Chef Chat, Part 3: Brandi Key of Coppa and Her Modern Take on Italian Classics

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

This is Part 3 of a three-part Chef Chat series. In case you missed it, you can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

This week, we got to know Brandi Key, the executive chef at Coppa, a little better. We learned a bit about her time climbing the ranks in the Pappas enterprise, how she grew up with allergies and couldn't eat "normal" food, the ingredients she loves to cook with, and her philosophy on the perfect pizza crust. Today, we taste some of her food.

We started with the dish that "clinched it," the one that she attributes to sealing the deal in terms of landing her job at Coppa: her much-lauded spaghetti carbonara.

"It was my second tasting for Charles [Clark]...I had 11 people," says Key. "I think I cooked 12 or 13 dishes, and the carbonara was in the center of the tasting. And as soon as it hit the table and the server told them what was happening, every single person's face at the table changed. Everyone was like, 'Oh my God, what was that?' You could tell everybody was so into it when they told me, 'This is absolutely delicious.'"

The carbonara arrived all wispy and delicate. Shaved bits of cheese perched tremulously on the rounded mound of spaghetti noodles, intermingled with shaved bits of pink salami toscano. An egg yolk was nestled right in the middle of it all.

"Grant really wanted a good carbonara," Key explained. 'He told me, 'I'd really like a carbonara' like 12 times. So I said, 'Okay, I'll make you a carbonara. It's gonna be all the parts of why I love carbonara put together on a plate.'"

The spaghetti was served with a mini carafe of parmesan cream on the side. "Do you want me to just do our thing?" Key asked as I nodded, not knowing where to start. She proceeded to pour some of the cream over the pasta, break the egg yolk, then mix it all together. Mmm. Each bite was creamy and salty, a bit slippery and peppery, the flavors getting more pronounced, taking on more character with each successive bite. I don't know enough about carbonara to say this is how it's done, but I don't care. This is how it should be done. I slurped everything up until there wasn't an errant noodle left.

Next up was the mushroom pizza. Key stretched the dough, topped it and put it in the oven herself, explaining each step like a veteran Food Network star. Sweet melted leeks, fontina, three types of mushrooms (oyster mushrooms, royal trumpet and hen of the woods), arugula and a house-made black truffle cream sauce topped the pizza, which was a revelation from the first bite.

Truffle lovers, take note. The effect of black truffle cream on mushroom, for me, was like the rush you get when your car accelerates -- exhilarating. The textures of the different mushrooms played well together, too -- chewy, meaty, hearty, soft. And the crust. The bottom held up, so that I could pick up an entire piece without it drooping, and the crispy-chewy ratio was right on, the crust retaining a bit of crisp as I munched from the pointy middle of the piece to the wider, crusty end.

I'm not a big lentil lover. Its consistency, when cooked, always comes out too mushy for me, and it normally has this sort of woodsy-earthy taste to it that leaves me cold. Key's braised lentils, however, mixed in with fresh tomatoes and topped with an assortment of house-made sausages and crispy pork belly, was delicious.

"It's hearty, it's perfect for the weather, it's great to share, 'cause everybody can just pick what sausage they want. We don't just make awesome pizza dough; we also make gorgeous sausages and fresh pâtés,'" she explained. One of those dishes that would be perfect on a cold day, or huddling over a fire after a cold day skiing, the highlight of the dish was the cotechino, a round, reddish sausage that was salty and sweet at the same time. Blood sausage lovers will also appreciate salsiccia di sangue, or blood sausage made with pork butt, ground Tuscan kale.

The last dish I sampled, a house-made potato ravioli topped in cream sauce with thinly shaved bresaola, was notable not only for its composition -- which was plated to look like the ravioli was topped with red flowers -- but also because the ravioli are gluten-friendly. People in love with the aroma of truffles will likely go gaga over this dish, one of several gluten-friendly dishes made without flour. The cream sauce is laced with the black truffle. The dish is finished off with truffle oil. The truffle aroma permeates through the entire dish, and then you have these delicate potato pillows and wispy thin slices of cured meats.

The day I came home from my tasting, I saw a Tweet from the owner of Down House, who was so impressed with his meal at Coppa the night before that he blogged about it. His central thesis was about "The simple things they do right that so many other places do wrong." That's what Key is doing at Coppa. She's cooking with the foods, the ingredients that she loves. She's making things from scratch, making food by hand -- meatballs, pizza dough, pasta, sausages -- that you can't find anywhere else, the true testament to a chef who loves what she's doing.

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