Not many celebrity chefs have risen to the top of the culinary profession as quietly as Michelle Bernstein has. Sure, she's got all the credentials: a highly regarded restaurant (Michy's in Miami), a namesake restaurant in another country (MB in Cancun), a résumé that includes stints at some of the country's top kitchens (Le Bernardin, the late Jean-Louis Palladin's place at the Watergate in Washington, DC), TV gigs (frequent appearances on NBC's Today show; a victory over Bobby Flay on Iron Chef America) and, in 2008, a James Beard Award as “Best Chef: South.” Yet she doesn't have as high a profile as many of her celebrity chef brethren.
How come? It's because her food is tough to pigeonhole. Bernstein comes from Miami and has a Latin bent to her cooking, but she never adopted the town's famed “Mango Gang” or “Floribbean” approach. Instead, she went her own way, and now she's sharing that approach in Cuisine a Latina: Fresh Tastes and a World of Flavors from Michy's Miami Kitchen (Houghton Mifflin, $30). You've got to give it to her: this 276-page book is full of recipes that most readers will not have seen before. And, yes, there are a few highly complex dishes that require multiple obscure ingredients that are difficult to source if you don't live in the tropics like she does. It's the food she dishes out at Michy's, rated by Zagat as serving the top food in Miami.
But in addition to this restaurant fare, readers also get simpler dishes that reflect Bernstein's upbringing. There's a lot of the Cuban influence she absorbed growing up in Miami. “Although there wasn't a trace of Cuban in my bloodline, I felt right at home in those restaurants speaking the language and eating the food,” she says. There's also an unusual Latin American/Mediterranean vibe going on, which can be traced to Bernstein's mother, a native of Argentina.
“Since the population of Argentina is more than 65 percent Italian, a number of recipes reflect that side of my heritage. I've developed a repertoire that blends my love for Latin flavors with my classic French training,” Bernstein says.
And what a repertoire it is. This book weaves together everything from signature dishes from Bernstein's several restaurants to Mediterranean- and Latin-tinged comfort foods. She has an imaginative way of blending these different cuisines that results in a polished, cosmopolitan final product.
Some of the winners in the starter category include croquetas with blue cheese and Jamon Serrano, conch escargot, chicken liver parfait and seared foie gras with Mexican chocolate and cherries. Standout main courses are tuna schnitzel with cucumber slaw and crispy snapper with mango nuoc cham, Argentina-style veal milanesa and seven-spiced braised lamb shanks with yogurt and smoked almonds.
But there's plenty of simpler fare, too ( i.e., “Mom's arroz con pollo”) and, blessedly, Bernstein doesn't try to fake her way through a dessert chapter. She offers just one item, Michy's Bread Pudding, and it's a knockout. In all, there's plenty of imaginative fare here that could find a home on many full-service menus. Why not give it a try?
Dirty Dishes: A Restaurateur's Story of Passion, Pain and Pasta
By Pino Luongo, Bloomsbury USA, $25
So what happens when a chef leaves his kitchen behind to build a national chain of restaurants meant to modernize Italian fine dining? If you're the prickly and opinionated Pino Luongo, a lot happens, not all of it good. But the trip makes for great stories, particularly when Luongo buys the bankrupt Sfuzzi chain to make it the framework for his Coco Pazzo venture, hoping later to take the finished product public. Didn't work, but what a wild ride! Equally enlightening and colorful are his adventures in operating multiple high-profile New York City restaurants. Most of them had excellent food; all but one, his still-running Centolire, are now defunct. Hard-core foodies and celebrity chef fans will enjoy much of this book; working restaurateurs will savor all of it. And many of Luongo's fellow chefs will be saying “there but for the grace of God go I.” A great memoir, made better by the lack of sugarcoating.
Beef: The Untold Story of How Milk, Meat and Muscle Shaped the World
By Andrew Rimas & Evan D. G. Fraser
William Morrow, $25.95
The authors — meat lovers both — trace the history of beef from the dawn of recorded time to the present day, putting the whole works into a meaningful context for the modern-day restaurateur. The scope of their information is exhaustive, yet punchy writing and nimble storytelling make the whole works accessible and entertaining. We learn everything from how beef came to be of paramount importance in so many cultures to why water issues may cause current beef-raising practices to change significantly in the coming years. Best of all: no animal rights politics! If you own a steakhouse or are thinking about opening one, you'll want to read this book. Everyone else can read it for pleasure, because this one is vastly more interesting that its pedestrian title might suggest.