"Form, Style, Simplicity and Elegance"
...These are the words that could be used to describe Michelle Bernstein and the effect that she has created in Azul, the new shining star of the Mandarin Oriental – Miami hotel. However, the true Michelle, her cooking style and her food remain an enigma and defy traditional labels. Trendy is too trite, eclectic would be too simple and complex would be too mathematical or analytical. It is Michelle!
"You can label my cooking how you want it. I don't really believe in labels – if you come up with a word for it, bravo for you." was the conclusion that Michelle came to when we attempted unsuccessfully to try and categorize her food. "My food is not complicated. My food is rather easy to figure out, but not very easy to make. I always start with a base, with the kind of base that I'm in the mood for and what I think people really want to eat, because if it's always what I want, people won't be happy. You start with the base and think about what you'd like to eat with it, ensuring that you have a balance. You have to take care of those that like savory and those that prefer sweet. Those that like the zesty and those that don't." This quote is critical, because it leads the reader to better understand the key values that make Michelle tick when it comes to
Undaunted, we again attempted to label Michelle about her food and still we ended up with an essence and not a definition. "My food just is. I don't make dishes, I make tastes!" A constant drive to improve the experience for her customers has Michelle searching for that level of excellence or striving to move to the next level with her food. "I want explosions from the mouth. I am Latino, my background is Latin. So, I like to use the cooking techniques of the French chefs that I learned as well as those that I admire from Jean Louis Palladin. I combine all this technical skill with my Latin background and believe it or not a bit of my Jewish background too. It all comes out to making it an experience, finding little mysteries of taste and flavor in the dishes."
The total experience is something that is important to Michelle and her food. Color, balance and simplicity are critical to a clear understanding of what Michelle is trying to create in Azul. "Food always has to have color. Sometimes two colors don't work well, which means that the flavors probably won't work either. The colors are going to add flavor and consistency. Too much of any one color is not good. You want to live in a world of vibrancy and color."
At this moment, an Asian influence is evident in Michelle's dishes, but not necessarily in the sense that a dish can be strictly defined as Asian in nature. An assessment of the Azul menu resulted in the conclusion that only two dishes could be clearly defined or labelled as Asian. The influence is much more subtle, in that it manifests itself in terms of fresh ingredients, incredible spices and flavors. Of course the nature of the hotel and its ownership dictates that there will be a discernible Asian influence in the operations. While that fact is acknowledged by Michelle and recognized as a business, the addition of the Asian influence to her food is not driven off this fact. "There is an Asian influence to my food, but not a lot. I always need something to bring out the flavors in the food. Asian has brought a certain new edge to things. I use Asian flavors in my foods, but very limited and very delicate. It will take your food further." Again, the critical fact is to understand how Michelle uses the exotic ingredients and flavors to create new tastes and experiences for her customers. It's not simply that Asian is trendy for the moment, it's the fact that Asian compliments what Michelle is trying to achieve at the moment.
One thing that Michelle insists upon in her kitchens is power. For her the burner is king and it's the core of her creative thrust. "You can cook anything on it. We braise a lot and I personally love to braise a lot on the top of my stove. Everything that we do has to be done as fast as possible because I don't want to see any of my food denatured, I don't want the juices running out and I absolutely insist on crisp vegetables! I'm passionate about my food and if something hurts my food, I take it very personally. I put a lot into a dish and if it's incorrect it hurts." To ensure that this doesn't happen in Azul, Michelle has Garland.
A custom designed island suite from Garland makes all the dishes and tastes possible. Created to tight specifications, it is designed to maximize creativity, without sacrificing productivity and efficiency. Michelle was emphatic in her assessment of Garland and the Master Series island suite; "Garland, it's the best! They always have the latest innovations and improvements on the traditional equipment, they are up to date without being trendy." Not only is the Garland equipment important to Michelle, the whole relationship is critical to her good feeling about Garland. Again, it is a question of balance – not only does the equipment live up to its billing, the people from Garland are always available to offer assistance or support if it is needed. "The Garland equipment breaks down the least and if there is a service requirement, they come immediately when you call. It's not a problem, they are very friendly and go out of their way to assist."
The latest in Garland Master Series, the close relationship and respect for what is important to her kitchen and food made it a learning experience for Michelle when she started working with her brigade and executive sous chef to design the final menus for Azul. "I had to relearn how to cook in this kitchen, I had to relearn how to use and appreciate good equipment. There's no doubt that I will compare everything that I cook on in the future to this island suite from Garland."
An important part of the success at Azul is Michelle's attitude towards her brigade. The strong ties and feelings that they share are obvious to the most casual of observers. "This is a great brigade, possibly the best crew ever." Michelle dedicates a considerable amount of her time and effort to developing and sharing her passion for food with her staff. "I keep the fires lit for my staff. I want the passion burning and want them to come in every day looking for a challenge." Loyalty, personal development and enrichment are core values to Michelle and a sharing of what drives her to respect the food is what she wants to impart with the group of vibrant young professionals that she has surrounded herself with in this kitchen. "I truly, truly want them to feel a challenge every day. Our group has to act like a family, the group is close. We have to like each other, because the quarters are close and we have to work at an incredible pace to achieve our goals." When you look at the kitchen at Azul, you can see that it is a happy kitchen and the people working there love to be there, involved in creating some of the greatest tastes in Miami. Michelle's assessment is an insight on what she is; "I'm a happy person. Happy people make happy food and that's what we do here."
It is hard to pinpoint or define clearly where Michelle will take her drive for "new tastes" next. Wherever it is will be exciting, but rooted in the solid foundation that has been her past. Michelle puts a great deal of faith in the influences that shaped her developmental years and they will continue to reflect in how her food develops in the future. The traditional French classical techniques are important to her and provide the base, but it is not the full measure of how she will develop or what she will be known for in the future. To classify her as a French traditionalist is too simple. "I take a hell of a lot more from French cooking than technique. I love the food from the south of France. One day I'd like to compare myself with one of the chefs that I highly regard in the South of France. They can actually take 3 to 4 ingredients and make the most amazing flavor taste in a meal that you've ever had." We can rest assured that Michelle won't be defined or pigeon holed on the future, but we can bet that the constant strive for excellence and the creation of new tastes will be foremost in her mind.
One thing that you can be certain of in the future however, for Michelle, is that she will be sharing it with Garland. Here or in the South of France, Garland Master Series custom Island Suites are the new standard of excellence for Michelle Bernstein, a chef that makes experiences come to life.