May 21, 2020
Michelle Bernstein started cooking fusion food dishes long before “fusion” was a buzzword. The Miami chef, restaurant owner and TV personality made a name for herself combining flavors and techniques from her Latin-Jewish heritage.
“I am fully Jewish and very Latin,” says Bernstein, who descends from an Argentinian mother and Ukranian-Jewish father.
Bernstein’s eclectic background is reflected in signature dishes like her “Story of My Life” chicken soup, which combines cilantro and serrano chilis with matzoh balls and dill. Similarly, her chimichurri brisket puts a Latin spin on the traditional Jewish holiday main course. Bernstein loves gifting Shabbat dinners to friends (“Israeli couscous always is on the table,” she notes) as much as she enjoys indulging in croquetas and café con leche. Mix in the influence of her Mexican husband and business partner, David Martinez, “and it all kind of combines into one big mishmosh,” Bernstein says with a laugh.
And it works. In 2008, the James Beard Foundation recognized Bernstein as the best chef in the South. In 2019, she teamed up with acclaimed bartender Julio Cabrera to open Cafe La Trova in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood. The coronavirus pandemic has forced the ever-innovative Bernstein to pivot unexpectedly, and Cafe La Trova has proven to be a popular take-out restaurant.
Bernstein has plenty of experience proving herself. Her All-American looks and gringa-sounding name raised eyebrows early in her career, when she co-hosted the Food Network program Melting Pot. Her role on the global cuisine show? To cook Latin food.
“People would write in saying, ‘Why is this Jewish woman talking about our culture, when Jewish people would know nothing about the Latin culture?’” Bernstein recalls. “My argument was, ‘You know that you can be both, right?’” Countless accolades later, the Johnson & Wales-trained chef notes, “I don’t get it that often anymore.”
To read more about Michelle Bernstein, check out Dalia Colón’s article in the September issue of Forum, the magazine of Florida Humanities (formerly the Florida Humanities Council).