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Michelle Bernstein's Cafe La Trova a celebration of old Cuba and 1980s Miami

A decade after winning a James Beard Award as best chef in the South, Michelle Bernstein would rather be creating menus for funky bars, hosting TV shows and running a catering firm that handles premier events such as this week’s Art Basel than toiling long hours in the kitchen of an upscale restaurant.

“I feel like I can reach and touch more people with my food the way I’m doing it now,” Bernstein says. “I love having all these different avenues … It’s so different than what I experienced in kitchens for 20 years doing fine dining.”

Do not call her a “celebrity chef” (she hates that label), and do not make the mistake of thinking that Bernstein, 48, is slowing down.

“Dude, I’ve got like six jobs,” she says during a recent phone interview, as workers put the finishing touches on Cafe La Trova, set to open this month on the eastern end of Calle Ocho in Little Havana. The bar-restaurant is a collaboration with bartender Julio Cabrera, her longtime beverage manager at past restaurants Michy’s and Sra. Martinez.

Bernstein calls La Trova “a bar first and foremost,” but she has developed creative appetizers and sandwiches for the menu, including a paella croqueta that will be served with a shot of seafood caldo, an empanada with pumpkin and black garlic, and a pan de bistec that will be more like a Mexican torta than a Cuban sandwich. Raulito Salgado, who once worked at Havana’s famed La Floridita restaurant, will handle the day-to-day chef’s duties and offer straightforward renditions of traditional Cuban dishes such as ropa vieja.

La Trova is a mashup that will feature live music and two distinct bars. One is a tribute to classical Cuban bars and their professional bartenders known as cantineros, the other a throwback to 1980s Miami excess. The Cuban bar will feature classic rum daiquiris made by bartenders in vests, jackets and ties. The Miami side will feature flashy, Miami Vice-era decor, with turquoise and salmon walls and servers in tropical shirts. “The only thing missing will be the lines of cocaine on the bar,” Bernstein said.

Cuban-born Cabrera began his career as cantinero near Havana before moving to Mexico, where he teamed up with Bernstein at a Cancun hotel restaurant in 2004, which got destroyed by Hurricane Wilma in 2005. Cabrera came to Miami to work with Bernstein and her husband/business partner David Martinez when they opened Michy’s in 2006.

“It’s a dream to be able to do this with Michelle and David,” Cabrera says. “Miami is now home, and they have been like my family.”

La Trova is Cabrera’s vision, but the opening is emotional for Bernstein, too. Her Argentine mother, who died two years ago, used to take her to ballet classes in Little Havana when Michelle was a young, aspiring dancer. Now Bernstein takes her son Zachary, 7, to taekwando classes nearby.

Bernstein has taken an unconventional path since winning high praise and highest honors in the culinary world. Bernstein and Martinez have a stake in bars such as La Trova and Sweet Liberty in Miami Beach, where Bernstein’s famed fried chicken from Michy’s is served, but she no longer has a signature, fine-dining restaurant to call her own. She has become a multipurpose, multitasking whirlwind.

“What I’m doing now, it allows me to be a better mother and a better wife,” she says. “When I’m in town, I’m at home to cook dinner for my son six nights a week.”

Gone are the days when she worked relentlessly and exquisitely at Azul in the Mandarin Oriental Miami, or when she and Martinez hatched and nurtured Michy’s, their cozy, food lover’s dream that lasted eight years (2006-2014) on a slightly scary turned gentrified stretch of Biscayne Boulevard in the MiMo (Miami Modern) district. Gone, too, are Cena by Michy, the short-lived followup to Michy’s, Sra. Martinez and Seagrape at the Thompson Hotel in Miami Beach. Her Miami Design District cafe, Crumb on Parchment, is closed for what she calls a retooling.

Bernstein is host of “Check Please, South Florida,” the restaurant review show featuring regular people that has aired for 10 years on local PBS affiliate WPBT-Ch.2. She won a regional Emmy Award this year for “SoFlo Taste,” a cooking and culture show that she hosts on local ABC affiliate WPLG-Ch.10. She also has hosted episodes of the national PBS show “Moveable Feast,” and has been a regular judge on reality cooking show “Top Chef” on Bravo.

Bernstein is also a corporate culinary ambassador for Macy’s, Lexus and American Express. She is executive chef at Amex’s Centurion Lounge at Miami International Airport. Her catering firm has been official caterer for Art Basel since earlier this decade and operates a cafe at the Miami Beach Botanical Garden during the week-long art bacchanal.

“I’m getting ready to cook for 12,000 people out of a kitchen in a garden,” Bernstein says.

It’s hard to believe, but her new schedule is actually more forgiving than the punishing, 16-hour days in top-flight restaurant kitchens. And it is easier than the grueling days she spent as a ballet student in her youth, including a year with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York. An injury derailed her dance career, and she turned to cooking.

Dancing’s loss has been South Florida eaters’ gain. It will be nice to get a taste of Bernstein’s return to the Miami restaurant scene at La Trova.

La Trova, 971 SW Eighth St., Miami, is scheduled to open in December. Hours have not been finalized but it will serve light breakfast and coffee in the morning and meals later in the day. It will feature two bars, craft cocktails, live music and a patio where cigars will be allowed. For information, call 786-286-2802.

mmayo@southflorida.com, 954-356-4508. Follow my food adventures on Instagram: @mikemayoeats. Sign up for my weekly dining newsletter at SouthFlorida.com/EatBeatMail. Join the conversation at Facebook.com/groups/LetsEatSouthFlorida.

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