Growing up in his family’s restaurant, David Bull got the wide-eyed, youthful view of both the inner workings of the kitchen and the role a restaurant plays in the community. These experiences not only introduced Bull to his love of cooking. They also taught him that creating lasting memories through taste and smell connects people to each other.
In 1994, Bull took this lesson to the Culinary Institute of America and its decidedly more squinty-eyed, highly technical training. After graduating, Bull joined The Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas, where he rose through the ranks, becoming the hotel’s youngest-ever sous chef. Bull’s next move took him to Austin, where he served as executive chef of the Driskill Grill, earning the Austin American-Statesman’s “Number One Restaurant Award” for three consecutive years.
Bull’s accolades kept coming. Food & Wine named him one of the “Best New Chefs 2003.” In 2006, he appeared on the Food Network’s “Iron Chef America.” And in 2007, as chef and partner of La Corsha Hospitality group, Bull was nominated for James Beard’s “Best New Chef Southwest.” Two years later, he released an interactive Bull’s Eye on Food, and helped start La Corsha Restaurant Partners, the team behind Congress, Second Bar + Kitchen, and Bar Congress. In 2011, Congress was recognized as the only five-star restaurant in Austin by the Austin American-Statesman and was named as one of the “Best New Restaurants 2011” by Esquire. Esquire also named Bar Congress “One of the Best New Bars in America,” and all three establishments made Bon Appétit’s "Top 10 Best New Restaurants in America."
But even as he’s excelled in the craftsmanship of cuisine and the techniques he’s honed as an adult, Bull has never forgotten that simple lesson of his childhood—that a restaurant is responsible for giving back to the community that supports it. It’s a philosophy that drives everything he does.
Interview with Rising Star Chef David Bull of Congress Austin - Austin, TX
Emily Bell: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
David Bull: My family. My grandparents ran a small Italian restaurant in upstate New York, so I had no choice but to become part of the industry at a very young age. I fell in love with it immediately. I loved the family aspect of it, but also the hospitality aspect of it. I saw the positive impact it had on the people that came into the restaurant. I’ve been hooked ever since.
EB: What advice would you give to young chefs just getting started?
DB: Exercise patience. Be diligent in their pursuit of education. And don’t settle. Don’t settle on a restaurant; don’t settle on a chef. Make sure you’re constantly moving forward, learning, and being challenged.
EB: Do you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks? Do you hire chefs with or without a culinary background?
DB: We hire chefs that have degrees; we hire chefs that have come up through hard knocks; we hire chefs that are directly out of culinary school or have no experience at all. It’s really recommended, but you’ve got to look at your individual surroundings and your personal opportunities. For individuals growing up in a major city with a major food scene, I would certainly recommend to stage. Culinary school was extremely beneficial for me, but still too often, kids get out of school and they realize they really don’t like it, that they’ve wasted a lot of money and time. My recommendation is to work for free for a while to make sure they understand what the industry is all about.
EB: How are you involved in your local culinary community?
DB: We do several charity events. We’re involved as much as we can be with certain local causes and events that we help nurture and take care of the community.
EB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
DB: I believe strongly that we’re caretakers of the community—that we have a responsibility to our surroundings, to the city we live in, to provide the best experience possible. The philosophy goes back to sticking with true, natural ingredients and allowing those ingredients to shine through the process of technique and presentation. I believe that a chef is a facilitator of a process, just helping those ingredients come to light, making sure they are seen in the right way.
EB: What goes into creating a dish?
DB: Usually a few cocktails. No, really there are two ways. One is an intentional brainstorming session from cookbooks, etc., intentionally trying to gain inspiration. The other is random, involuntary inspiration from a new ingredient or a seasonal dish. A particular meat that happens to be around—rabbits are coming into season—so I’m looking forward to creating a dish dedicated to rabbits.
EB: What’s the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
DB: Consistent control. Making sure the control mechanisms are constantly in place, to ensure profitability. Too often the fun stuff and the creative side overlook cost control. There’s got to be a fine balance constantly between the creativity and the profitability of the operation.
EB: What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to do in your job?
DB: Ours is unique because we’ve got two completely different restaurants that offer two different products [Congress Austin and Second Bar + Kitchen]. To balance time, energy, and focus has been challenging to maintain a value-driven community restaurant that’s open all the time and a high-end, chef-driven restaurant that’s coming out of the same kitchen, the same back of house, coming out of that space, the training and overall efficiency. Basically, maintaining standards throughout both operations simultaneously.
EB: If you had one thing you could do over again, what would it be?
DB: I would have worked for a lot more restaurants, a lot more chefs. I’ve got long-term employment but I would’ve gone back and definitely worked a few different restaurants to enhance my repertoire. I’d like to have more base knowledge in different cultures, different cuisines. I wish I had a bigger opportunity to travel in my younger days.
EB: Do you think travel is something you’ll prioritize in the future?
DB: Perhaps. It’s unlikely. That might be more toward the retirement process. Once I’m done opening restaurants, maybe I can go work for someone else for a while.
EB: What are some of your favorite food-industry charities? Why?
DB: We’ve supported so many. March of Dimes is a big one we do every year. Locally, we also do the Dell Children’s Medical Center, another big one. Capital Area Food Bank, Share Our Strength. The list goes on.
EB: What does success mean for you?
DB: Success for me means being able to provide an optimistic work environment for our employees. To help them fulfill their own ambition and their own dreams, with a financially stable person and professional life.
EB: Where do you see yourself in five years?
DB: Hopefully on a beach? You’ll probably find me—hopefully—with a couple more restaurants and a couple more hotel projects. But actually, sincerely, hopefully you’ll find me at home with my family.