Throughout her career, Chef Brandi Key has spent time in kitchens large and small, and each has helped to shape the chef she is today. Yet, one of the biggest influences on her approach to food began much earlier, growing up in the Texas Panhandle, eating from her mother’s robust edible gardens. Key has vivid memories of tilling the soil on their acre of land, planting, watching the crops grow, and eventually sitting on the porch to help shuck and can everything: “As a kid it felt like work, but looking back, those were amazing times.”
Cooking alongside her grandparents also left its mark; from her paternal side, she inherited an appreciation for Southern comfort foods, from sky-high buttermilk pancakes to weekly fried chicken, while her maternal grandparents, also avid gardeners, further entrenched a deep appreciation for each season’s bounty. “Though they lived in the same small town, their cooking styles were very different,” she recalls. “That was cool to see.”
In 1999, after earning her bachelor’s degree in business management and marketing, Key began working as a line cook at Pappas Restaurants in Houston, where, over the next 12 years, she learned the business and systems needed to run multiple restaurants, working her way up to research and development chef.
Post-Pappas Restaurants, Key spent time in San Francisco, learning French technique at Tante Marie Cooking School before moving to Napa Valley to work under Cindy Pawlcyn, James Beard Award Winner for Outstanding Restaurateur and a trailblazer and advocate for local, sustainable cooking. While there, she further honed the leadership skills and strength needed to become a chef/owner, which led her back to Houston to join Clark Cooper Concepts (CCC), accepting her first executive chef position and opening Coppa Ristorante Italiano. During her eight-year tenure with the group, Key’s role evolved to that of Director of Culinary Operations, through which she oversaw the construction and development of the kitchens, menus, and teams for subsequent concepts Coppa Osteria, Punk’s Simple Southern Food, SaltAir Seafood Kitchen and The Dunlavy.
Key was tapped to lead culinary operations for Lasco Enterprises (Max’s Wine Dive, The Tasting Room, Boiler House) in 2018, which involved managing back-of-house goings on for micro-chains across Houston, San Antonio, Austin, Fort Worth and Denver while helping the group to identify and execute ways to refresh its established brands. In 2019, she accepted the opportunity to work alongside Houston chef and icon Claire Smith as Culinary Director over Smith’s legacy restaurants, Canopy and Woodbar, and to refashion former restaurant Shade into Alice Blue, which brought Key back to her chef roots and the day-to-day processes of running a kitchen.
Signing on as Culinary Director for Dish Society umbrella company Five 12 Restaurant Concepts, Key has the opportunity to leverage her combined background in both boutique restaurants and scalable corporate models with her passion for farm-to-table cuisine. She’s thrilled to jump back into a role in which she can be a teacher again, building upon the brand’s effective systems and staff support programs to further elevate the guest experiences, as well as provide culinary leadership for subsequent concepts. “My passion is teaching and making the people around me be the best they can be,” says Key.
In January 2022, Key helped launch Five 12’s second brand, Daily Gather, a more ambitious sister restaurant to Dish Society. As executive chef, Key has created a vibrant menu of reimagined American classics that’s heavily influenced by local, seasonal ingredients and the many global cuisines represented in Houston.