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Michelle Bernstein

picMichelle Bernstein is the chef of Michy's in Miami, Florida. She has been an Alliance member since 2001, when she was executive chef of Azul at Miami’s Mandarin Orient Hotel. Named one of South Florida’s top chefs by Ocean Drive, Florida International and Boca Raton magazines, Michelle is a graduate of Johnson & Wales University and in 2003 was given an Honorary Doctorate in Culinary Arts. She hosts the hit public television series Check, Please! South Florida, defeated Bobby Flay on Iron Chef America and co-hosted The Food Network’s Melting Pot, a show that presents the traditions, stories and recipes of her Latin background.

What is your favorite seafood to eat?
Oysters and sea urchin.

What is your favorite seafood to prepare at the restaurant?
Usually I love cooking a whole Mediterranean fish, like loup de mer.

What’s the most popular seafood dish on your menu?
Right now it would probably be the truffle-studded bass.

How did you get interested in the issue of sustainable seafood?
I guess because cooking seafood has always been my forté. I learned many years ago in France how to make what they consider to be the original bouillabaisse, and since then I’ve taken such a love to it. Plus it’s so healthy. As for sustainable seafood, I’m terrified that one day we’re going to wake up and not be able to eat seafood again. If we deplete the world of all these wonderful, natural ingredients, then we’re not going to leave anything to our children’s children. I don’t want it to be just a memory; I want it to be something that will always be there.

How would you describe your philosophy on ocean conservation?
I think that everything in life should be taken in moderation. I believe that we need to put a little bit of care in everything we do. As chefs especially, we have to care about our resources or we won’t be needed. There’s a yin and a yang to it with cooking; you have to be part of what you’re cooking to be a great cook. The only way to do that is to stand up for it and make sure it’s going to be there.

Has your philosophy changed what fish you serve?
I’m in charge of buying everything for my restaurant. Most definitely, any time I hear of a seafood that will be going into danger, not even on the list yet, it will come right off. I’m always in touch with all the different conservation groups, such as Seafood Choices, and constantly reading and staying in touch with what’s going on in the world. I want to make sure that I can be a part of that little, tiny percentage of people that are trying to help conserve the Earth. I know that maybe I’m not doing that much on my own by taking this stance, but I’m hoping the rest of the people in Miami might catch on. It might be a slow battle, but hopefully they’ll get it.

Have your diners noticed?
At first, they actually fought me on it. When we first opened [Azul], we chose to not put Chilean sea bass on the menu. That was quite a hard thing to do. Everyone in Miami is very used to eating Chilean sea bass and beluga caviar, for example. So my diners told me, “Michelle, we’ll just go to other restaurants where we can get it.” And I told them, “Well, go for it, but you know it’s not going to last very long because we’re going to run out.”

So little by little, I’ve gotten them to try new things that we didn’t necessarily sell much of in Miami, and they either haven’t left me or came back to me, which is really nice. It’s a very hard thing to do.

For years, it was really hard to get any kind of a different fish here in south Florida. But now, so many doors have opened because we’ve had to look for more. Now, for instance, I can get shipments of fish straight from Spain or France; I can get a lot of things that maybe weren’t as popular here in Florida that are not endangered species whatsoever. Now, these fish are appearing more on our menus down here and it’s really nice, because they’re different flavors, they’re fun to work with, and people are giving us a chance to try it. It’s almost like a learning experience when you come to eat, and although you don’t want to be too cerebral about it, at the same time, it’s kind of nice to learn a little something when you go out.

Do you feel it limits what you can offer?
I don’t feel limited at all. I’m in a place where I can pretty much get anything from anywhere in the world, thanks to FedEx. As a chef, it’s wonderful to be able to force myself to try new ingredients such as new fish and seafood. It’s so eye-opening.

Have your seafood purveyors worked with you on getting sustainably caught seafood?
Little by little, yes. It’s taken time because to take money away from these guys is like trying to take milk away from a baby. But at the same time, they’re starting to realize that they just won’t be able to work with me. And Azul is one of the strongest restaurants right now in south Florida so they won’t get my business. That’s how tough I’m becoming; I really won’t work with them unless they work with me.

Why do you support Seafood Choices Alliance?
Because I hope our seas will be filled with these wonderful fish again one day. I miss them, but I hope to see them again soon. It’s just a little way as a chef that I can help. There are a lot of different things we can do, but this is really one of them, considering it’s the one thing that we work with every single day.

Updated January 18, 2008

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