2/27/2013 12:37:00 PM

A Chat With David Bull of Congress

Before David Bull became the hard-working executive chef at Congress and Second Bar and Kitchen, he got his start in his family’s Italian restaurant in upstate New York. His star-studded career has included time at the Mansion on Turtle Creek, in Dallas, and the Driskill Hotel, here in Austin. Bull earned the title of one of the best new chefs in 2003 from Food & Wine, and in 2007 he was nominated for the James Beard Award for “Best New Chef, Southwest.” Bull has also competed on Iron Chef America against Bobby Flay.

We sat down with the chef to talk about his journey from family restaurant to fine dining, to hear about the innovative color palate changes at Congress, and to talk about his next big projects.

What was it like to grow up in your family’s Italian restaurant? Do you think it’s affected your cooking now? 

My grandparents had seven children who ran the restaurant, and by the time I was 10 I would just go to work with my mother and hang out in the back room. It was Uncle Paulie and Anthony running the line and Joey and Uncle Tommy bartending. Grandpa Joe acted as the maƮtre d', and my grandmother made the pies and desserts from scratch. My mother, Gloria, and her sisters, Loretta and Teresa, all waited tables.

That’s where I unknowingly got my start, even though I’ve never been an Italian-driven chef. I worked salads and looked up to my uncles and loved the smells and the family atmosphere.

I didn’t realize until much later on how impactful that was on my career choice and on the hospitality side of everything that I do today.

What was the journey like from being in your family dynamic to running Congress?

I went straight to the Culinary Institute of America. I realized early on from reading books that I needed to gain some professional experience to make a career of working in restaurants.

My first job, at the Mansion on Turtle Creek, was an eye-opener, and I fell in love with it. I was working with one of the founders of Southwestern cuisine for a long time, so I gained great experience from that and from working at the Driskill for eight years.

Now I can do my own thing. Our menu at Congress is everything from Italian to Southwestern to Japanese. It’s a big difference, everyday knowing that this is mine, that what me and my partners do will benefit us for a long time. And we can now provide opportunities for the rest of our staff and future growth for everyone. 

What are some of your favorite dishes on the menu at Second and at Congress? 

At Second there’s a grilled trout with black-eyed peas and kale that I really like right now. On the Congress side, my favorite is the sweetbread ravioli with razor clams, spinach and a white clam sauce. Then we’ve got a barbecued eel with foie gras mousse that’s really cool.

Are there ingredients or textures that you’re excited about working with? 

Our latest focus has been on color. We’ve done a couple dishes that have been all white, with white ingredients. And then we had a dish that transformed into an all-purple Valentine’s Day appetizer. We brought in colorful china—off-gray and some stoneware for the first time this year.

I’m a sucker for heirloom tomatoes when they’re in season.  Right now, springtime, we can’t wait for the first ramps and fiddlehead ferns and green garlics and soft-shell crabs.

I’m a big flavor profile advocate. We talk about enhancing the natural flavor of the food that we’re given and then also textural contrast as well, how it feels in the mouth and how it reacts to the inner ear. The crunch or the soft or the silky or the hot or the cold contrast. We talk a lot about what that bite of food not just tastes like but also feels like and smells like. And then the pairing of the wine and all that stuff.

How have you seen Austin change and grow?

Dramatically. I got here in 1999, and back then even in a hotel restaurant like the Driskill we were really the only gig in town. We didn’t have anything that could be considered even remotely close to fine dining. We don’t really call Congress fine dining, it’s more of a premiere dining experience.

In the last 10 years, people have finally taken notice of Austin, and the expectations and people’s tastes have naturally evolved. You see that happen every day with new pop-ups, underground dinners, food trucks and restaurants that are opening at a faster pace than they ever have.

Which restaurants do you have your eye on? 

My last couple of experiences were at Barley Swine, with Bryce. And I love Sway. I went to G’raj Mahal for Valentine’s Day. I wanted to do something a little unique, a bottle of champagne out in the stars. I’m not too picky of an eater. Everybody has told me that Contigo has good things going on.

It’s the chef vibe and community is really tight and strong here. We want to support everybody and make sure everyone’s got a fair shake at what’s going on. I love the growth and the camaraderie among the restaurants.

So we have to ask about Iron Chef America. What was that experience like?

Bobby Flay said he was on his 35th show in a month. They do back-to-back shows, and he was a little tired. We were able to go the day before to watch an episode, which was really helpful. There are a lot of takes on the walkway and a lot of greenroom takes on conversations. But once you’re in the kitchen, the cameras start to roll and it’s a 60-minute incredible experience. I’d do it again in a heartbeat. I thought it was a great time, and I thought we showed really well, even though we lost. 

What’s next? 

We’ve got a couple projects. We’d love to expand here locally in Austin and provide other dining opportunities for our friends and family and people of the city, and to provide opportunities to keep our staff in the family. We’re pushing. You’ll see us hopefully opening something in the near future.


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