Congress' David Bull on Menu Psychology, Money Words

By Megan Giller  |  December 6, 2013

You’ve been excited about your celebration dinner at a fancy upscale restaurant all week. But when you sit down at the table and open your menu, it’s, in David Bull’s words, “like reading a different language” - you don’t recognize any of the words. Beyond creating elegant New American food at fine-dining restaurant Congress and upscale bar Second Bar + Kitchen, Bull is an astute businessman, and he knows what can ruin the experience of eating out. He sees his job as “not to shock and awe but provide a great food and wine experience.” How do you do that for Texans in an upscale way? We sat down to chat with him about the anatomy of a menu: the must-use "money words," how he chooses ingredients and other business-y sides of dining that aren’t often discussed.

Zagat: We couldn’t get enough of your pastry chef Erica Waksmunski’s brioche beignets and fried butterscotch pudding the other day. At the time she told us, “I’ve been thinking about what Texans want, and finally I said, f*#k it, I’m going to fry pudding.” On that note, how do you translate upscale fine dining to what Texans want?

David Bull: We try to appeal to that in ways that are approachable, in our verbiage and price point and how the menu is laid out. It’s important to know who we’re serving and how the words appear on the page. We try to either instigate a childhood memory or some nostalgia that they’ve experienced.

For example, we are doing a new dish with speckled trout in a raw preparation. But we can call it “smoked,” “flash-charred” or “sashimi.” We’re going to prepare it how we want, but we’re playing around with the verbiage. Does “flash-charred” appeal more to our clientele? “Smoked” always has a nice connotation. Or do we call it a “sashimi” and hope our clientele knows what that means? It’s not to be presumptuous or pretentious, but we want to set it up so that you know what you’re getting and you get it, and it exceeds your expectations.

Zagat: Are you worried that people may not know the right terms?

DB: Yeah. We can be really fancy in our verbiage, and I try not to be. I’d rather have the experience be understandable. I run into vocabulary problems even as a professional chef. When I’m out at restaurants, if I see an ingredient or preparation that I’m not familiar with, I have no idea what to expect, because it’s like reading a different language. I want to be comfortable.

I spend a lot of time on the words we use. We use different words from the French cuisine, different techniques. Our clientele is varied, and we have to appeal to the masses. Even if we have professional diners, I’ve found more success in being real and approachable.

Zagat: Do you want guests to know what the dish will look like, or do you want them to be surprised?

DB: A little bit of both. I like to set the stage. For example, our red carrot dashi. Already that sets the expectation of the color of the dish. Instigating color expectation is something we play with a lot. For a while we had an escolar dish that had purple pearl onions, red cabbage, red grapes. We didn’t have to describe it that way, but I wanted it to appear on the menu that the whole dish was purple. And if people get it and that’s what they thought it would look like, you’ve created a nice experience because they expected it to be purple and it was.

Or you can go completely opposite and talk colors, and then present something completely different. We typically don’t do that because it’s more of a shock factor and it’s hard for most people to have a positive experience. That’s not what Congress is about.

Zagat: Do you judge the success of a dish based on what comes back to the kitchen or your taste tests?

DB: Both. And just visualization. During live service, it depends on what the diner had the course before, if they’ve ordered enhancements, if they have dietary restrictions, perhaps where they’re from. That said, every squab is different. When I plate that squab, I’m going to change the plating according to the size and shape of that particular bird. It actually creates an issue, because when someone else plates a dish and I’m not at the restaurant, there’s no picture of that dish that’s 100% standard. The food trumps the presentation, not me. I train my guys to look at balance, depth and height, texture, geometry, how interactive it is and the perceived value.

Zagat: How do you decide where to place items on the menu? Do different placements get different reactions from diners?

DB: There’s a ton of psychology on guest choices. How they open a menu and the first place they look and the last place they look. We play around with that. Our menu is prix fixe on the left and tasting menu on the right, so automatically there’s a choice.

On the prix fixe menu, there are four choices within each course. Within those choices, the first and last dish on the menu sell more. Typically the last dish sells the most, because it’s the last thing you read. If there’s nothing that you’re stoked on, human nature says that you’re going to choose the last thing you read. Because of that psychology, that dish is our least popular, because the placement hopefully will dictate higher sales. The first dish is our second least popular.

For example, we have our sashimi first, then spinach salad, burrata and lamb tartare to choose from on our first course. The lamb tartare and sashimi are going to sell less because they’re raw preparations. We know burrata and spinach salad are going to sell, so those are placed in the lower sales-point places. If I give you equal things, choice C is going to be the lowest seller on our menu format. And same thing on the other courses. It’s what we are trying to influence you to purchase so that our sales are even and we go through our product. Some of the worst sellers are our favorite dishes [laughs]. But they might be the most exotic or most time-consuming in terms of preparation.

I read a lot about this years ago, and it stuck with me. You have to go back and study each different menu format. A lot of it is from hands-on experience and seeing what people like. If I switch the order of the tartare and the sashimi on the menu, it absolutely will have a direct impact on sales.

Zagat: Are there certain combinations or ingredients that always sell well?

DB: There are money words. Lobster, truffle, caramel, certain kinds of cheese. We have three kinds of Parmesan. But the word “Parmesan” is going to sell more than “Gran Padano.” It’s a key word that people know and are familiar with. It’s comforting, and they automatically identify with that ingredient. It’s in our best interest to use “Parmesan” instead of “Gran Padano.” An average diner wants to see Parmesan. An experienced diner is more like, “Oh, they have Gran Padano! Well I’m going to buy that because it’s unique.”

Zagat: Do you feel like you’re dumbing it down?

DB: No, it’s being smart and approachable to make sure the majority of our guests have an even playing field. But being Congress, we have an expectation that we are going to be cutting-edge. We don’t hold back. I’m not going to change the ingredient to appeal to the masses, but I may choose ingredients based on a comforting and approachable level. Do we really want to do conk or snails? It would be fun and intriguing, but it would appeal to a small number of people who come through these doors.

Zagat: How much does that drive your menu choices?

DB: Quite a bit. I’m writing the New Year’s menu right now. Even though I have a captive audience, since we already have people booking without knowing what the menu is going to be, if I go too far and do cuisine that’s too experimental the response isn’t as good. You have to know your clientele and demographic. Chefs get confused about their role. My job isn’t to shock and awe and constantly show you something new. It’s to provide you with a great food and wine experience.

Zagat: Does that limit your creativity?

DB: No, it makes it harder. To be able to do this level of cuisine at the level we’re talking about is really challenging. And I have to be even more creative. I can get any ingredient that I want in the world. It’s much more difficult to have a simple approach and use common ingredients. Take our lemon-pepper vinaigrette on the burrata. We have four kinds of peppercorns, and it’s a preserved Meyer lemon, and it’s an emulsification.

Zagat: So you don’t call it Meyer lemon, even though people recognize that phrase?

DB: Honestly that was just to make room. But also Meyer lemons aren’t in season right now. It’s presumed that it’s preserved. We do it every year. But then this description becomes “preserved Meyer lemon-pepper vinaigrette.” That’s too wordy. Instead we’re going to understate it. Then you get it, and it’s an exceptional ingredient and technique and process to make it, and hopefully it’s the best lemon vinaigrette that you’ve ever had.

Zagat: Does this strategy extend to more-expensive and less-expensive ingredients?

DB: Absolutely. We have a $75 prix fixe menu, and as a business we have to keep price in mind. So if we have a low-profit-margin dish and a high-profit-margin dish, our preference is to sell the high-profit-margin dish. The placement of that dish is absolutely important. But usually they’ll sell on their own, like the spinach salad.

Zagat: How about the actual ingredients that go into each dish?

DB: For example, the spinach salad versus the lamb tartare. We make 30% more on the salad than we do on the tartare, because the tartare is protein-based. But it’s in the same category and technically the same price. As a business owner, I want to sell spinach salad all day long.

Zagat: That’s interesting, because you’ve put the lamb tartare in the place where it’s going to sell the most.

DB: Correct, because it’s perishable. It’s a high-expense item and needs to balance out the proper production. There are more reasons than decisions, for sure. It’s the lowest-profit-margin dish, and if it’s not in that last spot, it’s not going to sell, and I’ll lose product, which makes it more expensive, because I have to prep it every day.

Zagat: When two similar ingredients have vastly different price points, does that factor into your choices?

DB: Absolutely. With every ingredient we identify the cost, and every dish has to fall within a certain cost structure to be viable. On our pasta dish on our main course, we put Parmesan and black truffle on it. It’s a lower-cost item - it’s pasta and cheese and potatoes - but we elevate it, not just for the experience, but also because we can afford to put nicer ingredients on there and it’s still cost-effective.