Bernstein prepping for her pop-up at Leahi Concept Kitchen.

Photo By Ed Morita

Michelle Bernstein: How this female chef made it to the top

Celebrity chef and James Beard award winner Michelle Bernstein has been keeping herself busy since arriving in Hawaii.

After multiple events with the Hawaii Food & Wine Festival, she's now in the midst of a two-night pop-up in Waikiki. Bernstein is bringing her bright and vibrant Latin-infused cuisine to Kapiolani Community College's Leahi Concept Kitchen at the Waikiki Parc Hotel to benefit the KCC culinary program. She follows in the foosteps of Brazil's Alex Atala, who kicked off KCC's Master Chef Series. 

I met with Bernstein during her first day of prep with the Leahi staff and KCC students. We talked about her menu, the ups and downs of her career, and what brings her back to Hawaii year after year. 

Seats are still available for Bernstein's second and final pop-up dinner tonight. Make your reservations now. 

Aloha a La Latina by Michelle Bernstein

Leahi Concept Kitchen (old Nobu Waikiki location)

Waikiki Parc Hotel

2233 Helumoa Rd. 

Wednesday, Nov. 8

6 p.m. registration, 6:30 p.m. seating 

$125 ($150 with wine or beer pairings) includes tip and non-alcoholic beverages 

Reservations: 971-6302

Where do you start when conceiving a dish?

It kind of depends on my mood a little bit, but it s usually based on an ingredient. I go by feel with my cooking, and I never really know what's going to happen with some of the ingredients until we get there. One in a while, I get this crazy picture in my head, and it comes complete with a vessel, a color and a shape.

Every time I think of Hawaii, I think of my favorite fish, opakapaka, so that's on the pop-up menu.

What it is about opakapaka that you like so much?

It's probably wanting that thing that you can't have. Onaga is the same way for me. Two beautiful types of snapper that are just so creamy, tender and juicy. You have to cook it so little to get so much great flavor out of it. 

The flavor of the fish in Hawaii tastes like the Pacific to me.

In Miami we have yellowtail or mutton snapper which are both great, however, the taste of our fish is more Gulfy or sometimes Atlantic, which let’s face it is not as cold of a water, and doesn’t have that beautiful ocean flavor that you guys have. It’s good, but it’s not like the fish in Hawaii.

Bernstein's opakapaka dish. – Photo by Melissa Chang

How do you choose what accompanies the main item in a dish?

I’m careful not to over shadow the main ingredient, in this case, the opakapaka. I want to emphasize it and make the fish the true star.

Next, I think about what components would make that star brighten even more.

I know that it’s not really fall in Hawaii. It’s not truly fall in Miami either, but that’s the season that we are currently in. I think about fall ingredients, like leeks and citrus. They are always good towards November, and obviously, citrus goes really good with fish.

I’m just so over the whole puree idea, so instead, I’m softening leeks to create a flavor and texture to make a creamy base for the fish.

I wanted to bring a little bit of what Miami is. We’re so Latin, so a mojo de ajo (garlic gravy) is a true marinade and finishing sauce for a lot of Latin dishes. I messed with it here, and gave it a little bit of a different personality for Hawaii. It’s a great topping for fish that doesn’t cover up the deliciousness and freshness of it.

Photo by Ed Morita

When you say that you get an image in your head, is there a particular thing that triggers it?

No, it’s just something that pops in.

Since I was about nine years old, I would wake up with food ideas in my head, even though I never thought I would be a chef. My mother always made me keep a note book on my nightstand, and she always said to write down my menu ideas because you never know one day.

I still get dreams about food, or I’ll be bored on an airplane, and all of a sudden, I start thinking about food.

One of my best dishes I ever created came out of a dream. Thank God I wrote it down in the middle of the night, because I would have lost it.

It was a sweetbreads dish with a sour orange reduction, heavily caramelized fennel for licorice flavor. Then, I had crispy fatback bacon and dehydrated oranges like the crust on a fish. It was lovely.

Were you watching yourself make this dish?

I never see myself in my dreams. It’s never about me, its always about the food.

I see hands, I assume that they are mine, but its hands putting food together.

How do you know when to stop? When is the dish finished?

Ah well… Is it ever really? My food is never 100 percent there. I really wish it was.

I think the problem is that I have like six jobs, and I do so many things that I can never dedicate enough time, or maybe my brain can’t dedicate enough time to one dish at a time.

I always have to move on. I can’t stick to one thing. It makes me absolutely crazy. So, I get a little pissed at myself for that.

Bernstein’s HFWF dish. – Photo by Reid Shimabukuro

Do you ever get to revisit certain things?

I try not to look back because I get really upset with myself.

Like during the Hawaii Food & Wine Festival, I made a dish that could have been great. It had great legs. It tasted great, but it didn’t have the texture I wanted.

What inspires you to create?

Everything. I’m just made not to let my brain stop creating. I feel like the day it does stop is probably going to be the day that I’m no longer here anymore.

My brain needs to keep on searching for new things. If I don’t have anything to do as far as coming up with food, I choreograph in my head.

Why did you stop dancing? (Note: Before she started cooking, Bernstein danced with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.)

When I got hurt, I realized that I hated the life of a dancer. I was living in New York, by myself. I didn’t know where my next meal was coming from.

Photo by Kenix Lau

 

I hurt my ankle, and it would have taken me a year to get back, so I took some time off and I went to college. I said to myself, “wow, that really sucked.”

 

I graduated high school at 16 so that I could go to New York to pursue this crazy career. It was really lonely, really young and really shy. I missed my family desperately, so I said that I’m not going back.

What didn’t you like about dancing?

I didn’t like that nasty competition between dancers, which I actually found later as a chef, but just done a little differently. It was nastiness from men rather than from women, which is very different type of maliciousness. It’s a softer maliciousness actually.

I studied biochemistry and nutrition in college, and I didn’t know what the hell to do. I went back home with my tail between my legs like, “okay Mom, I’m 20, now what do I do?”

She said, “Well, there’s a culinary school opening down the block. You studied nutrition and a bit of chemistry. What if you were to combine your food knowledge and help people with better diets? Maybe one day you’ll do a TV show?” That woman always knew.

I started cooking school, and I was really bad. My cooking was home cooking. Since I was six, I could make risotto, but I didn’t know what brunoise was. I didn’t know how to use a knife. I didn’t know anything.

Photo by Ed Morita

 

Everyone in culinary school in the 90s were chefs that went back to get their diploma so that they could get better jobs. They weren’t little kids out of high school saying, I want to be on TV and be a chef. There weren’t any TV chefs. It was grueling work.

I went in and I sucked. I thought to myself, “How am I going to get better?” Then a teacher pulled me aside, and said, “You gotta go to work. You gotta work now, because this kind of work is not a natural fit for you.”

I had this really competitive nature that I got from dance, and I just want to be good at everything.

So, I started working at whatever kitchen that would accept me. I did my fair share of prep girl work, before graduating to salads for years. I would work wherever they would throw me, and in culinary school I started to get better, and eventually graduated with honors.

I kept on cooking for a little while, still trying to figure out what I wanted to do. At this time, I was just off the dance floor. I was 90 pounds, if that. I was a petite, little, gracious and disciplined, but shy girl.

I didn’t know that I could be a chef because I was told by everybody that I worked with, “You know you’ll never be a chef, right? Chefs aren’t like you.”

Photo by Kenix Lau

What was the turning point for you?

After five years, I was working the line and I loved it.

All the boys on the line were like, “So, what are you going to do? You’re not going to do this.”

I turned around and said “Fuck everybody, I’m going to be a chef! This is what I’m going to do, and I bet you by the time I become a chef, none of you are going to be cooking anymore. None of you are going to make it!”

They were horrible to me, and sure enough, they’re all gone.

I took me years to finally say I’m ready to be a sous chef, because I turned down everything that was ever offered to me. I never thought I was ready.

My ego was super low. I had no confidence whatsoever, which is everything you need in a kitchen, as you know. I still don’t have enough confidence, but you push through it.

I know my flavors are bad ass, but I have a lot to still learn. Even at this ripe old age.

You’ve been to Hawaii a few times …

I come here every year for the Hawaii Food & Wine Festival.

My husband always said that he left a part of his heart Hawaii when he attended to college here, and I can see why.

Bernstein with her husband, David Martinez. – Photo by Melissa Chang

It’s definitely a place where all of us, as a family, want to spend more time. We could see ourselves living here, if not at least part of the time, because the people are so open.

In the southeast people are kind of closed. We don’t have a sense of community the way you have here. There is a way that the people of Hawaii are so generous and genuine. It’s a lovely thing. It really is great.

So, it seems that you crave the community more than anything else in Hawaii.

Yeah, I’m a mother now, and things are different. You want the best for your child to grow, and you need a community to grow your child. To me, that’s my number one job. Being a wife, and a mother.

Being happy as a family becomes number one. This is a great place to be, and it lifts our spirits when we are in Hawaii.

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Up next in Kapiolani Community College’s Master Chef Series is Kentucky’s Edward Lee of “Top Chef” and “Mind of a Chef.” Lee’s pop-up benefit dinners are scheduled for January 2018.