An Augusta area chef has set a high bar for his new Columbia County restaurant concept that is slated to open this spring.
Justin Hayes, executive chef at Jones Creek Golf Club and Columbia County-based caterer Katerwerks, is preparing to open a new “modern American fusion cuisine” restaurant called Cork & Flame after spending the last 11 years learning under several European and local chefs.
Hayes, who will be Cork & Flame’s executive chef and one of a few partners in the LLC, said the restaurant will set a new standard for fine dining in Columbia County. He also wants to open it before the start of the Masters Tournament this year.
“We’re looking at being the premiere Columbia County upscale restaurant but with some style behind it, so it’s not stuffy at all,” Hayes said.
Cork & Flame will be located at 4414 Evans to Locks Road, at the site of The Vineyard Wine Market. The wine shop will be moved next door, upgraded and incorporated into Cork & Flame as part of a single culinary experience.
Hayes described his vision for Cork & Flame as “the grand experience of going out and eating at a restaurant as what it should be.” Hayes’ description of the concept encapsulates, among other things, his desire for a menu without bounds, as long as the food patrons consume is sourced properly and cooked with excellence.
The 3,500 square-foot Cork & Flame (a 2,400 square-foot restaurant space and 1,100 square-foot wine shop) will seat upwards of 60 people and will feature an industrial open kitchen layout, Argentine-style grills, full bar, chef’s table dining experience, a private room seating 25-30 people and a high-end wine shop and wine bar complete with wine on tap. Three to five courses will be the standard in the dining room, with traditional tapas at the bar. Hayes is also working with local potter Harrison Hickman of Hickman Pottery to bring in over 1,500 pounds of clay for the dinnerware.
Hayes said The Vineyard coming under a new name is “not a farewell by any means” for the wine market, which opened 13 years ago.
“On my side, I don’t know if a whole lot will change other than we’ll be able to do more foods,” said Roger Strohl, the owner of The Vineyard. “We’ll be able to have small plates over there…and you can go around and get tastings of different (wines).”
Hayes’ inspiration for Cork & Flame was shaped by a wide variety of culinary and cultural influences that started in downtown’s food and beverage scene in the early 2000s.
After developing a love for creating high-quality food during stints at a few local restaurants, Hayes began to study under the late Heinz Sowinski, the widely respected and talented head chef at La Maison, where Hayes became Heinz’ sous-chef. Hayes continued honing his craft at 5 O’clock Bistro and Edgar’s Grille, where he became executive chef under Master Chef Marcel Biro, who had become the youngest Master Chef in Europe at the age of 24. Biro introduced Hayes to his own mentor Robert Rauh, for whom Hayes worked for several months at Rauh’s Plauen, Germany restaurant Mañana before returning to Augusta.
“With my travels through Germany and the chefs that I’ve worked under in the past, they’ve always had influences from other countries that took their cuisine to the next level,” Hayes said.
Around a year after returning to the United States, Hayes became the executive chef at Jones Creek Golf Club, where he co-founded Katerwerks and management and consulting firm JCI Management with the club’s general manager Ray Mundy. It was then that a few of Hayes’ friends in the food business came to them eager for a restaurant in Columbia County that would redefine culinary standards in a region that was lacking innovative fine dining options.
Soon after the 2017 Masters Tournament, the idea that would become Cork & Flame began to take shape.
“Did I always know that I wanted to own or run restaurants?” Hayes said. “Absolutely not. Did I know that it was a passion? For sure.”