MEET THE TASTEMAKER

It all started in an upstate New York family kitchen: Chef David Bull on fine food, five stars and an uncle named Paulie

It all started in an upstate New York family kitchen: Chef David Bull on fine food, five stars and an uncle named Paulie

Austin Photo Set: News_Adam_meet the tastemaker_david bull_congress_march 2012_portrait
Austin Photo Set: News_Adam_meet the tastemaker_david bull_congress_march 2012_congress

Austin has always been an egalitarian society. Brooks Brothers politicians are just as likely to dine at Cisco's as they are at Jeffrey's, and there's a certain expectation that no space is too sacred for jeans. Austin is more about who you are than what you've won — titles and accolades don't hold a lot of weight.  

Unless, that is, those accolades come in the form of stars. Five stars, to be exact.

Before 2011, Austin was without a five-star restaurant, with just Uchi, Uchiko and the Carillon making the cut as four-star dining establishments. But on New Year's Day, 2011, Austin had its crowning moment: Chef David Bull opened the simply-titled Congress at the base of the tallest building downtown and was awarded five glistening stars. 

Bull had been — and still was (he commuted by plane every week to his kitchen, Bolla, in Dallas) — an Austinite.  Having served as the head chef of the Driskill Grill during the early part of last decade, Bull led the hotel kitchen to national acclaim, winning a James Beard nomination and a Best New Chef 2003 plug from Food and Wine Magazine along the way.

The Driskill ran away with the Statesman's #1 Restaurant ranking for a few years running, and the accolades kept pouring in. The dude was an Iron Chef America contestant, for crying out loud (he lost to Bobby Flay). After his stint at Bolla, Bull set his sight on bringing fine dining back to Austin.

But let's get one thing straight: Chef Bull's pretension level is near zero. While Congress is clearly Austin's "finest" restaurant (i.e., where the billionaire F1 enthusiasts will be heading after the race), there's no air of exclusivity. All are welcomed, and community is encouraged. It's a lesson Bull learned from his grandfather, an Italian immigrant who owned a family-run restaurant in Owego, N.Y. in which Bull grew up.

"That was really what I consider to be the starting point of my current career," says Bull, who spent his childhood in the red and white checkered cloth restaurant, alongside his grandparents, seven aunts and uncles and numerous cousins.   

"All the boys cooked and tended the bar, all the girls managed the floor, and my grandma made pies in the back room. We played foosball, and my uncle played guitar between orders. There was another backroom that I wasn’t allowed to go in for a long time. It was like a miniature, upstate New York Italian mob scene."

 "You know, we play Zeppelin and The Who in [Congress]. . .It shouldn’t be so unapproachable or so distant for people not to grasp the concept. We want to make it really easy to come in and have a good time." - Chef David Bull

Bull would accompany his mother to work around the age of 10 and manned the salad station in order to earn his first family paycheck at age 13. Everyone had a role: "Uncle Tom was in the bar; Anthony, Paulie and Joey ran the kitchen; Loretta, Gloria and Teresa all ran the floor."

Though the cuisine was classic Americanized Italian (pasta al forno, meatballs, lasagna, and garlic bread with cheese), the lesson that Bull took away from the experience had little to do with the food.

Bull watched his grandfather extend the family environment to his customers; the hand shaking, the friendly greetings and the loyalty to the loyal customers all subconsciously imbued Bull with a unique professional temperament. He considers his kitchen a second family — and if a second generation Italian-American with an uncle named Paulie can't refer to his kitchen as family, then no one can. 

Bull's current venture forms a holy trinity in the base of the Austonian: You have Congress, the replace-your-silverwear-after-each-of-the-seven-courses restaurant; Second Bar + Kitchen, the modern neighborhood hangout with wine on tap; and Bar Congress, where bearded men deftly mix vibrantly colored drinks that make you reconsider your stance on gin. 

It took about two weeks for Second Bar + Kitchen to feel like it had been open for years. With the multi-tiered patio spilling out on the street, the tattooed, relaxed servers and $12 pizzas and avocado fundido on the menu, Second Bar + Kitchen is a restaurant for all tastes. It just happens to be connected to one of the best bars in town and have a nationally recognized chef at its helm.

To quote chef Bull: "We want to hire people that are part of the community, especially at Second Bar + Kitchen. That restaurant was built to be an automatic institution of what this community is, what this area of town is, and just give people a chance to sit down and celebrate everyday life. It’s not to show or prove anything, it’s just to become a place to go and hang out."

Even Congress, with its $75 or $125 ($180 with wine pairings) prix fixe menu, achieves an air of lightness that sidesteps the stodgy. 

"The whole point of [Congress] is to offer people a chance to have a great experience with food and wine," says Bull. "We’re not trying to re-invent the wheel. We’re not trying to come up with the latest and greatest concept of how to eat or what to eat. We just cook great food and have a good time."

"You know, we play Zeppelin and The Who in here. We like to feel like we’re part of the fabric of the community. It shouldn’t be so unapproachable or so distant for people not to grasp the concept. We want to make it really easy to come in and have a good time."

Whether you're at Second, Bar Congress or Congress, every bite will be wonderful and each dish perfectly composed. You'll want to remember it, take pictures of it and call your mother just to tell her about it. And if you're eating at a five-star restaurant next to someone in jeans and a short-sleeved shirt, well carry on, this is Austin.  

For Bull, who can now add a CultureMap Tastemaker Award nomination to his list of accolades, life is going swimmingly. "This has already been my dream come true, in my first year of operation, to finally open my own place, and it’s successful, it’s busy," he says. "If I died tomorrow, I’d be a happy chef. I would feel very accomplished."