anything, the feel of the food has changed a bit. Obviously we're not going to get molecular anytime soon, but we do try to stay with the times. We try to get a little more green, a little more sustainable ... I mean we've always been really PC, but we're all trying to learn more.
I love that a lot of the guys who have cooked with me for a long time are getting more involved and more creative. You'll see a little more of their flair on my menu. We do it together, however it's really cool that -- like Jacob at Michy's, he's really stepped it up. Today I walked in and he was cleaning periwinkles and I was so excited. He's been begging for periwinkles for a couple of years now. They're a pain in the ass, but he went and ordered them on his own and made a beautiful special with them.
And then Julian is going to be our new chef at Sra. Martinez. I'm super excited. He's been with us for years, and he's coming up with crazy fun things -- of course sitting with me and talking through it, we'll cook it together until we get it where I want it to be. It's his idea, though. So it's good, all the young people, because sometimes I definitely need a little kick in the ass.
What is one of your most popular dishes at Michy's and Sra. Martinez, and why do you think they work?
Egg yolk carpaccio with Laughing Bird shrimp and crispy potatoes at Sra.Martinez is huge. Somebody talked about it on TV once, but at the same time it's just one of those dishes where it walks through the dining room and people have to try it. And once they try, if they eat if properly -- like a lot of the food I do, I want people to throw it all together on one fork -- once they have it that way, they're hooked.
At Michy's it's still the croquetas. No matter what we do, everybody has to have the damn croquetas -- and the braised short ribs, which we change the setup of all the time, and fillings of [the croquetas], but those are two things that won't come off the menu.
And do you ever come up with dishes that don't work?
All the time (Laughs). At Michy's, once we did a beautiful duck consommé, and I made crêpes from rendered foie gras fat, and we julienned the crêpes into noodles -- this whole fancy thing. And people were like, "No, we don't want this." (Laughs) They want ... more rustic? I'm not really sure, but every time we do anything a little too pristine at Michy's, people just don't get into it.
At Sra. Martinez, it's funny, I'm a fan of sea urchin and every time I do sea urchin it just doesn't sell. I had panini with sea urchin in it, and nobody ordered it. I had pasta with sea urchin and nobody ordered it. I tried to do a creamy rice with sea urchin, and they didn't order it. Finally, I just pulled the sea urchin off the menu.
I hope you have better luck with periwinkles.
Me too. It will be a hard sell. We just had that conversation today -- like who the eff is going to buy this? But I think some people will get excited when you call them little baby snails. Or baby escargot. I'm starting to learn -- after twenty years (Laughs) -- that it's kind of in the wording too. But then people will get pissed off, saying, "I didn't know it was this and wouldn't have bought it if I knew." So we're hoping when they get to taste a mouthful of it they'll say, "Oh, okay, now I get it."
What place do you think you'll ultimately occupy in Miami's dining history?
I don't know. I hope that we are making our mark, that our food stands out, and people will say, "Wow, that was a great restaurant." For example, I worked at Mark's Place and to me that was it for dining. I think it was the best food that was ever put out in Miami at that time. It's a very solid memory of mine, and I hope people will remember some of our dishes in the future by saying, "Man, I would do anything to have that dish again."
But I'm hoping that I'll be here for awhile and our restaurants will be open for a long time. I plan to change concepts from time to time in order to keep up with everything and keep the fun going, and I hope people will consider me a bit of a pioneer in that respect. I mean some people don't change with the times, they're in the '80s and will always be stuck in the '80s or whatever. But hopefully as I'm getting older, I'm still staying fresh, and that's thanks to the young people that we hire that really have an influence now in our restaurants.
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Do you feel as though you personally broke any glass ceilings along the way?
No. I mean I have to admit that when I began cooking, there were no other woman chefs around Miami, and now there are lots of them, but I can't say it was because of me. People say that I did [break glass ceilings], and people are constantly giving me awards for that, but I don't know. I don't see it.
Tomorrow: Michelle reveals her latest favorite Mexican restaurant, her go-to food truck, the "amazing" cookbook "you have to get," and what she would be pulling from her home freezer for dinner.