James Beard award-winning chef Michelle Bernstein, 49, has been one of Miami’s foremost chefs for almost two decades, as well as a staple on foodie TV. After opening a raft of lauded restaurants, including Michy’s, a pioneering spot on then-desolate Biscayne Boulevard, she’s just opened her newest, Café La Trova.
It’s on Calle Ocho and is decorated with a winking nod to the 1980s. (Check out the bar in back.) The menu features updated Cuban classics, plus Bernstein’s signature bread pudding; even better, the drinks program is run by her longtime associate, Julio Cabrera, whose cantineros make classic daiquiris, mojitos, and grenadine-spiked presidente cocktails.
Bernstein travels around 85,000 miles a year in the air and is a recent convert to JetBlue’s Mint service. “I just took a red-eye, and it was the best first class I have had this whole year,” she raves, noting that it costs several hundred dollars less each way than rival first class offerings. “I couldn’t get over it. They even gave me a little bag of warm breakfast to go, because I slept the whole way. The flight attendant was waiting with it when I left the plane.”
She lives in Miami with her husband and son. Here are her secrets to tackling world travel:
The secret to erasing any oily stain while on the road is this simple household item.
Every time I wear something I hope to wear again on a trip, something lands on it. In fact, I never, ever wear white, because I have always had an eating problem: If I eat, some goes in my mouth, and the rest falls either on my shirt or my pants. So I keep baby powder with me, just the original scent Johnson & Johnson. I have one (bottle) in every single suitcase. The baby powder works to pick up every grease stain-oil, butter, fat of any kind. Use some baby powder on it, let it sit, and then shake it off. You actually don’t have to wash it, but just shake off the excess, and the grease falls off with it. Even if I miss the stain, wash and dry the clothes, then catch it later (at home), it still works. It was my mother’s little trick.
What’s an incredibly versatile travel shoe that works in any situation? You may not like the answer.
I do not take more than two pairs of shoes with me, ever-and one of those will always be my chef’s shoes, which are very cute, and can be worn out. I don’t wear Crocs but beautiful Scandinavian clogs. I highly recommend clogs to anyone that wants to wear a shoe that doesn’t look terrible but is comfortable and good for your feet and back. They’re from a company called Sven, and they make them according to your foot; they’ll even send you something to draw your foot in. It’s up to you how you like them: The bases come in different colors, and the top can be any texture-suede or patent leather, even. I buy a new pair every two or three years. I can wear them with a skirt or a pair of pants and not look too bad, and I can dress them up if I need to. I happen to think they look quite smart with a pair of jeans, and that’s from a girl whose mom worked at Chanel for 30 years. They’re amazing.
Bernstein’s foodie destination of the moment is …
Mexico City is my favorite place in the world right now: safe, vibrant and delicious. I brought home the habanero salsa from a place called Picudos, which specializes in working with charcoal; the food there is insanely delicious. This seafood place called Verga inside the San Juan Market is only open during the day; I had a crab tostada, and it was just beautiful. There’s also a churro place that’s 100-and-something years old, called Churreria El Moro that has three textures of hot chocolate. And El Parnita is a crazy place I only send people that can handle it there, as you’re allowed to bring your animals inside; it’s crazy packed, and there’s drinks everywhere. But they made a whole duck pulled taco; they just bring a whole duck and some tortillas to the table. That took me to another level.
… and she has a secret trick as to when it’s best to visit.
On my first visit to Mexico City, years ago, the pollution was pretty bad and the traffic was crazy. But six years ago, I went with my husband during Mexican Spring Break, the Semana Santa. And it was the most amazing week ever: no pollution, barely any people, as they’d all gone to the beach, and we could get into every restaurant we dreamt of going to. You can stay at five-star hotels that would normally cost $1000 for about $250 as night. It’s insane. Just find out when it is, as it’s always a different date each year.
The key to defeating jet lag is simple: Get hungry.
If there’s going to be a big-time jet lag, I like to be really hungry when I land after a long flight, so I never eat on the way to wherever I’m headed. It keeps me awake. And I drink a ton of water, so I need to pee every 10 minutes. I want to have so much water in me that it’s coming out of my pores, which keeps me awake because I don’t want to arrive how most people arrive: satisfied and ready to sleep because they’ve eaten. I want to be starving. I learnt to do this after going to Asia four times in a row for work, and I would land, go into a kitchen, and start menu-planning, then call home to my husband or my mother complaining. Little by little, I would start cutting things back, starting with the free Champagne, I started taking things away from myself, like not buying a bag of whatever snack I loved to indulge in on the flight. That’s how I learnt to starve myself on the way out. But then, if I’m coming back home on a weekend, maybe when I know I can just turn off (when I land), I go for broke.
If you want to find the best local restaurants, go shop where chefs shop.
I go to specialty stores and markets, because they’re selling to most of the chefs in their city, and find out where they’re selling to. At Tsukiji market in Tokyo, I went at 5 a.m. and followed a group around who were in chef’s clothes, all the way round the market; and I would ask where the fish was going, who those guys were who were buying it. In the open air markets in Mexico, I’d see people putting ingredients into crates, for some group that was buying a larger amount. So I would ask: “Where are you delivering to?” And at Santa Monica Farmers Market, which is the best, I go up to people constantly and ask, “Are you buying for a certain chef?”
There is a defense against stinky travel clothes — and shoes, too.
I keep dryer sheets with me at all times to stick in my cooking shoes, so they won’t smell like food. And then I started using them with my clothes. I’m a bit of a freak, as I don’t like having dirty clothes near me. The idea to use dryer sheets for that, too, started when I was traveling with my husband and son, who are both very dirty. We kept a space in the closet of the room, with a plastic bag, where we could put our dirty clothes, but after a few days, the smell got so bad I could barely handle it. So I dropped a dryer sheet in the bag, and when we got home from that trip to do the wash, I thought, “Oh, my God, I’m not gagging. This is great.” So now I use them every time. It’s amazing how fresh a scent we have whenever we open up our suitcases after a trip now. Trust me on this one: Dryer sheets really work.