Local Spotlight

The Key to the Kitchen: Coppa's Female Executive Chef, Brandi Key, Is No Novelty Act

November 3 was National Men Make Dinner Day, one of an increasingly nonsensical line of national holidays that are being trotted out in larger numbers every year. This particular holiday was especially perplexing to those in the food industry, where men make dinner every night. A man probably will make your dinner tonight if you're dining out, in fact, seeing as how the amount of male executive chefs outnumbers female executive chefs nine to one.

I'm far from the first person to point this out, of course. In 2007, Antoinette Bruno of StarChefs.com wrote: "It's a funny thing for women to fight for: the kitchen. Culturally, women were expected to cook, but professionally the kitchen was dominated by men." Women are already poorly represented on the professional side of cooking as it is; National Men Make Dinner Day doesn't encourage women to expand into that side of the arena, but rather encourages men to "stoop" to the domestic side of things -- but just for one day, of course, then back to the rugged, manly trenches of modern male life.

Houston fares a bit better than most cities, however, when it comes to having female executive chefs represented at our top restaurants. Zelko Bistro, helmed by owner and chef Jamie Zelko; Oporto and The Queen Vic, run by owner and chef Shiva Patel; Indika and Pondicheri, from owner and chef Anita Jaisinghani; Eloise Adams Jones, chef and owner of The Bird & the Bear and her eponymous Ouisie's Table; and Monica Pope of t'afia, just to name a few.

But what you'll notice about all of these places is that their chefs are female because they're female-owned restaurants. Female executive chefs in male-owned restaurants are few and far between.

That's one of the things that makes Brandi Key so special.

In this week's cafe review of Coppa Ristorante Italiano, I couldn't help but be swayed by the subtle feminine touches in Key's cooking there, borne of many years working behind the scenes in some of Houston's biggest restaurants. There is no braggadocio in her plating, no needless swagger in her flavors, no dick-swinging of any kind -- just serious yet simple food, cooked with an understated brilliance.

Once again, I'm far from the only person to notice the differences in the way that male and female chefs cook. Chef Kim Müller of La Mancha at The Galisteo Inn elaborated on this to the Santa Fe Reporter in 2008:

When asked if they think there is an inherent difference in how women and men cook, the chefs answers are remarkably similar. Müller says, "Great women chefs are more inclined to keep food in its purest, simplest forms. Male chefs can often complicate things. Is it genetics? Who knows. Look at Thomas Keller versus Alice Waters."

Coppa is the second kitchen in the last year that owners Charles Clark and Grant Cooper have left under the broad control of a woman, the first being Brasserie 19. Their upscale French brasserie in River Oaks sailed effortlessly along for many months under the stewardship of Amanda McGraw while Clark and Cooper searched for an executive chef to replace the two men who'd already departed within a few weeks of opening. (They finally hired Mark Schmidt away from Rainbow Lodge, and he's settled in nicely.)

And when I heard that Clark and Cooper had hired Brandi Key as the executive chef for Coppa, my heart sang. After all, female chefs the world over will tell you that securing funding from investors for a restaurant of their own is tough enough -- as tough as talking an existing restaurant into hiring a female chef for reasons other than the novelty factor. And here was one of Houston's most anticipated new restaurants being handed over to a female executive chef.

Coppa was meant initially as a replacement for Catalan, which Clark and Cooper closed earlier this year after Chef Chris Shepherd departed to open his own restaurant. Throughout its lifespan, Catalan was considered one of the city's finest restaurants and Shepherd one of its finest chefs. Questions ricocheted when Clark and Cooper announced that Coppa would open in its place. Who could fill Catalan's shoes? The tougher question, though, was who could fill Shepherd's shoes, the shoes of a man who's quickly turning into a Hemingway figure in the Houston food scene?

The answer, as it turns out, is a woman.

Last year, Daphne Duquesne wrote in a piece for Gastronomica:

As a community, our language is pigeonholing women into a secondary feminized role of Suzie Homemaker; even when they put forth the same dish as a man, ergo, women: man as cook: chef. Women exist in the culinary field, but the way that we are talking about them is shaping their role in the community. It inevitably comes down to something as fundamental as the different vocabularies we use to describe men's and women's cooking; as Druckman explains, the same Bolognese dish might be called, "'in your face', 'rich', 'intense', 'bold', while a woman's plateful of the same could be described as 'home', 'comforting' fare, 'prepared with love.' The former becomes an aggressive statement, a declaration of ego, while the latter is a testament to home cooking."

I would call Key's cooking as rich and intense as any man's, yet I would never call it "homey" or "comforting" (as much as a plate of osso bucco really is quite comforting on a cold night). And I think that the fact that Key's cooking at Coppa is both notably feminine and astoundingly intense at the same time signals a greater movement ahead, one that Duquesne sees coming too.

"We are bold, intense, aggressive, competitive and professionally hungry," she writes. "Many of us are. We're out there. We're just still making our way up." And female chefs like Key are helping lead the charge.

Read this week's review of Coppa, then head into the kitchen to see Key and her team at work.

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