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Pepperoni soup and soba shoelaces: Questions for chef David Bull

Mike Sutter

Congress Austin's David Bull is no longer the baby-faced 28-year-old who made his mark at the Driskill Grill as a Food & Wine magazine Best New Chef in 2003. The game changed when he joined a list that includes Thomas Keller of the French Laundry, David Chang of Momofuku and Tom Colicchio of everything. "Once you're part of that Food & Wine family, the pressure all of a sudden becomes much more intense, and you've got a reputation to uphold and things start to change," Bull said.

But instead of wearing the burden of the giant new project on his face at age 36, he's become angular and energized. Maybe it's just the goatee. "I just decided to take better care of myself," he said. "I knew what was coming. I knew that the requirements physically and mentally were going to be extreme." Even more extreme than keeping up with five kids ranging from a 1-year-old to teenage twins with his wife, Fawn. We talked by phone between day-care sorties.

American-Statesman: No matter where you've been, you've always been the new, young guy coming in with the big ideas. At what point in your career does this become more like a job than the eternal launch of a gigantic enterprise?

It's never really been a job to me. It's always kind of been part of my life, part of who I am. This is the first time that it's really been mine. I'm part-owner in this, and certainly when it's time to get something done, then sometimes I'd rather be there myself.

What kind of hours are you keeping?

Pretty extensive since the opening, for sure. It's been 9 or 10 in the morning until 12 or 1 at night.

You've got three properties there, three identities. High-end at Congress, more casual at Second. And Bar Congress seems like its own animal. Why not just one big Congress that's open for lunch and dinner?

Originally, it was going to be just one concept. But when that location became available, and just the sheer space … we felt as though that if you were just to do a high-end restaurant that the risks were just too high with the economic turn. We knew from our research that value-driven concepts with reasonable food and a social, community gathering place was the right thing to do. Then Bar Congress kind of got developed on its own. It was originally just a bar to serve Congress, but it turned out to be its own identity and its own logo.

What made you think a prix fixe, or fixed-price, menu would work at Congress?

It was a very similar format to what we ended up with at the Driskill. It really creates the experience. We ask the customers to have a multicourse meal. It's a progressive process that allows us to dive into the extensive wine categories; it allows us to do one course after another.

The food seems to be well-dressed, but not overly dressed for the party.

This is food I want you to be comfortable with, that I want you to understand. The goal is not to shock or confuse. It's food that makes perfect sense.

I like the soba shoelaces on the hamachi.

The care that we would take to tie a nice knot in soba noodles is about as extravagant or dressy as we're going to get and still leave it subtle and simple. If you walk away, and you get it, and you're like, "Wow, that was the best scallop I ever had," that's better to me than you saying, "What was that? Do you even remember what that was?"

Brussels sprouts with escolar at Congress. You don't see that with fish that often. Love Brussels sprouts, by the way.

I've never heard that more than in the last two months of my whole career. We've got Brussels sprouts at Second with brown butter and béarnaise, too. I've loved it for a long time, but man, people come out of the woodwork, and they've got very strong opinions on Brussels sprouts.

I recognized pepperoni soup at Second from your Twitter feeds at the Stoneleigh.

It's one of those feel-good dishes that's really a tribute back to my family and what they represent. It was THE soup for 20 years at my grandparents' restaurant, and it's my token of appreciation back to them. My little version to say, "Thanks, Grandma, for starting me out." It's rustic, it's comfort, it's spicy. It's almost an Italian-type chili. It's 95 percent Grandma's recipe.

The Congress Burger. I read where one food writer declared that it's time for restaurants to stop doing burgers with their names on them.

The whole point of Second … it's actually one of the most challenging restaurants and challenging menus that I've ever written, because I wanted to write it for, you know, food that people enjoy. We're not taking Second and trying to reinvent the wheel. We're trying to take Second and just keep the wheel rolling. People love a good burger, so why not have a good burger on the menu? I'm proud to serve a great burger that's our own version.

What makes it your version?

Definitely the grind. Using brisket as the staple meat, the right amount of fat content, and the large grind that we have emphasizes the texture of the meat and the juiciness of the meat. And then the fun, interactive part, where you can choose how big of a meal you'd like to turn your burger into by using premium ingredients: eggs and avocado and foie gras or even a double-double with everything. … It makes people happy. It's not meant to be a "Man vs. Food" type situation, but it's got a little bit of that.

I didn't hear a lot of talk about pizza at Second. But what's coming out is the kind of thing other people might build their whole restaurant identity around.

I've got Ethan Holmes, who was working at Taverna for awhile, as my go-to pizza guy. We spent a lot of time researching and recipe-testing the dough. I've been really happy with the pizzas that are coming out of there.

Were you a pizza guy growing up?

I've definitely had my time behind a pizza oven. In upstate New York, I worked a few pizza joints. It made perfect sense to me, because we know that people love pizza. We didn't want to come out and say "we are a pizza restaurant," but to have that as an option. It's fast, it's economical. It really just went with the concept of what Second represented.

Did doing an Italian place cross your mind?

We tried that in Dallas, to focus on a particular type of cuisine, and ironically what it does is it pigeonholes you into an expectation. And frankly, even from my upbringing and history in Italian cuisine, people have their own idea of what Italian cuisine is, and everybody's is different. You're battling with emotions and family tradition and history: "Well, that's not how my grandmother made it." We wanted the ability to change and evolve and grow with Austin based on people's responses.