Cancer, Diabetes, and Glaucoma Can't Stop Restaurateur Richard Hales

Over the past eight years, Hales has struggled with a seemingly ever-expanding list of health problems while building some of Miami's best-known restaurants.
Over the past eight years, Hales has struggled with a seemingly ever-expanding list of health problems while building some of Miami's best-known restaurants. Photo by Karli Evans

"Hello, my love. If the unspeakable happens, this is what I want you to do with the assets and businesses."

So began what Richard Hales thought would be the last letter he would send to his wife Jenny. It arrived January 1, 2019, seven days before surgery to remove the tumor that had been growing in the back right portion of his head for eight years.

The 48-year-old restaurateur said his 1964 Buick Riviera and 2016 Dodge Hellcat could net around $75,000. She could get $700,000 for the standout Midtown Chinese spot, Blackbrick, plus $200,000 if the buyer wanted the liquor license. The Korean-fusion place, Sakaya Kitchen, could maybe be franchised to create a steady stream of income for Jenny and their daughters, 9-year-old Lily and 7-year-old Violet.

If there were any problems, he added, she should call his friend and Food Network star Guy Fieri's attorney.

"All will be fine, my love," he wrote in closing. "But if not, I want you prepared."

Jenny — who is 38 years old, has big brown eyes, and, like her husband, sports a collection of tattoos on her arms — was at home when she received the missive. "I didn't want to read it. I couldn't," she says. "But I needed to be strong for our family."

Hales stands at an imposing six-foot-four and weighs 290 pounds. Over the past eight years, he has struggled with a seemingly ever-expanding list of health problems, including two kinds of cancer and diabetes while building some of Miami's best-known restaurants.

His days are almost unbearable marathons of doctors' appointments, kitchen work, surgeries, paperwork, medication, and TV appearances. And though many people slow down when death lurks, Hales has sped up over the past five years.

"Sometimes I think about it all and am like, Fuck, but then I look at my life and I have Jenny, I have my kids, I have successful businesses, I have nothing to complain about," he says while sitting at his fast-casual spot, Sakaya Kitchen, and working through a Korean hot dog ($8) topped with tater tots, house mustard, and kimchee slaw.

click to enlarge One would think that, at some point, Hales would've slowed down or pulled back. The warnings and repeated surgeries just pushed him to be more ambitious, no matter the cost. - PHOTO BY KARLI EVANS
One would think that, at some point, Hales would've slowed down or pulled back. The warnings and repeated surgeries just pushed him to be more ambitious, no matter the cost.
Photo by Karli Evans

Hales was raised for a life in restaurants. He grew up in Tampa and was especially close to his Filipina grandmother, Corazon Donahey. It was her powerfully flavored cuisine that gripped him most tightly, even when he was young.

"I would show up at her house, and she'd have a huge pot of chicken or pork adobo going, a pot of rice, lumpia, [a coconut-rice cake called] bibingka, a massive platter of bacon stacked half a foot high, and a box of Twinkies," he says.

After high school, he attended college and ran a commercial bakery. Soon, however, his interests in bread waned, so he moved to New York City and enrolled in the prestigious French Culinary Institute, which is now known as the International Culinary Center. During the end of his schooling and afterward, he landed a job working for the iconic French chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten and at La Grenouille, a temple of classical gastronomy situated a block from St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan.

Soon, though, he tired of America. So he hopped a flight to Asia and spent months traveling through Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Korea, Hong Kong, China, and Japan. He worked in kitchens, often for free, picking up techniques and recipes along the way.

It wasn't long before he was out of money. So with few options and thousands of miles from home, he accepted an offer to help open Vongerichten's Hong Kong outpost, Vong. The move 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. After some corporate shuffling, he became the sommelier at the hotel's restaurant, Azul, which was then run by Michelle Bernstein.

In 2001, Hales — along with a cook and a server from Azul — spent a rowdy night at Miami Beach's Purdy Lounge. The three noticed a trio of girls. One of Hales' friends decided that pointing out the numerical congruence would be a strong pickup line.

It somehow worked. But then Hales, in his drunken state, decided Jenny was too pretty for his friend and pulled her away, into his arms.

"When I realized what I'd done, I knew I was lucky because she was laughing at me, some kind of Neanderthal," Hales recalls.

He soon got into a fight with another patron, but just before being kicked out, he procured a few more shots and Jenny's phone number. But he was so drunk he forgot her name and wrote her phone number wrong. Miraculously, he was able to trial-and-error his way to the right digits. When he finally got through, he called her "Puma," for the Puma shirt she wore that first night. It stuck during their first three dates. They were engaged in 2005 and married in 2006 in a small ceremony in California's Napa Valley.

After spending years in high-end restaurants, Hales longed to return to the cuisine that hypnotized him when he was young. Though he was steeped in classic French flavors and techniques, the salty, savory, piquant notes of his grandmother's cooking called.

"Growing up, I really attached myself to Filipino culture, particularly the food," he says. "I grew up with soy, vinegar, garlic, the Filipino staples. I understand the balance. It's in my palate. It's what I know the best."

Much of that came out when he opened Sakaya Kitchen in 2009. The restaurant offered his grandmother's Filipino egg rolls, called lumpia, alongside steamed buns filled with pickles and fatty roast pork. There was a plethora of Korean street foods such as kimchee, sweet soy-marinated beef bulgogi wraps, and spicy, crackly chicken wings. The place quickly became a reason to visit the then largely undeveloped stretch of land known as Midtown Miami. At the time, the area had little more than a Target, but with the opening of spots such as Salumeria 104 and the gelato shop Latteria Italiana, it became a dining destination.

Soon diners filled Sakaya, and technicolor food trucks swarmed the city. And in 2010, Hales' spinoff on wheels, Dim Ssäm à Gogo, opened and became a regular at food truck rallies.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY KARLI EVANS
Photo by Karli Evans

His first health scare came in summer 2011, when four burglars tried to break into his 1970s single-story house in North Miami. He and his older brother Bobby, in town for a visit, flashed handguns and scared off the would-be robbers. Richard then spent a sleepless night on the couch while clutching his gun to his chest. In the morning he was dazed but dragged himself out of the house and to Sakaya to work the grill and fry station. He was near collapse.

"When I closed the restaurant, I could barely walk out of the place," he recalls. "I was hugging the wall, and I still drove home like an idiot."

The next day, he visited a doctor. Days of tests followed before Hales learned he had a slow-growing brain tumor called a meningioma. "It was like somebody shot me in the gut — all of the breath went out of me," he says. "I thought, I'm going to die. I'm done. This is it."

The next six months were hell. Skull-splitting headaches and vomiting became part of everyday life. Although the tumor didn't need to be immediately removed, it required careful monitoring. It was a hair's width from a blood vessel that could burst or clot if placed under pressure.

And while business was booming, he felt so ill that maintaining daily focus was nearly impossible. It didn't matter.

That same year, he opened a second Sakaya Kitchen, in downtown Miami. And New Times named Dim Ssäm à Gogo the city's best food truck; it even made a cameo on the South Florida episode of Anthony Bourdain's CNN series, The Layover.

But the brain tumor forced Hales to face his own mortality. The thought of his daughters growing up without a father was too much to bear. So he began regularly taking medications, fasting, and exercising. He also switched to a vegan diet. By 2014, he'd lost 70 pounds. But then another round of testing revealed he'd developed diabetes. He also had glaucoma, which led to floating black spots in his vision and regular appointments at Bascom Palmer Eye Institute.

"I was floored," says Hales, who was then 43 years old, "especially considering I'd just spent the last year doing all this shit."

There was no time to slow down. In 2015, the downtown Sakaya Kitchen became a Mexican spot called Centro Taco, which offered tortillas pressed from house-made corn dough. While tearing apart and rebuilding that restaurant, he inked a lucrative deal with Hyatt to take over the poolside, room service, and catering operations of the sprawling Miami Beach resort the Confidante.

At the time, the nation was in the midst of a fried-chicken craze, sparked by Nashville's legendary Prince's Hot Chicken. Hales spent months roaming the South, from Charleston in the east to Houston in the west, culling his favorite ingredients and techniques. In 2016, he opened the Southern-style restaurant Bird & Bone, offering a tame version of Nashville hot chicken, seared scallops with Sea Island peas, and possibly Miami Beach's best cheeseburger.

Though many people slow down when death lurks, Hales has sped up.

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The eatery boasts an alluring patio filled with rustling foliage and lit by pale-amber string lights that infuse the evening with a relaxing glow.

The next year, Hales' health problems grew even more serious. A yearlong bout of bronchitis landed him in the hospital for another gauntlet of tests. Doctors noticed something in his throat. At an MRI, a technician refused to let him leave the office without promising to immediately see a specialist.

"He grabbed my arm, looked me in the eye, and said, 'You need to go, now,'" Hales recalls.

It was thyroid cancer, but he was also in the midst of getting the 5-month-old Bird & Bone off the ground. He decided to delay surgery as long as possible.

"We were finishing up construction and planning a grand opening," Hales says. "I was working every day."

In the middle of scans for his upcoming throat operation, doctors learned his brain tumor was growing again. For a moment, it was as though time stood still. No one seemed to know what to do. At first, doctors accidentally scheduled Hales for throat and brain surgery during consecutive weeks. But then they decided to remove two-thirds of his thyroid in September 2018 and wait for him to heal.

That surgery went well, but the scariest one was still to come. Doctors would peel back his scalp, saw open his skull, and remove the offending tumor. Hales asked for the surgery to be delayed until after the holidays. He needed time to get the businesses set up in case the worst happened. All the while, he was on the verge of breaking down but was afraid to reveal the situation to those closest to him.

"I was terrified of dying," he says. "My doctors said there was only a 5 percent chance of death, but then your brain starts churning and you think, Am I part of that 5 percent?"

It was also impossible to find time to cope with what was happening. Hales' girls were growing, going to school, developing personalities, and becoming people in their own right. Jenny, who says she now sees a therapist, remained eerily calm as she raised the girls while helping Richard through the restaurant openings and doctors' appointments.

"I held everything in like a pent-up box and eventually got to a point where I was about to burst," she says. "I never wanted him to see me break down; I don't want the girls to see me break down."

At one point, Richard demanded she say something. "I knew she was trying to be strong, but I said, 'Cry, be mad, be something. Don't act like nothing is happening,'" he recalls. "I didn't want her to explode or implode. She was helping me with the business and taking care of our daughters."

Still, there was no way to hide what was happening from Lily and Violet. They had become adjusted to the reality of constant illness, but explaining the brain surgery presented a new challenge. Richard and Jenny told the girls that Daddy was having a tiny squirrel implanted in his brain to help him with work. They said he would become a superhero with a metal skull.

"We also had to tell them it's going to be scary," Richard recalls, "because when he comes out of the operation, Daddy is going to look like shit." Each girl coped with it differently. Every new illness and doctor visit was earth-shattering for his younger daughter, Violet, who would simply fall apart. His older daughter, Lily, was calmer once she knew her father was through the worst.

There still wasn't time to slow down. With each new twist, Hales felt an ever more pressing need to work. The tumor had grown just enough to pressure nerves, causing him to lose his sight in his right eye.

"I'm looking at my mortality and saying, Oh, shit I need to develop more stuff. I need to get Sakaya franchised. I need to get all of these things done in case something does happen to me so Jenny and the kids have more support." he recalls. "And I didn't only have my family; I had all of my employees. I had to keep pushing," he says.

At the time, virtually none of the 90 or so people spread across his four restaurants had a clue about the serious threat to his life.

click to enlarge Jenny and Richard Hales told their daughters, Lily and Violet (far right), that after his brain surgery, Daddy would become a superhero with a metal skull. - PHOTO BY KARLI EVANS
Jenny and Richard Hales told their daughters, Lily and Violet (far right), that after his brain surgery, Daddy would become a superhero with a metal skull.
Photo by Karli Evans

It was impossible to decide what to tell staff and what to keep quiet. The restaurant industry pays notoriously low wages, particularly to those working in the kitchen, and any inkling of a management problem, or the impending death of the owner, could send workers scattering to the wind.

"You don't want people to lose focus or be scared," Hales says.

Early on the morning of January 7, Hales was wheeled into an operating room at Jackson Memorial Hospital and placed under anesthesia. Doctors bolted his head to the table so he couldn't move and give himself brain damage. His scalp was shaved and then unzipped like a jacket. Doctors sawed a lemon-sized circle out of the back of his skull and spent the next four hours carefully removing the tumor that had impinged upon his optic nerve. Once it was out, they screwed on a titanium plate to cover their work.

Almost immediately after coming out of the haze of brain surgery, Hales sent a text to some of his managers: "I'm not dead, now get to work," it joked.

"Richard never showed any kind of weakness or sickness," says Patricia Manigat, an assistant manager and four-year veteran of Sakaya. "I remember him coming in one day with a hospital bracelet on, asking if he was OK, and he said, 'Shit,' and pulled it off. He was trying to keep it from us so we wouldn't worry."

While recuperating from brain surgery, he asked his cooks to deliver heaps of ingredients to his house so he could test fried chicken recipes. There, wearing a bathrobe and with a bandaged head, he worked on two new sauces and a frying technique.

About three weeks after surgery, he was back in his chef's whites dishing out Korean fried chicken at a block party for the Little Haiti food hall the Citadel, which houses his latest Sakaya Kitchen outpost. Less than two weeks later, he was on a plane bound for Atlanta, where he and a small crew served 1,200 pieces of fried chicken at a Super Bowl tailgate.

One would think that, at some point, Hales would've slowed down or pulled back. But the warnings and repeated surgeries just pushed him to be more ambitious, no matter the cost.

And it's not over yet. There's still another very small, benign tumor lodged in his head. He'll need an MRI every six months for the rest of his life. Before his brain surgery, doctors found the tissue in his right thyroid behaving oddly and want him back for surgery, again, once his head heals.

In the meantime, he's still not planning on slowing down. He's preparing to open a slow-smoked meat spot called Society BBQ, offering an old-school market-style setup with meats weighed out and served on butcher paper. That, after all, is how it was done in Texas, where barbecue got its start, he explains.

"His will is so strong," Jenny says. "It's what keeps our family going."

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Zachary Fagenson became the New Times Broward-Palm Beach restaurant critic in 2012 before taking up the post for Miami in 2014. He also works as a correspondent for Reuters.
Contact: Zachary Fagenson