Sweet Life, Sweet Oak
The city of Wonju, in Gangwon Province, is only about 90 minutes from Seoul. However, when Augustin Flores, a native of Guam and former resident of Seoul, moved to Wonju to open Sweet Oak Kitchen and Smokehouse, an American-style barbecue restaurant, he took a considerably longer route to get there — one that took him literally all around the world.
In December 2015, Flores opened Sweet Oak, a modern, sophisticated yet simple take on barbecue featuring pulled pork, chicken, homemade sausages, sides and a hefty portion of experimentation.
The eatery was an immediate hit with the local expat community and Korean customers were not far behind. Flores, who first moved to Seoul in 2009, worked in publishing and design before conceiving of the idea for Sweet Oak idea almost three years prior to the restaurant’s opening.
“I wish I had an interesting backstory of growing up around an uncle’s smokehouse in the South, or some other culinary upbringing like cooking with an Italian grandmother, but the truth is, I was a binge drinker when I lived in Seoul and on the days I was hungover, I would binge-watch food instructional videos and food shows on Youtube 12-to-14 hours straight,” said Flores.
On one such day, Flores made a decision that changed his life. He decided he had soaked up enough of the Seoul lifestyle and said, “Fuck it, I’m going to culinary school.” He moved to London and enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu culinary school and cleaned up his life. A career as a chef became an almost singular focus – almost. Shortly after arriving in London, Flores met Euna Kim, a native of Gimhae, who was working at Heathrow Airport at the time.
“I was eating and learning how to cook amazing food, traveling around Europe and in love. That summer we moved to Sydney on a whim where we lived in this old studio apartment that had this stunning panoramic, bright, blue and sunny view of the harbor. It was the best year of my life,” said Flores.
“In Sydney, I wanted to work in small, independently run restaurants and kitchens where I could learn more that would apply to my small-business goals. I wasn’t very interested in working for big hotel kitchens, where I would be cracking a thousand eggs for a buffet dish. I wanted to learn how kitchens processed orders, how they set up and and broke down each service, how they prepped foods and managed their kitchens,” he said.
After Sydney, Flores embarked upon a trip across the Southern US, during which he had the chance to learn from celebrity pitmaster Myron Mixon at his home in Georgia. Mixon provided him with valuable advice on piecing together the menu for Sweet Oak. It was not the first time Flores had learned from a legend. Two years before, he attended a barbecue cooking class at the house of Harry Soo. “It was the first time I tried real competition-level American barbecue. To this day, nothing else I’ve tried has come close,” he says. “It was a blessing and a curse — a blessing because it gave me a good benchmark to aim for when I cook, a curse because, as far as eating American barbecue goes, it was all downhill from there. Harry Soo’s brisket was not just the best barbecue brisket I’ve eaten; it was the best beef anything I’ve eaten.”
Sweet Oak is located in a burgeoning new commercial neighborhood in Wonju. Flores had two top of the line Lang 84″ Kitchen Deluxe Smoker Cookers shipped to Korea, which gently cook Sweet Oak’s meats to perfection each morning. As the name suggests, Flores burns Korean oak in his smoker.
“The choice of wood of most cookers is determined by what is available in the region. Anyone can experiment with a variety of woods wherever they live, but if you’re cooking as often as restaurants do, you’re usually using what’s plentiful in the area. I chose oak because it’s a sustainable hardwood that is abundant throughout the country and because of its versatility as a smoking wood with a mild flavor. Korea already has a history of using oak for grilling, so it was very easy to find several suppliers close to me who already prepared and cured wood for cooking use.”
He says Sweet Oak’s most popular dishes have been the chicken, pulled pork poutine and pulled pork sliders. “Pulled pork by itself among Koreans gets mixed reviews. Personally, I’m really happy with our two wood fire-grilled chicken styles. We do a Guam/Hawaii-style marinade and a Portuguese-style spicy Piri Piri wet rub, both go well with the Korean palate.” Flores regularly experiments with different menu items such a housemade spicy chorizo sausage, galbi-marinated wagyu brisket and smoked beef rib fingers.
Like a lot of Western restaurants in Korea, Sweet Oak has had to tackle the challenge of creating a menu that is authentic enough to gain credibility with a discerning North American expat clientele while also appealing to Korean customers. Instead of incorporating Korean ingredients, Flores opted to import flavors he thought his Korean customers would like. “For example, our island-style marinade, which probably historically has roots in Japanese and Korean barbecue anyway, is umami flavor profiled, a flavor Koreans are accustomed to. Koreans love spicy foods, and our Piri Piri chicken is spicy, but not a local kind of spicy.”
While Linus and Manimal have provided proof of concept and become household names in Itaewon, Flores says he’s happy he started his restaurant in Wonju and he’s been able to prove his detractors wrong. “Everyone was telling me it was a bad idea; that it wouldn’t work in a town with more conservative eating habits. I knew I would do much better in a bigger city, but I had to think of my gross national happiness as well, and at the time, living and working in a small town, earning a happy amount and perhaps starting a family, sounded nice,” said Flores, who married Euna Kim in April
Flores gives plenty of credit to his wife, who he says runs the show. “Prior to Sweet Oak, I knew Euna as my significant other, travel buddy and best friend. I had absolutely no idea how much of a small business management machine this woman was. I don’t think she knew either.”
Flores, who no longer drinks alcohol, had a year-long inspirational journey that lead him to this point. As heartwarming as his story may be, the pulled pork at Sweet Oak is even better.
Opening hours: Open nightly from 6pm to 1am. Closed Tuesdays.
Address: Gangwondo, Wonju, Musil-Dong, Bongbawi-Gil 76-2
무실동, 봉바위길 76-2
Transport: Buses from Seoul’s Express Bus Terminal to Wonju leave every 20-30 minutes. The ride takes about 90 minutes. The restaurant is a KRW 3,000 taxi ride from Wonju Station (원주시외버스 터미널).