From designing restaurants to opening his own

Posted at 8:01 AM, Nov 30, 2015
and last updated 2015-11-30 08:01:58-05

As part of a recurring series, WCPO contributor Anne David talks with artisans who left behind traditional careers to follow their passions into the food and beverage industry.

CINCINNATI -- “In Cincinnati, you say barbecue, and people think you’re smoking a pig,” Huit Craft BBQ owner Tobias Harris said with a laugh. “But in Asian culture, barbecue simply means cooking over an open fire.”

This type of open-fire cooking is the foundation and inspiration for the Asian-inspired menu at the downtown eatery.

But the popular restaurant only came to be after Harris spent more than a decade working with other restaurateurs to make their visions a reality. Before long, he was hungry to open his own eatery.

Seasoned designer scheming big

Harris came to the restaurant business through his first love, design. After studying at the Savannah College of Art and Design, Harris started his design career in Chicago, where he worked with Marvin Cooper, an expert retail strategist focused primarily on restaurant design.

“Marv really taught me about restaurant design: the flow, how every restaurant has to make you feel something, have soul,” Harris said.

In the early 2000s, Cincinnati-based design firm FRCH Design Worldwide recruited Harris. His work in the Queen City has focused on restaurant design as well, including many design iterations for the likes of McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Though his work was rooted in the design, functionality and user experience of quick-service restaurants, he still found beauty and heart in the seemingly mundane — the curve of the wall, the shape of the staircase, all elements of the creative interests he loved.

While designing for other restaurants, Harris craved his own restaurant experience.

“I loved working with my retail clients, but when the design work was done they took over for the actual operations of the restaurant,” Harris said. “I wanted to experience that side of the business for myself.”

Finding their flavor

In 2012, the idea for Huit started to take shape. Partnering with fellow architects Jennifer Ang and Trang Vo, the three discussed opening an Asian-influenced restaurant. The decision to focus on Asian cuisine felt natural, he said: Harris is Indonesian, Ang is Chinese-American and Vo is Vietnamese.

“In the beginning, it was just the three of us. We cooked for each other,” Harris said, “experimenting with dishes from our childhood and, yes, calling our mothers for recipes!”

The Eight Spice Ribs at Huit Craft BBQ. The number eight has special meaning for the restaurant's partners. "Huit" is eight in French. (Photo provided)

Huit Craft BBQ made its debut at the Cincinnati Asian Food Fest with its eight-spice ribs. “We sold out fast,” Harris recalled. “We knew that we had something.”

Though the menu is Asian-focused with dishes such as Lemongrass Chicken Banh-Mi (a Vietnamese-style sandwich served on a baguette with grilled meats, fresh vegetables and a mayonnaise dressing) and the signature eight-spice ribs, Harris wanted dishes to feel familiar to other cultures.

“We have guests who try our samosas and say, ‘This is like my mother’s empanadas!’ We love that, that our food brings you a food memory that connects to your life. That it has soul.

“This type of food is truly a labor of love,” Harris added. “We want guests to feel that love. So, after trying to source many ingredients, we just weren’t happy with what we were finding. So we decided to make our own.”

Passions that complement one another

Harris, Vo and current executive chef Eduardo Reyes (Ang left the business in early 2015) make almost everything from scratch, including bread, dumpling skins and pickles.

“Much like how I approach a design, I approached ingredient sourcing the same way,” Harris said. “It wasn’t about buying the most expensive product, it was about finding (or making) the perfect product.”

With his design background, the design and logo came together quickly, Harris said.

“It was the nuts and bolts of running a restaurant that we had to dig in and learn.”

Thankfully, Cincinnati’s culinary community came to his aid.

“The other restaurants here were incredibly welcoming and helpful to us," he said. "From fellow chefs to suppliers like Sysco, who helped us with learning Restaurant 101.”

Harris still works at FRCH with his restaurant design clients. He said being a restaurant owner has made him a better restaurant designer and being a designer has made him a better restaurant owner.

“Both my passions enrich each other. It’s the best combination of both my worlds,” Harris said. “I am content.”

Huit Craft BBQ