Curiocity: Q&A With Chef Michelle Bernstein

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(credit: Macy's)

(credit: Macy’s)

Sara Boyd Sara Pelissero
Sara Pelissero joined the WCCO web team in August of 2009. You can...
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She’s been featured as a guest judge on Bravo’s “Top Chef,” has a James Beard Award under her belt and several restaurants boasting fresh, inventive Latin cuisine. And on Friday, you’ll have a chance to see (and smell) her cooking talents in action.

Macy’s Culinary Council Chef Michelle Bernstein will be at the downtown Minneapolis location this Friday, demonstrating ways to incorporate coffee, specifically espresso, into delicious recipes.

But before her visit, Bernstein was kind enough to chat with us about her many ties to Minnesota and how she’s changed her cooking style for her youngest eater.

Read the full Q&A below.

——–

You’ve been to Minneapolis several times before and I understand you have family here?

My dad’s from here so I grew up coming here quite often, at least once or twice a year. And then I married a man whose mother and a lot of her extended family live here. So it’s great because it feels like home. We come at least three times a year so that my son can see his grandma, plus to eat out.

What is your take on our food scene?

Ah, I just think it’s incredible. I can’t get over how it’s grown. Every year I come back here, I kind of lose myself because I never know what restaurant to try next. I just heard there’s some new ones that I have to try. I usually call up Andrew Zimmern and say, “OK, what should I not miss this year?” And he gives me a list of his favorites. But I actually get the Minneapolis-St. Paul Magazine at my house, believe it or not. So I brought a couple copies with me to sort of figure out and map ourselves out for where we can go and eat. With a two-and-a-half-year-old it gets a little tougher. The choices get a little smaller. In tight, sort of very gastro-type restaurants, he doesn’t do well. He’s all boy and he’s all 2.

So now we always go, “OK Andrew, where can I go with Zachary?” The list comes down from 10 to about two now. So we try to get grandma to watch him and we’re trying to figure out where we can go Saturday night because it’s the one night we have alone and we have this big, long list and we’re trying to come down to that one perfect restaurant, which will never happen but just to get a good meal and have a little intimacy.

Being a new mom, how has that changed your approach to cooking?

Oh my God, it’s more about what’s good for you, what really works on a plate as far as healthy now, better nutrition and better digestibility, believe it or not. Colors are so much more important, well they always were, but now I look at them so much differently. When my son was able to eat real foods … which as you can imagine as a chef and a mother was like, “Oh thank God.” But all I could think of at that point was, “OK, what can I give this boy who doesn’t like to eat, by the way, has colic and has acid reflux? I want to make him well.”

So I started cooking all the vegetables in this really intense chicken stock that I would make twice a week. And I would make all kinds of really intense, gelatinous stocks and everything would be cooked in that – quinoa – pureed into his vegetables and now he actually loves to eat quinoa himself. Anything I could to make everything not only healthy but palatable, texture-wise, just delicious, easy to eat and just tasty, without adding added fats, starch, just to get him trained to eating better. He’s two and a half and he eats artichokes – two artichokes, when they’re in season obviously, twice a week. … It’s pretty amazing how that then takes me into the restaurant at night and I think, “OK, what can I get everyone to love? What can I make everyone intake that not only they’ll enjoy but they’ll appreciate how they feel afterwards?” It really took me full circle. It used to be about wowing the guests and now, I want them to wake up the next morning feeling better than they did the day before.

Have you thought about doing more kid-friendly concepts in your restaurants?

No, I don’t want people to order off kids’ menus. It drives me crazy. And don’t get me wrong, when I go into a restaurant and I look at a menu, I think, oh God, what can he have that’s just a simpler version of this? But I don’t want to ever get to the point where I have to look to the side of the menu and say, well, let me order the kids’ chicken, um, what are they called? The breaded chicken. I don’t even know what they’re called. I don’t want to have to get to that point. So when kids come into my restaurant, I just tell the families, I’ll make them some fresh pasta tossed with a little olive oil and cheese or I can sauté them a piece of chicken to where they’ll like it, I can promise you they’ll like it. But I’m not going to go buy some frozen stuff that you can just throw in a fryer to be easy. It’s not about what’s easy. It’s about what’s best for the kids. That’s a big deal for me.

Before I had children, I always used to say I will not have that kid that has to order from the kids’ menu. Don’t get me wrong, when your kid is screaming and they need to eat something, I get it. I get it more than anyone because he is like having two children, he is a wild child. However, I want him to ingest good food and I want to know what’s in it. And it doesn’t have to be organic or just-harvested stuff, I’m not crazy. It just has to be good and it has to have a little thought put into it.

You’re an expert in Latin cuisine, what is something you try to get across to diners in your restaurants about your food?

I wouldn’t say I’m an expert, but just that I am Latin. I try to give them maybe a different take on Latin dishes that they’ve had in the past or maybe something that they’ve grown up with. We Latins have a hard time eating our vegetables, I have to admit – not the Argentines but the other Latins, especially the ones that I grew up in Miami with, like a lot of the Cubans. There weren’t really vegetable sections on the menu – it wasn’t something that they eat a lot at the dinner table. Maybe a salad but that’s about it. So my idea of Latin food is a little bit of a fresher take I would say. Not always spicy, just a lot of flavor, a lot of freshness. Of course, every chef wants to make something that you’ll actually make at home but I also want them to think about it, and I want you to maybe go out and buy something a little more fresh. Not necessarily spend more money but just really enjoy it and soak it up and make it for your family, maybe once a month. I love Latin cuisine and I love the flavors and I love the passion that we give to the food. There’s just a way to maybe tweak it a little bit, make it a little more fresh, a little more seasonal – it’s not really about seasonality and it should be.

I enjoyed watching you as a guest judge over the years on “Top Chef.” What is the biggest challenge about that experience?

You know, it’s funny because people know me as the b-i-t-c-h but it’s funny, because I’m just honest. And everyone’s like, “Wow, you’re always really tough.” I’m actually not, I’m actually really wimpy. And I hate being mean but I am honest. I mean, I’m not going to lie. I don’t know how to lie and I’m not a good actress. So I just tell the truth and I tell it like it is and I tell it to myself, too. I’m worse on myself than I am on anybody else. It’s always funny, I walk away and call my husband and I’m always like, “I shouldn’t have done that. I shouldn’t have said what I said.” And I always walk away feeling a little bit guilty because maybe I was a little too honest. It’s funny because the last time I was on, I pulled back a little because I think I was a really new mother at the time and I just felt really bad. And Padma (Lakshmi) was like, “What’s the matter with you? You’re the one I can always count on.” And I was like, “I think I lost it. Something happened to me.” But I will avenge myself because I actually will be back soon. I’ll always be honest, it’s just to what degree.

For those coming out to see you on Friday, can you give us a preview of what you’ll be demoing?

Yeah, I wanted to teach people how to cook with coffee – espresso, to be specific. To not only think of espresso as something to make sweet but also savory. You know, espresso is something that can be very savory, adding a few touches to it can turn a marinade or a sauce into something really wonderfully exotic and different with just the pour of a coffee. So I’m making a fun sauce making espresso, it has a lot of ingredients in it but you can make a big ol amount of it and throw it in your freezer for a year and it’s always delicious.

And I’m making one of my favorite deserts that I ever came up with, I actually came up with it to cook with, two or three summers ago I did a dinner (with Thomas Keller and others) and I was on desert and it was so scary for me to come up with a desert after all these guys were cooking – of course, they put the girl on desert, but that’s another story. And I just wanted to wow all of them, as well as the diners, and I did. So I’m making the desert that I made that night.

Chef Bernstein will be at Macy’s at noon Friday, at the lower level culinary kitchen. For more information on the event, click here.

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