Miami born chef Michelle Bernstein, winner of the James Beard award, discusses life as a woman chef years before Me Too over Cuban coffee, pastelitos and croquetas.

‘Girls like me weren’t supposed to be chefs.’ How a ballerina became Miami’s food star

BY Carlos Frías

Michelle Bernstein can laugh about it now, but there was a time when she was the only young woman in a kitchen full of men in Miami — and it was not so easy to laugh.

“Girls like me weren’t supposed to be chefs,” she says. “I never said, ‘I want to be a great woman chef.’ It would actually piss me off when people would say that. We want to be regarded equally.”

Between sips of Cuban coffee, contemplating a box of pastelitos and croquetas from Miami’s El Brazo Fuerte, she relays the stories with the breeziness of a woman raised to give Miami air kisses and defuse situations with grace.

But the memory is there, like grit in an oyster. From before she won the James Beard award for best chef in the South. Before her Miami restaurants were rated among the best in the country. Before she was one of the first women on the Food Network or “Iron Chef,” and long before the #MeToo movement.

Back then, she was part of the first graduating class of Johnson & Wales in North Miami and found herself in one of her first professional kitchens at Mark’s Place — Mark Militello’s groundbreaking North Miami restaurant that won him the James Beard award for best chef in the Southeast in 1992.

“All it was, was boys. The guys would push me around,” she said.

She means literally. Bernstein was a former 90-pound ballerina, and line cooks shoved her across her workstation and joked she better eat a hamburger and hit the gym if she ever expected to be taken seriously.

What passed for frat house humor often crossed the line into harassment.

“They would do nasty stuff. I can’t even begin to tell you what would happen when I would tie my shoes,” she said. “Yeah. It was bad.”

But if a dancer’s physique made her a target, an athlete’s tenacity made her successful.

It also made a good icebreaker.

Picking her up after her first day at a new school, North Miami Senior High, her mother followed the bass to find a dance circle with music blaring. At the center, was Michelle Bernstein, break dancing.

“I was seriously break dancing. I mean I was spinning on my back. I was doing it all,” she remembered. “And I had never done it before. But I was a dancer. So I could pretty much jump into any situation and the music always speaks to me.”

There may even be a rap video out there with a young, curly haired Bernstein dancing in the background. She won’t say which one.

“Not just one. There’s a couple of them out there,” she laughs.

All these trips down memory lane require cafecito.

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She gratefully accepts another thimble of Cuban espresso as she sits off-hour at the bar Sweet Liberty that she co-owns with her chef husband, David Martinez, and the late John Lermayer, who died this summer from a ruptured brain aneurysm. (“He was a beautiful person. Better than all of us,” she said.) After her landmark restaurant, Michy’s, closed, she has focused on raising her now-7-year-old son and collaborations with her husband and friends, such as her newest Little Havana lounge, an homage to old-world Cuba, Café La Trova.

She takes a sip.

“My cocaine,” she says. “In the ‘80s when everyone was doing lines, I was doing coffee instead. I would go and do a shot of colada and it was the same effect: It would keep me up, it would make me skinny and I was very happy.”

She opens the box of pastelitos and eyes a croqueta suspiciously.

“I don’t eat other people’s croquetas. Ever,” she says.

This is a surprise since creamy, round Spanish-style croquetas became her signature at the late Michy’s, the restaurant that put her on the culinary map.

“I grew up not liking croquetas. So I never understood why people like croquetas. It was never crunchy enough on the outside,” she said as she broke one in half.

That is, until she went on vacation to Spain, the croqueta motherland.

“Then I tried the croqueta. It spoke to me. And I never knew what I had been missing all these years,” she said. “I just decided right then and there ‘This is going to be my schtick. ... I’m going to master this.’ ”

People lined up for her bechamel croquetas with melted foie gras, served with a fig jam. It’s a far cry from the party platter-style croqueta she is holding. She takes a bite.

“This is actually delicious,” she says, looking at it again. “Maybe I do like croquetas.”

Another bite. Another sip of cafecito.

If there was a woman in the kitchen who was her role model, she says, it was her late mother, Martha Bernstein, an Argentine Jew who didn’t keep kosher. She brought in Italian-Argentine cooking and a toughness that Bernstein says prepared her for life in a professional kitchen.

It was her mother who shot down her Caribbean bouillabaisse — sofrito, shellfish stock, bacon, finished with coconut milk — three times when Bernstein was hired for her first head chef job at Red Fish Grill.

“Not yet, mama. You can’t put this on the menu yet,” she recalls her mother telling her. “After four tries, she had a tear in her eyes.”

In a kitchen, that’s still the voice in her head — not her critics.

“They doubted me,” she said, “but my mother didn’t.”

Carlos Frías is the James Beard award-winning Miami Herald food editor. Contact: 305-376-4624; @carlos_frias