Chef Chat, Part 1: Brandi Key of Coppa Ristorante Italiano, On Working Up the Pappas Food Chain and Learning to Cook with Food Allergies

Brandi Key Coppa Ristorante Italiano 5555 Washington Tel: 713-426-4260

This is Part 1 of a three-part Chef Chat series. Check back with us for Parts 2 and 3, which will run in this same space Thursday and Friday.

When Brandi Key was named executive chef at Coppa Ristorante Italiano, all eyes were on her. There were a lot of expectations for the restaurant that replaced Chris Shepherd's hugely successful Catalan. Would she be up to the task?

A little more than a year out, it's clear that she was. The shadow that was Catalan is no more, and now Coppa is ready to spread its wings. A second location is in the works in Rice Village, and plans are in place to have Key oversee both operations. Exciting stuff, indeed. We sat down for a chat last week to see how she's been able to move so far, so fast.

EOW: I actually don't know much about you. Tell me a little bit about your history and how you came to be here.

BK: I grew up in West Texas, between Amarillo and Lubbock, really small town, and when I graduated college, it's kind of funny, but I had an opportunity to do insurance at State Farm as an intern in Dallas. And the only reason I took the gig was because I wanted to go from small town to big town, and it was a paid way. It was: "We'll get you there, we'll get you an apartment, we'll get you set up and train you for four months, and we may or may not hire you." And I saw it as "They're gonna pay me to get me into town, and get established -- I'm gonna take it." And so I did insurance, and it was the worst job I ever had in my life. I absolutely hated it. I sat in a cubicle for hours doing paperwork. It was awful.

EOW: Were you selling?

BK: No, I was auditing claims; we had to make sure people weren't lying -- I hated it. My dad had always said: "Whatever you do in life, you make sure that you love your job." One day I woke up, and I was like: "This sucks, I hate it, I gotta take his advice." A friend was working at Pappas and said, "I think you would really like this group," so I interviewed, and the guy is looking at my résumé and he was like, "You have all this business experience; why do you want to wait tables?" And I was like, "I don't want to wait tables, I want your job one day."

EOW: So who was doing the interview?

BK: It was the general manager at one of the restaurants. And so he hired me and it was literally like getting bit by a bug. Because when I walked in the kitchen -- it was the first time I was in a professional kitchen -- I was like, "Whoa, this energy!" It was intoxicating to me.

EOW: Which restaurant were you at?

BK: It was Pappadeaux 9.

EOW: And they hired you to be a server?

BK: Yes. I waited tables for a couple of months. I bartended for a week because I was awful and they kicked me out of the bar, and, since I had expressed interest in management, from that point put me automatically into training to be a manager -- they call it fast-tracking. So in eight months' time, I learned how to be a server, a busser, a dishwasher, a barback, a cook working every position on the cook line, and then I managed the floor for about seven months.

EOW: So you actually went through cooking before you went into the management part.

BK: Yeah; it was kind of this big thing about being able to see all the parts and pieces. And I was a floor manager; I made maps, I talked to guests, ran the host stand, dealt with private parties. I did everything that any general manager would with Pappas for the six to seven months that I was in that role. And then I expressed interest in going into the kitchen, and so I was working as a floor manager during the day, getting there at 8 o'clock in the morning; at 1 o'clock I was going to my car and changing into a cook's uniform, coming back into the restaurant and cooking from 2 p.m. to whenever, and closing the kitchen. It was a really crazy time, but it was the only way I could learn it as fast as I did. So, once I did that, I became a kitchen manager, running the kitchen for however many years until I got moved up to being concept chef for the group.

EOW: Tell me more about the Pappas enterprise. Obviously they have these systems that enable you to become whatever you want to be.

BK: There are so many opportunities within their company. And it's just the way that Harris and everybody believes in having people be able to move up, and utilize the right people in the right places. I think it's a real testament to Harris and how he chooses to run his business, of being able to really empower people.

EOW: With your business background, why is it that you wanted the cooking part? Because you really segued, you know?

BK: For me, everything in my life has kind of been a circle. Where I started off that and the things that I disliked are the things that I'm doing today, because I realize how important it is. When I was a kid, I really had a lot of food allergies, where we couldn't eat beef, chicken, pork, eggs, dairy -- any type of wheat product.

EOW: Really?

BK: Yeah, I was the kid who had the weird lunch, that had this strange stuff that mom cooked, that had a garden, that ate everything out of the garden, who when the game wardens had to confiscate stuff, would bring the excess to us because they knew we could eat the deer and quail and pheasant, but couldn't eat beef and chicken. At the time I hated it.

EOW: Was it just you?

BK: It was me and my sister, and my mom had food allergies as well. And so we had to change our diet and learn how to cook, and that became one of my jobs as a kid, was cooking, and I learned how to grill. I never thought it would be a career, ever.

Check back with us tomorrow as we continue our chat with Key and learn more about what's doing with Coppa and her future with the Clark Cooper organization.

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