At age 21, after being laid off, the Tampa native knew for certain that he needed to own his own business one day. A stint in business school, then culinary school in New York and travels in Asia as well as working as a cook, a sous chef, and a sommelier all prepared Hales to realize his dream.
We spoke with him about business, Thai, and what he feeds his children.
New Times: You went to business school. Why?
My parents were forcing me. My father wanted me to be a lawyer, my mother wanted me to be a doctor, and all I wanted to do was cook.
Did your work there prepare you for Sakaya?
Yeah, I was definitely exposed... my dad had his own business, I think I learned a lot from that. I actually dropped out, I didn't graduate, but what I did learn gave me a little bit of structure. When I go through things here, I do everything here, all the administrative work, I start to see, Oh, yeah, I remember that.
It's good to go to business school first. You went to the French Culinary Institute in New York. Now you make Asian cuisine. Do you also cook in the French style?
I can also cook classic French cuisine. Here at Sakaya, we use French technique. Our miso soup starts out with a classic stock. But it incorporates Asian ingredients.
Do you make Asian food at home, too?
I did prior to Sakaya Kitchen. Post Sakaya Kitchen, no, I don't make any Asian. I love to cook Italian food, and that's what I usually cook if I do cook anything at home.
Do you often not cook 'cause you're crazy cooking at work?
Since we opened the restaurant, I can probably count on one hand the times that I've actually cooked at home. I love to go out when I can to restaurants or do takeout or delivery. It's like my thing.
You have a family, too? A baby?
Two babies now.
Are you feeding them well as they grow up?
All organic, we eat tons of vegetables. Everything made fresh for them. We steam it, we puree it, we make our own baby food at home. We make our own dog food at home.
We should get your recipe for that! Are you a head chef who yells?
I'm good with these guys. It's like a family to me now, some of these guys have been with me since the very beginning, but I do yell.I think that's what's expected of you. But you also have to be nurturing, as well. I'm also a big man's man, but I also try to nurture these people and help them in any way I can.
How long did you travel in Asia?
I would do stints there for three months, one month, two months, from like the mid-Nineties to 2000, every year, I would go to Asia. I would say my favorite is Southeast Asia. And I love the way people eat in Asia in general. They know how to eat. The average person. They know how to balance their food with salt and heat and sweetness, and I love Thailand. I think the food there is so vibrant. I know how to cook Thai food very well. I don't do any of it here. Thailand taught me a lot about fresh food, vegetables, and street food. Which is what I base a lot of this stuff on.
And why don't you cook Thai here?
One of the goals when I opened Sakaya Kitchen was not to be like anyone else. And there's so many Thai/Japanese restaurants in this city.
It was a trend for so long, you got inundated with Thai food.
Like Asian food in Miami is, well, it was, it's changed in the last years -- considerably in the last year or so, if it wasn't Thai/Japanese, if it wasn't a place serving sushi and yellow curry, that's what Miami Asian restaurants were.
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Do you have a favorite Asian restaurant in town?
I was a big fan of Yakko San. I still am on certain items. I'm not crazy about everything there anymore. I think the weirdest go-to place that I have that I love to go to is Jimmy's Dinner, not the one here, but in North Miami. Such a simple place and everything comes out hot and fresh. I love that type of place.