Six degrees of inspiration - Miami

30 May 2016
by Jordana Rothman • In partnership with FOOD & WINE


Chef Michelle Bernstein of Miami’s Cena by Michy is influenced by avant garde art fairs, octogenarian spitfire restaurateurs and vintage shops that salute the grandeur of midcentury Miami. Here, she reveals the local people, places and ideas that have left their mark on her work.


1. Tony Goldman

The late real estate developer, preservationist and arts visionary Tony Goldman had a way of putting neighborhoods on the map. It was Goldman’s eye for industrial beauty that helped turn one of New York’s decaying downtown manufacturing zones into the thriving creative district known as Soho in the 1970s. In the nineties, Goldman worked the same magic for Philadelphia’s Midtown Village. And in between, it was all about Miami, where he refurbished the art deco jewels of South Beach and invested in Wynwood, famously encouraging muralists to use his property walls as public canvases. “It was incredible to see his mind work. He could walk into a place that seemed to have so little inspiration in it, and create a whole new way of life,” says Michelle, who had the chance to tour spaces with Tony during his time in Miami. “As a chef I turn raw ingredients and a blank plate into something new, but I dream small compared to someone like Tony. In Miami we will never see the end of his influence.”


2. Art Basel

Showcasing the work of more than 4,000 international artists across every conceivable medium, Art Basel is one of the most respected creative exhibitions in the world. Tens of thousands of visitors flock to Miami for the annual art fair, which has expanded beyond visual art to include avant grade culinary programming. “Basel has completely transformed our city, especially Miami Beach, into a center for the most well known artists from Picasso to contemporary painters and sculptors,” says Michelle, who has operated pop-up restaurants in the Botanical Gardens during the show for three years running. “It brings the most amazing diners to our city and fills our businesses while they are here in December.”

Art Basel:


3. Vizcaya Museum and Gardens

What was once the opulent home of early 20th-century industrialist James Deering is now one of Miami’s most astonishing museums, with 10 acres of manicured gardens surrounding a breathtaking Italianate villa. “I grew up going to Vizcaya, and I get butterflies whenever I return,” says Michelle, who is often called back to the villa to cater weddings. “As a kid, this was a place to dream; to be inspired by the beauty; to explore the original kitchen and imagine what things were like back when it was built. Being there brings me back to my childhood; it’s very romantic and dreamy.”

Vizcaya Museum and Gardens: 3251 S Miami Ave, Miami; 305-250-9133;


4. Jo Ann Bass of Joe’s Stone Crab

Over the course of a century, Joe’s Stone Crab grew from cabana club lunch stand to nationally-recognized institution—a sprawling complex of perpetually-packed dining rooms situated at the southern tip of Miami Beach. The stock in trade: black-tipped crab claws, cracked in the kitchen and served with mustard-spiked mayo. Joe’s has been family-owned since it was founded in 1913, by Hungarian immigrant Joe Weiss. Today his granddaughter Jo Ann Bass is still a constant presence, along with her son Stephen Sawitz. “Jo Ann is this powerhouse in a five-foot-two-inch body. Well into her eighties, she’s vibrant, beautiful, smart and a tough cookie,” says Michelle. “You see her walk through the dining room and the employees stand a little straighter; even all of the guests want to be acknowledged by her. I've always wanted to command that kind of respect. It’s admirable, and one day I hope to have a quarter of what she has.”

Joe's Stone Crab: 11 Washington Ave, Miami Beach; 305-673-0365;


5. The Rabbit Hole

Sexy and skimpy may be the prevailing aesthetic for a certain segment of Miami habitués, but that’s not Michelle’s style. Instead her look is inspired by the “MiMo”—Miami Modernist—design movement that flourished in the city in the years following the second World War. You can see its influence at Cena, where the dining room is lit by gleaming Sputnik chandeliers. But when it comes to stocking her closet, Michelle heads to this quirky vintage shop, where floor-length jacquard kimonos and modest, midcentury tulle frocks share space with 80s power blazers and weathered cowboy boots. “I bought two pairs of Chanel shoes at the Rabbit Hole that I will never get rid of even though they are so uncomfortable. And I found an incredibly fabulous retro silk top there that I wear to really special events,” says Michelle. “The store just speaks to who I am; you never know what you'll find.”

The Rabbit Hole: 791 NE 125th St, North Miami; 305-892-0213;


6. Critical Mass

Equal parts social gathering and demonstration, this monthly mass bicycle ride can trace its roots to 1990s San Francisco, where a group of bikers’ rights activists first took their message to the streets. The event reminds motorists to share the road safely, and it attracts riders in cities around the globe. In Miami, Critical Mass typically takes place on the final Friday of each month, and it is a spectacle. “Hundreds of people get together and ride around the whole city at night—I’ve even seen skateboards in the mix,” says Michelle, who will leave her kitchen so that she can observe the ride from beginning to end. “Critical Mass stops traffic for a little while but it is one of the greatest things to watch from the side lines. It is so cool to see how diverse and inclusive it is—so many different types of people get involved. It’s just a chance to stop and look around; to get out of your own little world for a bit.”

Critical Mass: info available at

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