by Jessica Giles | July 7, 2020

A Sunshine State of Mind: Chef Edition

How three Floridian culinary figures have made it through this unprecedented time

Chef Norman Van Aken, Michelle Bernstein and Art Smith chat with us about life in quarantine.

There’s something about the dawn of a new decade that fills people with promise, the belief that anything is possible. The start of 2020 brought with it visions of a modern roaring ’20s, an explosion of creativity, productivity and growth. Aspirations to be better, grow faster, work harder.

Now halfway through this strange year, we’ve learned that anything really is possible—if by “anything” we mean a global pandemic claiming hundreds of thousands of lives and completely upending our world. No one expected an era devoid of suffering, but we certainly didn’t expect this.

Overnight our carefully planned lives were replaced with nothing but uncertainty. Our goals of working harder and growing faster replaced with sitting still and staying home. We find ourselves mourning the everyday: going out to eat, seeing our loved ones and greeting a friend with a hug.

Floridians are no strangers to tragedy and uncertainty. After all, we spend half of every year bracing for monster hurricanes that could wipe our towns off the map. And when they do, we mourn, come together and rebuild. Always.

Being a Floridian means finding the sunshine even when our state doesn’t live up to the name. Even when we’re in the midst of a global pandemic.

We wanted to know how some of our state’s most notable and noteworthy citizens have been coping, creating and adapting during this time. Our Sunshine State of Mind series comprises virtual fireside chats with everyone from famous chefs to Grammy Award-winning musicians to iconic authors to extraordinary athletes and more. They share with us personal stories of how they’ve used their time over the past three months to slow down (or not) and get into the right Sunshine State of mind. Each week, we’ll release a new set of conversations with some of our state’s best. This week, we start with a group whose industry has been irreversibly impacted by COVID-19: famous Floridian chefs.


Chef Art Smith explores Micanopy. Photography courtesy of Art Smith

The Jasper-bred king of comfort food is well-acquainted with the limelight. He’s built a star-studded culinary career, cooking for Lady Gaga, former Florida governors and even holding the title of Oprah’s personal chef for a time. But during this COVID-19 quarantine, Smith found himself in the headlines for a reason entirely unrelated to chicken and waffles.

His unexpected house guest: I had a guest that showed up at my house, Lucas Cancelier, a professional rugby player. He came to see me, and it was just a visit on his way to Spain.  Unfortunately, he got stuck with us because he couldn’t get back to Spain because of COVID. I started chatting with him about my health and, and he said, “Well, instead of talking about it why don’t you do something?”

The beginning of his fitness journey: I got really engaged with working out and started with walking and then started a little jogging. At the time I was my largest I’ve been in a long time: 330 pounds. So I’ve lost to date now close to 80 pounds.

(Left) Chef Art Smith before his quarantine fitness journey and after (right). Photography courtesy of Art Smith

How it sparked a new culinary show: [Lucas] missed his family so much and his friends, he started this virtual health and wellness fitness class. So he does it three times a week and blows it up. There’s thousands of people that watch it. He said to me, “Art you really should do recipes.” I said “Well I’m not sure people watch it.” He said, “Yes they will.” So I started my virtual cooking series called Healthy Comfort, and it just took off.

Why Florida is a culinary paradise: I think it’s an amazing state, and we also have a diversity that no other has. We grow amazing food and fruits. We have a very diverse community that creates all kinds of amazing food. I mean because for me, Florida is Key lime pie and swamp cabbage salad or some of these other things. But for me Florida is [also] Cuban sandwiches. Florida is jerk chicken. We are a melting pot of all these cultures, and I think it’s important that we portray that, as well as the great people behind that grow the food and cook the food.

Art Smith works out with the cows at Shenandoah Dairy farm in Live Oak. Photography courtesy of Art Smith


Chef Michelle Bernstein talks about the upsides of quarantine. Photography by Michael Pisarri

This James Beard Award-winning chef, known for her infectious smile that transforms any stranger into an immediate friend, has been quarantining at home in Miami with her husband and son. The celebrated chef has been on an impressive tear, running lauded restaurants; recently opening the doors to her new venture, Cafe la Trova and helping to feed the immigrant workforce during the pandemic. But this quarantine has taught Bernstein things about herself besides that she can whip up the world’s best cuban sandwich.

The surprising effect of COVID-19: Secretly, I kind of love a big part of it in the respect that I’ve always been a really busy chef. I became a mother somewhat late in life in the middle of having a lot of jobs and a lot of responsibilities. So for the first time in my life, I get to see everything my son does during a very unusual day at school. I get to be a housewife, which I’ve always hinted to my husband that I always wanted to know what that was like. I get to cook every meal for and eat with my family. It’s kind of rewarding. I’ve never been one to be able to clean the house every day, do the laundry. I know this is all mundane and a lot of people get to do this, but I’m doing things that I normally would never have had the time to do.

How South Florida will pull through the pandemic: We’re all in it together. We are neighbors. We’ll do anything we have to help each other. And we’ll come out of this. We always do. We’re in hurricane mode right now. We put on our hurricane hats. And this might not be something we’re accustomed to because it’s not a hurricane, but that’s how we are. We’re used to fighting so that’s what we’re going to keep on doing.

Her favorite thing about being a Floridian: I love the heat. It makes me feel alive. I’m cold all the time indoors. I hate air conditioning, and don’t get me wrong, I need it, but I just feel like myself in the heat.

Why she’ll never leave Florida:  This is my home. This is my culture. This is my language. I’m very much a part of it and it is a part of me. I helped build this city culinary wise, and this is just my flavor, you know? I’m a Latin Jewish woman, and it’s very accepting of that.


The founding father of New World Cuisine has been busy tackling several new projects during quarantine. Photography courtesy of Norman Van Aken

Chef Norman Van Aken has no shortage of accolades. You can find his name in the list of Who’s Who in American Food and Beverage from the James Beard Foundation. He was a semi-finalist for the foundation’s Best Chef in America award. He’s penned six cookbooks and been crowned “the founding father of New World Cuisine.” If you’re looking for someone that melds all the flavors and cultural influences of Florida into one mouthwatering culinary dish, Van Aken is your man. But running multiple adored restaurants, making television appearances and writing cookbooks leaves little time for reminiscing. So during the stay-at-home period, Van Aken did just that.

Why he built his culinary career in Florida: I think it was a calling of kind. From a food standpoint and a food culture standpoint, I felt like we had deep roots. I felt like it is this nexus between the Caribbean and Latin America and the southern tip of Florida, where I was cooking was just right for someone to come along and utilize it.

His latest project preserves his legacy: The University of Miami asked me if I would be willing to do the first culinary collections for the University of Miami, which does have the culinary collections of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and other historical figures. But the woman who was head of special collections, Cristina Favretto, interviewed me about two years ago, and so she asked me if I saved my stuff over the years and would I consider having them part of a Norman Van Aken collection. So when I learned more about how they did things—and this was before the quarantining, before the virus was known—we visited the library and saw the collections that they had on me and how beautifully they keep those things and share those things. So I was very impressed with that, and I decided that I would try it.

Norman at a neighborhood restaurant in The Keys with his granddaughter Audrey Quinn and his wife, Janet. Photography courtesy of Norman Van Aken

What this trip down memory lane has taught him: I think that the silver lining in [the virus] is it has caused people, some people anyway, the realization that a life that’s slower can be a life that is more gratifying. You feel like you can never ever catch up. If you can pay attention to your life and give it some time and not just live at breakneck speed, you get more out of it.