Key to Success in the Kitchen - Brandi Key
How Brandi Key runs five kitchens and still loves it
Brandi Key is, without a doubt, one of Houston’s busiest executive chefs. With the exception of Ibiza (which is chef-owner Charles Clark’s “baby”), Key oversees all of the Clark Cooper Concepts restaurants— all five, each completely different from the others. Coppa Osteria is Italian, Brasserie 19 is modern French, The Dunlavy is a breakfast and lunch spot (as well as a popular event venue in the evenings), SaltAir’s focus is on seafood and Punk’s specializes in Southern comfort fare and seafood.
Key loves the variety. “It works great for me because I get distracted easily. Having five different restaurants with five different things helps me. At least I know when I get distracted, that distraction is going to fit in someplace!” she laughed.
As each new location prepared to open, Key was responsible for menu conception. Saying she has broad knowledge as a chef is an understatement. “My job is to set the tone through words and—eventually—by putting that food on a plate to show what the concept is. It’s been one of the bigger aspects of what I’ve done with the company the last couple of years.”
Once the initial menu is set, primary responsibility goes to the chef of that particular restaurant. Key makes it a point to work side by side with them as often as possible. When she can’t be there, she keeps the communication channels open via phone calls and text messages. That helps ensure the quality and concept stay true to her vision.
“I’ve now been with the company for six years. Since then, I’ve put together teams and groups of people that I’ve built on. I’ve got guys with me who have been with me the full six years. They’ve become the base blocks—“mini me’s”—who know what I expect. If I can put a base block in a restaurant, then build on top of that, it becomes their job to help feed that message” to the rest of the staff.
That said, it doesn’t mean that Key doesn’t sometimes struggle to be in the right place at the right time. “My biggest challenge right now is making sure that I give each person the time that they need. It’s always challenging when something comes up—a guest who wants a special menu, when I have to take time away to do an interview, whatever it is—to stay on top of the day-to-day,” Key said. “I’ve got 17 chefs, so I really need to make sure that I’m talking, guiding, training, teaching. Sometimes I have to tell them how to make something through text, because that’s just what I’ve got to do that day.”
It is rare to find a female chef in such a high-ranking position over multiple restaurants. Key does think that, gradually, that’s changing. Although Tracy Vaught is a restaurateur rather than a chef, Key sees her as at the forefront of women in Houston’s restaurant industry. When considering chefs, she said, “Anita Jaisinghani (Pondicheri and Indika), Claire Smith (Canopy and Shade) and Monica Pope (formerly of now-closed T’afia and Sparrow Bar + Cookshop) all really paved the way for all of us as far as restaurant chefs go. Then you have all the women at A Fare Extraordinaire and Barbara McKnight of Culinaire that lead the catering in this town.” Other women in the industry who she admires are Annie Rupani of Cacao & Cardamom, Jody Stevens of Jodycakes and Executive Chef Kate McLean of Tony’s.
Key also pointed out that there might be more female chefs than some might think, citing the under-the-radar talent at Cooking Girl and Taqueria Laredo as examples. On the latter, she says, “It’s owned by two brothers, but if you look back there, there’s a huge woman influence in that kitchen.”
For that matter, Key says the vast majority of the nighttime staff at The Dunlavy is female, including Head Chef Samantha Thompson. “I’ve got three female chefs back there right now,” said Key. “My lead chef at Punk’s, Nena Rieser, has been there since day one. She runs the kitchen and takes care of guests there—but no one knows who she is. She’s the heartbeat of that restaurant and has made it her own. Same thing with Samantha.”
Even thought all of the Clark Cooper restaurants serve large numbers of diners every week, Key sources locally as much as she can—and thinks outside the box to do so.
“Different people have different things that you can get, whether it be proteins, cheese, vegetables, microgreens, small lettuces—there are a lot of choices out there. There are guys making local hot sauces, and they’re delicious. Houston has diversity now. There’s enough people and enough variety out that we can pick and choose what we do need in order to support those people.”
With so much responsibility, Key has had to learn how to block out personal time. Her work hours vary wildly, from shorter days of meetings and menu planning to 16-hour slogs. When the original Coppa opened on Washington Avenue (it closed a few years ago), Key said she stood on the kitchen line “for a year.” Part of what allows her to get some downtime now is the time she’s invested in staff training.
“I’ve put a lot of time and effort in the people around me to get myself to the position where I can have some personal balance,” said Key. “I wouldn’t say I’ve been great at it, but over the last couple of years I’ve definitely made it a priority.”