Anatomy of a Plate with Chef Michelle Bernstein

Photo by Kenix Lau

“My food is never 100% there. I really wish it was.

I do so many things that I can never dedicate enough time, or maybe my brain can’t dedicate enough time to one dish.

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.

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.”

Bernstein’s 2017 Hawaii Food & Wine dish.
Opakapaka with shishito peppers, leeks braised with chorizo, mojo de ajo. -Photo by Melissa Chang

“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.”

“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.

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 sixteen 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.

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 twenty, 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.

Everyone in culinary school in the 90’s 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. It wasn’t like that in the 90’s. 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.”

At this point, I did not want to be a chef, I was just training.

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 where ever 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.”

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 I push through it.

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



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