Fifteen years ago, having ceviche on a menu in Miami was novel. Now it’s rare to find a restaurant that doesn’t have ceviche on the menu. Chef Michelle Bernstein, the James Beard Award-winning hometown girl who pioneered the Latin food revolution in Miami, says it’s because Americans’ views of Latin cuisine and of Latin culture has completely evolved.
“Before [Cuban food] was kind of exciting and different,” she says. “But now weʼre Columbian, weʼre Argentine, weʼre Nicaraguan, weʼre Venezuelan, weʼre Puerto Rican, weʼre Dominican.” Embracing all of those different identities has created a fresh food landscape in South Florida, one that Bernstein is happy to embrace. Earlier this year she shut down her iconic restaurant Michy’s and reopened it this spring as CENA by Michy, a completely reimagined dining room with a menu inspired by her travels. (Dishes include sweetbread tacos, beet-sorghum risotto and scallops tempura.)
Bernstein and her husband/business partner David Martinez also oversee the food and beverage programs at the Thompson Miami Beach, which includes the brasserie Seagrape and the 1930s House cocktail bar, among other projects. We chatted with Bernstein about her current culinary inspirations and the American acceptance of Latin culture while she was workshopping a recipe for ramen-inspired carbonara.
Why shut down Michy’s, renovate it and change the name?
It isn’t just a renovation, it’s literally a whole new restaurant. The food style is different, the menu is different, the floors are different, the walls are different, the ceilings are different… It’s younger, more open, more fresh. My husband and I opened what was called Michy’s a solid nine years before we decided to close it. When you live in a home for a long time, which you do in a restaurant, you start looking around and realizing things need to be painted, things need to be changed. Your favorite color may have once been orange, but now it’s blue. We were bored and were tired of looking at the same walls. Not only have we evolved, but my style of food has evolved and everyone else who comes into the restaurant has as well.
We were very casual when we opened and by the time we closed it nine years later, we were one of the more upscale restaurants in Miami. In nine years dining changed so much that having waiters and paper on the table wasnʼt considered casual anymore. So we decided to open a place that’s of today. It’s louder, more social. It’s just what I consider to be a nice breeze of fresh air.
How has your food style changed?
My food has become lighter. I don’t have cream in one dish and I don’t use that much butter. The ingredients can stand alone a little bit more. Vegetables have now become the main part of a lot of our dishes, even the protein-filled dishes, because that’s the way I eat now and the way I cook for my family. Things are a lot more organic and natural. It’s become about seasonality, what’s fun and fresh that day. I change my menu on a whim and all those mainstays I felt like I had to have before—the carbonara with three different cheeses and four different types of pork, which is delicious—doesn’t have to be on that menu everyday.
Weʼve grown so much in the last decade here in South Florida. We donʼt have to add so many ingredients to dishes anymore. Put it this way, when I opened Michy’s, I remember thinking that if I put a little piece of foie gras or a truffle on something it made it refined. If I see truffle oil on a menu today, I actually get pissed off.
Has Americans’ view of Latin food also changed in the past decade?
The way Americans view Latins has changed, not just our cuisine, but us in general. Before it was different and now it is very much a huge part of the culture. Before, Cuban was exciting. Everyone said wow, Miamiʼs so Cuban! And now weʼre Columbian, weʼre Argentine, weʼre Nicaraguan, weʼre Venezuelan, weʼre Puerto Rican, weʼre Dominican. We used to have just these small patches of South and Central America here. Now it’s huge, and not just the people, but the food and the culture.
To find a typical Puerto Rican dish on a menu now doesn’t elicit a wow anymore. It’s like oh yeah, of course they have this dish on the menu. It’s funny, when I was making ceviches like 15 years ago, they were like oh my god sheʼs serving ceviches and sheʼs not even Peruvian! Is it raw? Is it spicy? Now it’s hard to find a restaurant that doesnʼt serve ceviche on their menu. Or doesnʼt have mojitos. But if I make ceviche today, it’s going to be totally different from the ceviche I made 15 or 10 or 5 years ago. It’s going to have new flavors from my travels. Before I had to have certain things on my menu and now I just get to have fun.
What travels are influencing you now? Any specific locales?
Everything and anything. Like today it’s all about corn. I’m coming up with a new way to make elotes. You know, the corn that you get in Mexico in a Styrofoam cup. So today I’m trying to figure out how to make a really fun and cool version with chorizo aioli. Iʼm going to make my own chorizo, render it and make an aioli, or maybe even a crema, out of that rendered fat. I was just writing it down this morning. And maybe rather than using lime, Iʼll use lime leafs that are growing in my yard right now. And Iʼm definitely not serving it in Styrofoam.
I’m also thinking about pasta. Everybody always comes looking for the same old carbonara that I used to make. But today Iʼm in the mood to make it smoky using seaweed broth, and I’m definitely going to combine an egg right at the end to thicken it. And rather than cheese I’m going to do pieces of dried seaweed and salmon roe. It’s just so much fun to be able to do this.
Where are your favorite restaurants to eat at in Miami?
One place I have to go to at least once a month is called La Camaronera. It couldn’t be more casual. It’s Cuban and the best place for fried shrimp and fried fish and yellow rice in Miami. I also love this Peruvian place CVI.CHE 105 in downtown Miami. It’s very hip. There’s another place in downtown I love called The River Oyster Bar. They have great cocktails, incredible oysters, whole fried fish and everything’s local. It’s a lot of fun.
Is it harder for women chefs to get recognition for their work?
It’s interesting being a woman chef. I donʼt like to talk about being a woman chef in that it’s different in the kitchen, which it was growing up, but now it’s all about trying to keep your home together. Making sure everything’s taken care of at home, and then later in the day making sure the restaurant is well taken care of. It’s tough keeping a husband happy, keeping a child happy, keeping a home happy and keeping a restaurant happy.
These days it’s hard for women chefs to really stick out because there’s so much talent out there. Some chefs may not be as talented, but they have something about either their look or personality that makes them stick out and get into to the media. It’s really hard to have a great personality in front of people and look good and have good food at the same time. I am very lucky because I fill a couple of niches, and thank God I do, because I wouldnʼt be asked to do nearly as many things if I didnʼt. You need a Jewish chef? Iʼm there. You need a girl? Iʼm there. Need a Latin? Iʼm there. We all have to play to what we are, what weʼre good at and where our talents lie. That’s the most important skill: Know your strengths and how to work them and that’s what gets people out there.
How do established chefs such as yourself stay relevant? Do you have to keep reinventing yourself?
Yes! 100 percent. Iʼm now 44 and people always think that once you get in your forties and fifties, that basically you have your cuisine all set. And if you do, first of all, that’s sad, and second of all, that’s it. You have to keep your restaurant the way it is, dress like youʼre in the ‘90s and never change. That would be detrimental to the health of me and my staff and my restaurant and my family. Like if I were to never change my haircut. That would totally suck.
I love all the new ingredients and new ways of cooking food. I add touches of molecular gastronomy to improve my dishes. I want to learn. It only makes me better. Not only for those who are coming in to eat, but also for the people who work for me, and hopefully the people that will be taking over in the next few years from my kitchen. Not only do I have to be where we are today, but I have to be where we are tomorrow. I want to do something that has a new flavor, something that I’ve never seen before and something that’s going to make me and my diners go wow.
Alyson Sheppard is the resident hangover specialist at Playboy.com. Follow her on Twitter: @amshep