Denise Nguyen likes to say she was born in the kitchen. The native of Newport News, Va., grew up working at her parents’ Chinese restaurant, but didn’t especially enjoy the experience.
“By the age of 8, I was handing out soy sauce packets,” she said. “I had to spend long hours at the store. I said to myself, ‘I never want to open a restaurant.’”
Never say never. Nguyen, a May 2009 graduate of the School of Mass Communications at Virginia Commonwealth University, studied public relations. Her focus? The restaurant industry, naturally.
“I never thought I would take public relations into the avenue of dining,” she said. “It really comes full circle. I realized that I do love food and dining.”
Two Washington, D.C.-based internships with the culinary-focused public relations firm 2911 Productions and the nonprofit Share Our Strength, which works with celebrity chefs to combat hunger, solidified Nguyen’s future path.
While working at her internships, Nguyen lived with her cousin Khoa, a classically trained chef who serves as events coordinator at Vidalia, a well-known area restaurant. In addition to the cousins’ shared love of food, the two harbor a future goal: to open a Vietnamese establishment in the Washington area.
In summer 2008, one of their foodie friends told the cousins about an open audition for a restaurant-themed reality show. They had their doubts. But the show’s premise — work with a team to open a restaurant and win $250,000 — seemed “as if it was written for us,” Nguyen said. On a whim, the cousins threw together an application and showed up at the casting call where hundreds of nervous wannabes waited. The cousins aced the first interview.
“They wanted to see if we had chemistry,” Nguyen said. “And Khoa and I are so close that when he says something, I finish his thought.”
The cousins earned a spot in “The Chopping Block” cast, but their television experience was brief — just one episode. They may be the first reality contestants to remove themselves from competition due to the sniping and backstabbing of fellow competitors. Despite the outcome, Nguyen feels fortunate for the experience.
“What we wanted was the learning experience, not necessarily the money,” Nguyen said. “We’re young. We have opportunity. There’s plenty of time for us to open our own place.”
After graduation, Nguyen plans to move to Washington, D.C., to inch closer to that dream. But first, she and her cousin will travel to Vietnam for a month this summer.
“We’re going to eat ourselves up and down the coast,” Nguyen said. “We want to get back in touch with our roots and find our inspiration.”