Michelle Bernstein, a Miami native, owns several Florida restaurants – Michy’s and Sra. Martinez in Miami and Michelle Bernstein Restaurant and MB Terrace at The Omphoy Ocean Resort in Palm Springs. A 2007 winner of the James Beard Award for Best Chef South, Bernstein is the author of 2008’s “Cuisine a Latina.” Her restaurants have garnered praise from around the culinary community, with Best New Restaurant prizes going to Michy’s (2006) and Sra. Martinez (2009). Her establishments were featured on the 2008 Food & Wine and Travel + Leisure Go List. She was the co-host of Melting Pot on Food Network and a victorius competitor on the network’s Iron Chef program.
Bernstein is also involved in Common Threads, an organization dedicated to educating children about the iportance of nutrition and physical well-being, which helps them gain an appreciation of cultural diversity through cooking. She spoke about operating restaurants in storm zones and the considerations that must be made when disasters are a regular concern.
What is your general philosophy about food and food preparation?
I always try to start with a protein and produce, grown in south Florida. … I always participate and keep up with what is sustainable and what best practices. What is more green – whether it is grass-fed beef or something else. I try to always buy food that’s good for our future children as well. Using foods that are not over-fished, which is hard around here. Through efforts of lots of local chefs, we back up our farmers. Many can’t get their food from farm to restaurant … we’re trying to help them get it to us.
How is that affected or how is it different operating and opening restaurants in storm-affected areas in Florida?
If we can’t get [local food] here, we go close by to get it. If we can’t get it from Homestead, we go [near there]. Then we’d go to the Carolinas. If we all get hit, I’m afraid it’s a lot of dried pasta.
Are there any special preparations that go into opening and operating restaurants in storm zones? Do you have to change your approach or philosophy during annual storm seasons?
We try to talk about [storms] and keep people aware. Those of us from here try to remain optimistic; always be prepared. … I try to board up the windows as quickly as possible – [and think], do employees need to stay with us because their place isn’t as safe.
I don’t like to think about that too much, because if you worry about it I feel like it’s more likely to happen. … You can’t make yourself crazy because if it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen.
How do you think the local population’s approach toward cooking and food is affected by the probability of major storms?
Florida residents – I think [their approach to food is affected by the weather]. ‘Locavore’ is a big word here in the last year. It’s a big chef initiative. Farmers’ markets are popping up within the last year, literally. The want and need for it – it had to happen. … Transplants, especially from California and elsewhere, they want it, they need it. Sometimes we’re slower here in Miami to embrace things. But if we do it slower, we hopefully do it better.
Have you been personally affected by any storms in Florida or elsewhere? How does that affect your approach to your restaurants?
When [Hurricane] Andrew hit, I was very young. My dad was sick and my mom was with him in the hospital, so it was just my sister and me at home; we had no power for, like, a month. We had gas burners, liquids and canned foods. … [Times like that], we eat more black beans than you can shake a stick at.
Things change a lot [during storms], especially when you’re desperate. You do what you’ve got to do – you get creative. It’s a more primitive way of thinking and cooking. … There was an event a few years for a big organization – the power went out, not because of storms but because a truck ran into a pole. We were cooking for families with children with disabilities. We just pulled out the trusty flashlights and candles … and cooked with gas and just went for it. … People remember not to freak out and do what they have to do – it keeps you sane.
I’ve [had to operate without power] four times at the restaurant. You have to have light – flashlights and candles. You go with your nose and mouth, trusting those senses. It’s not going to be the prettiest thing, but if it tastes good in your mouth, it feels good, then it’s fine.
For emergency situations, are there any suggestions you have for food for people to keep around? Are there items you make sure to have on hand at your businesses?
When it’s storm season, everybody thinks barbecue – things that can be done outdoors. … Lots of non-perishable foods. …Keep the bathtubs full of fresh, clean water – those are things a lot of people don’t think about. Also, mosquito repellent – that’s huge. Have lots of ice on hand; there’s no real way of washing things off. Use lots of [Wipees]. You have to keep things as clean as possible, as hygienic as possible for people.
Fresh food without power
Roast Chicken by the fire
This is one of my favorite things to do! I actually was raised in a house with a fireplace, so when hurricane Andrew hit, we had to get creative. Years later, in Provence, I learned the proper technique to this type of cooking and I truly believe it’s one of the most delicious ways to cook.
Roast Chicken by the fire:
1 (2-3 lb.) Free Range All Natural fed Chicken
4 cloves garlic, chopped
3 tablespoons extra virgin oil
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
Zest of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon finely chopped rosemary
1 tablespoon finely chopped thyme
Sea Salt and Black Pepper
Place a long piece of Kitchen string in water.
Mix all ingredients for the Marinade. Coat the chicken in the marinade for about 2 hours. Reserve the marinade for later.
Start you fire in the fireplace, You need to allow the fire to burn until the embers are glowing; Keep adding fresh wood to the fire, as it really needs to burn hot!
Truss the chicken with the kitchen string, wrapping it a few times over, push the string through the bird so it comes out the bottom side, leaving at least 12 inches for it to hang off a hook or a screw in front of the fire. Hang the bird securing the string tightly on the hook or screw. Place an aluminum or metal pan under the chicken to catch the drippings.
As often as you can, spin the chicken so that it rotates around and gets heat on all sides. Meanwhile, baste the bird with leftover marinade. Cook the chicken for about 1 to 1.5 hours or until cooked. I love to make a vinaigrette using the drippings and serve the chicken with a salad tossed in the drippings or warm vegetables heated in the drippings.