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Richard Hales: Interview, Part Two

Shishito Peppers at Blackbrick, photo by lee kleinCorona Farms Okra with Sichuan Bean Sauce at Blackbrick, photo by lee kleinRis de veau á l’orange at Blackbrick, photo by lee kleinSwank Farms Eggplant with House Hoisin Sauce at Blackbrick, photo by lee kleinBourbon Trifle at Blackbrick, photo by lee klein

After conducting an interview with Richard Hales at his Midtown Sakaya Kitchen, we crossed the Great Lawn at Midtown to his Blackbrick Chinese restaurant, where I was treated to lunch with my wife and a friend. The photos in this post are from that meal, and while I’m not going to individually “review” them, I will say that the vegetables were exceedingly fresh and vibrantly sauced, and the ris de veau á l’orange were brilliant.

Part One of the interview focused on the trials and tribulations of opening Sakaya Kitchen. This segment includes talk about Blackbrick, a resistance to fusion, and where Hales likes to eat.

ON NOTING THAT HE WAS COOKING AT BLACKBRICK WHEN I ENTERED

Yeah, and I’ll be cooking there tonight. I want to make money.  I want things to be comfortable for my kids and my wife; I want them to be set. And I want to be comfortable. I like toys, I like cars...The first two years at Sakaya, and the food truck, it got me a Rolex, it got me a Porsche, it got me all of that stuff. And I was thinking, again naively, “Okay, this will last forever, you're bulletproof, you can open up anywhere you want.’ I used to say, whenever someone asked me about my plans for Sakaya, ‘Oh, we’re going to open twenty.’ But I realized that you not only have to have a very good product, you need to be smart and not just think you can replicate whatever magic you did at the beginning.

Ris de veau á l’orange at Blackbrick, photo by lee klein

FUSION

If you’re going to open a Chinese place, just open Chinese. If you’re going to open a Thai place, make it Thai. Kick ass on a small menu and forget all the Thai-sushi-Chinese stuff. I mean I understand -- even one of my chefs over at Blackbrick tells me we should do Pad Thai because it sells. I’m like, ‘We’re never going to do that.’

It’s funny, I always think of the scene in The Godfather, when Michael Corleone is trying to get out but keeps getting dragged back in. I’m trying to keep really specific and focused on a certain Chinese cuisine without using fusion. A lot of the time I see fireworks happening with the customers when I’m doing fusion. It’s what they want. So at the end of the day I gotta do what the customers want while trying to remain true to my vision.

Swank Farms Eggplant with House Hoisin Sauce at Blackbrick, photo by lee klein

THE RESISTANCE TOWARDS HIS SNOUT-TO-TAIL CONCEPT FOR BLACKBRICK

I was thinking ‘Okay, we’re going to do something different, lambs tongue and stuff like that,' and people went ‘Where’s the honey chicken?’ I’ve said this in interviews and I hate it to be taken in the wrong way. Look, I appreciate everybody’s palate. You can eat what you want. But I just feel like I’ve really sacrificed a lot for Blackbrick. I put four hundred thousand dollars into it. I sold the Rolex (shows me his bare wrist). I sold the Porsche. I mean I had a loan shark, this guy was going to break my fucking kneecaps or something -- I mean I didn’t know what he was going to do to be honest, I could only go on what the movies tell you. So because I sacrificed so much, it kind of affected me more. But I learned very quickly that it doesn’t matter if you give somebody something different. It has to be good to the right amount of people or otherwise you go out of business. There’s no, ‘Hey, cool, thanks for doing something different.’

There is a certain group of people that do that, and I appreciate those people. They tell me ‘Keep doing what you’re doing, I love that stuff.’ But unfortunately there are not enough of those people right now to keep the business going.

Corona Farms Okra with Sichuan Bean Sauce at Blackbrick, photo by lee klein

FAVORITE PLACES TO EAT

I’ve been eating at Danny Serfer’s new place (Mignonette). I like his other place too, but I’m actually a vegan now. I’ve been almost all year, so I’m always trying to find good vegan and vegetarian places. I go to LOBA Restaurant; she’ll make me something vegetarian. I go to a place in North Miami called Konata’s. He has Jamaican patties, and makes just one hot meal a day and a soup – it’s mostly a takeout place, with a counter you can sit at. I've shown up at 1 o'clock in the afternoon and he'll have skipped out to do some shopping for food, so they don't serve anything until he gets back. But the food is really good.

I used to live in Surfside and I’d get breakfast at Josh’s Deli. I like what he’s doing. He’s a nutcase, but a good guy, and he’s there. I love Jimmy’s Diner -- the one on 125th.  They don’t say ‘Oh, you’re that chef.’ They don’t give a shit. I used to get a veal parmigiana sub there, with Ruffles potato chips and a side of dipping sauce. I love places like that. I wish we had a good diner here. Living in New York, walking down the street you can pop into any diner and get decent eggs and whatever.

I like to support the independent, small places. Not that I won’t go – I mean I like Makoto. It’s expensive, but I love sitting at the counter and eating sushi there.

Bourbon Trifle with Buffalo Trace Caramel and Homemade Fortune Cookies at Blackbrick, photo by lee klein

CHINESE FOOD

Before I opened Blackbrick I thought, ‘What do I know about Chinese?’ I mean other than eating it. I went over there, I did some trips, I saw things, I cooked in different places, but you can never eat through a whole country. I do everything creatively at Sakaya, but for Blackbrick I brought in a guy from Hong Kong (Chef Chok). He’s from ‘Henry’s China House’ in Ft. Lauderdale, which he owned for like twenty years. He’s helped me out a lot in terms of technique. I’d have the idea that I wanted to do this or that and we’d do it together. If I opened this like Sakaya, without any input, I’d just have any old run-of-the-mill Chinese food. I took a real risk by going out there. I think it’s paid off.

Blackbrick Chinese, photo courtesy Richard Hales