4 Female Chefs in South Florida Who Are Changing the Business

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Beyond knowing how to cook, the job description of a chef is demanding, requiring creativity to conceptualize recipes, an innate attention to detail and, above all, the utmost passion for the craft. Pair that with few to no days off and extensive work hours, and it’s a wonder that anyone meets the qualifications, let alone remains interested in the opportunity to work behind the scenes of a restaurant. The industry has been a male-dominated business for quite some time, but in South Florida, a handful of women are making a strong impact on the city’s culinary scene at several of the most sought-after eateries around town.

 

Carla Pellegrino

Executive Chef, Touche Rooftop Lounge & Restaurant

Courtesy of Touche
Courtesy of Touche

After amassing countless culinary honors along the Las Vegas strip, Pellegrino took her talents to Miami, where she enjoyed great fanfare for the opening of Touche Rooftop Lounge & Restaurant, her new Italian eatery, last spring. For the acclaimed chef, whose impressive resume includes a stint on the 10th season of Bravo’s “Top Chef” in 2012, the road to success has been a natural progression since she first started helping with her mother’s catering business at just 10 years old.

Born in Brazil to a Portuguese father and Italian mother, Pellegrino’s skill set in the kitchen covers a range of cuisines but she gives each the attention it needs. “My mixed heritage influences my personality directly—a bit exaggerated sometimes and full of passionate moments—but it helped me to become the chef I am today: firm, strong and certain,” she says. “However, I don’t think my mixed heritage influences my cuisine, since I chose to work with Italian food, and I try to be very loyal to each cuisine I decide to execute on my stoves.”

Her loyalty to European dishes propelled when Pellegrino came to the United States in 1997 to attend the French Culinary Institute (now the International Culinary Center) in New York City. Upon graduation, she helped launch the now-closed Baldoria restaurant in the city’s theater district. It was in Las Vegas, however, that she rose to fame. In 2006, she headed west to serve as executive chef of Rao’s Las Vegas, coupling classic recipes with her own creations that earned the culinary team an invitation to cook at the esteemed James Beard House in New York City.

In the last five years, she worked with Tropicana Las Vegas to reinvent its restaurant, including a name change to Bacio by Carla Pellegrino, and also opened Bratalian Neapolitan Cantina. Now at the helm of Touche in Miami, she serves traditional yet flavorful dishes in a 7,200-square-foot space that offers panoramic views of the buzzing Miami cityscape.

 

Cindy Hutson

Executive Chef and Owner, Ortanique on the Mile, Coral Gables

Chef_CindyHutson

Growing up, Hutson shied away from the children’s menu and preferred more sophisticated adult entrees instead. “I ordered the weird stuff as a little kid—liver and onions, tongue, raw clams, frog legs,” she remembers. “I guess that set the tone for my experimentation as I grew.”
A self-taught chef, she sharpened her culinary skills at home by inventing new recipes and perfecting existing ones. “I was not professionally trained, nor did I ever dream of being a chef,” Hutson says. “I just always loved to cook.” Her hobby eventually turned into a career when she moved from New Jersey in 1978 to Miami, where she met Delius Shirley, the son of celebrated Jamaican chef Norma Shirley.

After encouraging her to go into the restaurant business, Delius and Hutson opened their first venture, Norma’s on the Beach, in 1994. The eatery attracted masses of tourists during its five years of operation until it shuttered its doors in 1999. However, Hutson’s popularity didn’t end there. Her resume grew with several new establishments in the ensuing years, including Ortanique Las Vegas and Washington, D.C., in 2001; and Copra in Baltimore, Md., and Bogwalk in Destin, Fla., in 2004. While these restaurants have since closed, today Hutson runs Ortanique on the Mile, a Caribbean hot spot in Coral Gables with a second location in Grand Cayman, as well as The Dunmore in the Bahamas.

Her internationally renowned Caribbean cuisine brings together a unique pairing of ingredients—for instance, breadfruit fish tacos that use the fruit as the shell. “My philosophy on food is simple: It is always evolving,” she explains. “… That’s why it is fun for me to study food history, origins of food and how it traveled from one destination to another and who brought it there.”

Michelle Bernstein

Executive Chef and Owner, Seagrape, Miami Beach

(Photos by Michael Pisarri)
(Photos by Michael Pisarri)

With a James Beard Award, several famed Miami restaurants and multiple appearances on shows like “Iron Chef America” and “Top Chef,” it’s safe to say Bernstein is celebrated by many around the world. But for the celebrity chef and restaurateur, Miami is the only place where she would want to stretch her culinary wings.

“We are the crossroads of the Americas and becoming a global hub for business and leisure travel,” she says. “All these [factors] are … influencing everything from our food to our art and culture. Combine that with the abundance of fabulous local fish, pork, vegetables [and] fruit—we’re a culinary playground for chefs and eaters.”

A Miami native, Bernstein has created her own empire in this playground since the late 1990s when she first donned the executive chef hat at Tantra in Miami Beach and Azul in the Mandarin Oriental, Miami hotel. Several years later, Bernstein and her business partner and husband, David Martinez, opened the legendary Michy’s in 2006. The year 2008 proved to be another big year, as she won the James Beard Award for the best chef in the South, published her cookbook, “Cuisine a Latina,” and opened Sra. Martinez, which has since closed.

Her bakery Crumb on Parchment opened in the Design District four years ago. Most recently, in 2014, she decided to reinvent Michy’s and also launched Seagrape in November at the Thompson Miami Beach hotel.

Through it all, Bernstein maintains a distinct cooking style, which she credits to her upbringing. “[My heritage] instilled a love for diversity and gave me ample opportunities to try a lot of different foods,” she says. “Also, growing up in a home with family that loved food [had] a big hand in my own development first as an eater, then as a cook.”

 

Paula DaSilva

Executive Chef, 3030 Ocean, Fort Lauderdale

(Courtesy of 3030 Ocean; fried snapper photo by Carolina del Rivero)
(Courtesy of 3030 Ocean; fried snapper photo by Carolina del Rivero)

The restaurant business has been engrained in DaSilva from a young age. Working at her family’s Brazilian restaurant in Massachusetts as a child and then helping her parents open two restaurants in South Florida during her teen years naturally led her to a degree in culinary arts.

“I learned at an early age the importance of hard work and having strong work ethics,” she says. “I also learned how to properly season food from my parents. Both of them were really good cooks.”
A job at 3030 Ocean followed suit as she made a name for herself in Miami. A turning point came when she was a runner-up on season five of “Hell’s Kitchen” with Gordon Ramsay. After the season ended, DaSilva was named executive chef of 1500 Degrees at Eden Roc Renaissance Miami Beach. Her career came full circle when 1500 Degrees shut down, and she returned to 3030 Ocean.

There, she practices a farm-to-table approach with dishes created from locally sourced ingredients, such as the fried snapper served with shishito peppers, bok choy and sesame Thai chili sauce. Her cooking style has received many rave reviews and, in 2013, she was invited to prepare a multicourse meal based on seasonal ingredients at the James Beard House.

“For me it’s all about the ingredients, the product and where is it coming from,” she says. “I have a solid relationship with most of our local farmers and fisherman, and it’s important for me to nurture that. Without a great product, you won’t have great food. From there, we keep it simple. My style has evolved so much through the years and, the older I get, the more comfortable I become with letting the food stand out on its own.”

 

—Written by Michelle Franzen Martin