Nashville hot chicken is the centerpiece of the menu at Bird & Bone.
Nashville hot chicken is the centerpiece of the menu at Bird & Bone.
Photo by CandaceWest.com

With Bird & Bone, Richard Hales Tries the South

It was December, when Richard Hales' Southern spot, Bird & Bone, had just opened inside the Confidante Miami Beach, that he realized he was out of place. He was standing behind a weathered wood-framed bar turning out smoky Aperol spritzes and bites of auburn fried chicken when a group of drunken, scantily clad vacationers cozied up to him. They had just learned he was the chef.

"They were oohing and ahhing, and before long, they were practically hanging off me," Hales recalls. "I texted my wife and said, 'I forgot this place exists. It's unreal.'"

If Hales forgot about the gaudy excesses of Miami Beach, it's because he's the last chef one might expect to open a place here. The 46-year-old has a salt-and-pepper goatee that ends in a sharp point and matches a wave of swooping hair. He stands six-foot-four and weighs in at 300 pounds.

Hales was born in Louisiana, but his family relocated to Tampa when he was small. He was raised on a steady diet of gumbo and étouffée. At the age of 20, he opened a small bakery delivery business that he ran for about six years before realizing he wanted something more.

He soon decamped to New York City and enrolled in the French Culinary Institute. After graduating in the mid-'90s, he went to work at La Grenouille, a temple of classic French gastronomy situated a block from St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan. Soon, though, he tired of the place and wanted to get as far away as possible. He hopped a flight to Asia and spent months traveling through Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Korea, Hong Kong, China, and Japan. He often worked in kitchens for free, picking up techniques and recipes along the way.

Before long, he ran out of money. So he took up an offer from a friend to help open Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Hong Kong outpost, Vong. That led Hales back to the United States, to the Mandarin Oriental Miami, which hired him in 2000 to be the Brickell property's Asian chef (Hales is half Filipino). After some corporate shuffling, he unexpectedly became the sommelier at the hotel's restaurant Azul, then run by Michelle Bernstein.

Pan-seared sea scallops
Pan-seared sea scallops
Photo by CandaceWest.com

He studied to take the master sommelier exam — the terrifying, almost impossible test that demands oenophiles identify the region, year, and maker of a wine by smell and taste alone. Hales didn't pass (due in part to Adderall-induced anxiety) but was promoted to corporate wine director in charge of writing wine lists for all of the company's properties.

After a short while, he again grew dissatisfied. "You were using a finished product to enhance a dish, like squeezing a lemon," he explains. "I wanted to create."

With years of Asian cooking under his belt, he took out a lease in a then all-but-deserted midtown space and in 2010 opened Sakaya Kitchen. It was an informal place that served the kind of food he liked to eat: ingredient-centric and Korean-leaning, with a dichotomy of sweet and spicy. His restaurant became known for pillowy pork buns, which were then enjoying booming popularity, alongside Korean fried chicken and a cilantro-flecked duck sandwich, giving the place the momentum it still enjoys.

In late 2013, he pivoted slightly, opening Blackbrick Chinese just a two-minute walk away. There, he opted for table service in an industrial space lined with portraits of Bill Murray and Bruce Lee and a central communal table tagged with local artist AholSniffsGlue's unmistakable droopy eyes.

The menu during the day included a lengthy list of dim sum, ranging from chicken-thigh-filled rice to Peking duck dumplings. At night, the kitchen switched to fatty lamb chops crusted in a cumin shell and the rice porridge congee filled with sweet char siu pork and numbing Sichuan chili oil.

Then, in 2015, the never-content Hales tried something altogether new: Centro Taco. It felt like he was trying to capitalize on the taco mania that was just taking hold in Miami. The place lasted a mere three months.

Around this time, his then-3-year-old daughter asked him why he was tired all the time. He swore off meat after doctors gave him an ultimatum: Change your diet or die. He weighed more than 350 pounds. "I knew I had to do something different," he recalls.

Bird & Bone burger
Bird & Bone burger
Photo by CandaceWest.com

Bird & Bone became Hales' latest something different. The seeds were planted about four years ago during an unplanned road trip to Savannah. Before then, he and his family had spent at least one month each year traveling. There was Barcelona and Oslo, and after a weekend in Savannah, Hales began making loops through the American South.

"I was staying in an Airbnb on one of those Europe trips and was talking about American cuisine with the owner of the place, who said it's all hot dogs, pizza, burgers, and cotton candy," Hales says. "Those things have their place, but that's not American food."

What American food is, he says, is the cuisine of the American South that's championed by chefs such as New Orleans' Sean Brock and Donald Link. Many of those Southern chefs have been working for years to revive the crops that once thrived across the region and have been replaced by monoculture.

When Hyatt in 2016 purchased the Thompson hotel and parted ways with Bernstein's Seagrape, the company began searching for a local operator to take over its three-meal-a-day restaurant. Hales was presented with a seven-year contract backed by massive investment. It seemed too good to pass up.

Now the red-and-black-tattooed Hales faces a new set of challenges. At Bird & Bone, he has to devise a menu that will appeal to hotel visitors while also fulfilling him as a cook. There's little space to see if chicken gizzards, chitterlings, or liver and onions will sell. Yet there are buffalo sweetbreads — silky nuggets of thymus gland encased in a crisp, vinegary crust peppered with spices and drizzled with honey.

They work as a sidekick to Hales' Nashville hot chicken — the centerpiece of the menu and yet another nationwide trend he's brought to Miami. Hales' version is far less aggressive than the one found at Asheville institutions such as Prince's Hot Chicken Shack. He separates whole birds from their carcasses and then brines them in a simple salt solution that leaves every fiber, even those in the breast, as juicy as a ripe mango. The meat is seasoned with a blend of cayenne pepper, hot paprika, ground mustard, and garlic before being fried to a golden brown just barely tinged crimson thanks to all of the pepper. After the bird gets a drizzling of honey, the spice, which is the trademark of this style of fried chicken, hardly comes through.

Nashville hot sweetbread
Nashville hot sweetbread
Photo by CandaceWest.com

His greatest successes, though, come when he's not concentrating on the dishes of the moment. Take, for instance, the black-eyed pea soup. It's a delicate affair that begins by turning all of the Benton's country ham bones the kitchen has left over from its ham platters into a simple stock. Red peas from South Carolina's Sea Islands are provided by Anson Mills, simmered until tender, and then tossed in the broth with aromatics, a dab of Tabasco-infused butter, and a touch of white vinegar to cut the richness. A faint hint of lemon zest does the same while adding a fragrant perfume that complements the beans' nutty flavor.

Skip the shrimp and grits. Instead, opt for scallops, which hit all the same pleasure points as the soup. Fat bivalves are perfectly seared, still creamy in the center, and perched atop a mound of what can be described only as rice and beans in the style of moros. In the South, they call it Hoppin' John. It starts with that ham stock, this time thickened with a purée of red peas. Carolina Gold rice, an Anson Mills staple treasured by chefs across the South, is parboiled and then tossed into the purée with whole beans and allowed to simmer until tender. The scallops are rested atop an aromatic concoction that's finished with a sauce of Tabasco, white wine vinegar, leeks, garlic, and shallots. The vinegar foils the scallops' richness. The spice tempers the slightly sweet Hoppin' John, and the French-style aromatics lift it all far beyond your home kitchen.

Such dishes are reason to hope. Though Hales can't experiment as freely as he's done in his other projects, he's not phoning it in as so many chefs do in Miami Beach. And with hefty financial support eliminating worries about making rent each month, he just might have enough freedom to finesse this concept into a statement about the South rather than a purveyor of fleeting trends.

Bird & Bone
4041 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; 305-424-1234; theconfidantemiamibeach.hyatt.com. Sunday through Thursday 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Nashville hot sweetbread $15

Florida cheddar and chive biscuit $7

Black-eyed pea soup $9

Pan-seared sea scallops $27

Nashville hot chicken $28

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