Chef Brandi Key has made her mark on Houston’s culinary scene, with an impressive list of former restaurants that includes Pappas Restaurants, Coppa Ristorante Italiano, Coppa Osteria, Punk’s Simple Southern Food, SaltAir Seafood Kitchen, and The Dunlavy. She currently serves as the director of culinary operations for Five 12 Restaurant Concepts, a parent company to both Dish Society and the company’s recently opened Daily Gather at CityCentre.
But really, her passion for all things fresh and delicious began when she was just a child. “My whole family cooked. I grew up in a very small town, and so every time we had a weekend off, we visited my grandparents. We had home-cooked meals, and we sat down for dinner. That was the norm,” she recalls. “Every time I was with them, I would stand on a step stool to help make pancakes and biscuits and fry bacon.”
Key’s foodie gene was further developed by her mother, who kept a fruit and vegetable garden. Key reminisces about the thriving rows of corn, green beans, and tomatoes—fresh produce that was incorporated into the family’s daily meals.
“I think those two things set off my interest in food. Then the first time I went to New York City to visit my uncle, we went all over the city. I got bit by the restaurant food bug. It was the coolest thing that I had ever seen,” she remembers. “Then, as soon as I got the travel bug and got to experience other places, I realized I could make a living in the culinary world.”
She was soon immersing herself in the art of cooking by reading scores of cookbooks, dining at a variety of restaurants each week, and watching several cooking shows. When she lived and worked in California’s Napa Valley, she also spent time in San Francisco at Tante Marie Cooking School learning French cooking techniques. This was in addition to her on-the-job restaurant training, where she learned firsthand the ins and outs of restaurant management.
Through all of this experience, Key developed her signature style of cooking that has advanced far beyond her childhood days of biscuits and bacon.
“The more you expose yourself and your palate to different flavors and textures, the more you start broadening what you could cook and the better you understand how these things work together. It’s really kind of developing a mental and physical palate so that you know what things taste like before you put them together, and you understand how salt and acid interact,” she explains. “Most of my cooking is very much cerebral. There’s always a mental aspect about how each dish comes together. To me, all those little things are important. It’s all the little details that add up to something being great.”
Key feels that working in the hospitality industry is a great equalizer in terms of erasing borders and bringing people together. Everyone needs sustenance, after all, and the dinner table is where that often happens.
“Some of the best conversations I’ve ever had were around the dinner table. So [being able to] recreate those moments for others is important, especially during COVID-19. Before, we were trucking through life and didn’t really think about social gatherings. As a human race, we all kind of went through the same experience of COVID-19 and everything shutting down.”
While those opportunities to gather were severely limited due to the pandemic, Key is seeing an uptick in business and is hopeful that she can once again provide dining experiences that make people happy.
“I think there is a huge need for having social interactions. We are social beings. Even the most introverted people still crave that social interaction,” she muses. “It’s a really interesting time to be in the restaurant business because there is such a desire to be able to go out and have these experiences. I think it’s just part of who we are.”
Additionally, Key notes that her company embraces everyone as part of its open-table mentality. “We have openly gay managers. We have staff from all walks of life. We have all orientations and identities, and to me, that is the mosaic of life,” she adds. Separating people into distinct categories is no longer acceptable. “I’ve always felt like the box wasn’t big enough. The world is bigger than ever.”
Indeed, we live in a time when our identities are limitless, just like the culinary masterworks and experiences that Key delivers through Five 12 Restaurant Concepts.
This restaurant group’s expectations for the future are also boundless. “I want to do more and have more reach. For right now, we’re putting together great training and teaching programs for our staff. We want to show the respect for food and dining, and we want to help create great managers,” she says. “Over the next couple of years, we’re looking to open up quite a few more restaurants. It’s going to be a fun couple of years.”
This article appears in the March 2022 edition of OutSmart magazine.