Local Cousins Stand Up to Marco Pierre White

Cousins Khoa and Denise Nguyen dished it right back to Marco Pierre White.

If you’re still mourning local girl Carla Hall’s loss on Top Chef, we have some good news for you: There’s a new culinary reality-TV show with not one but many Washington contestants to root for. The Chopping Block, which airs Wednesdays on NBC, features two-person teams competing for a $250,000 prize, which they’d use to open their own restaurant. The show stars Marco Pierre White, a screaming, pot-throwing, foul-mouthed British chef who trained the famously short-tempered Gordon Ramsay.

Washington contestants include Mikey Torres, executive chef at Gifford’s Ice Cream, and partner Chad Phillips as well as Alex McCoy, head chef and bar manager at Rugby Food and Spirits, and his brother, Nate McCoy. And then there's Vidalia events coordinator Khoa Nguyen, 29, and his cousin Denise, 22. We admit we had high hopes for the pair, but in a surprise twist they closed out the first episode by standing up to White and walking off the show. 

We recently hung out with the cousins, who talked about their restaurant dreams and just how scary White can be.

What are your culinary backgrounds?

Denise: “I’m a senior at Virginia Commonwealth University. I’m a communications major, and my focus is on the restaurant and hospitality track. I interned with 2911 Productions [a restaurant PR firm] and Share Our Strength. I also used to work at Restaurant Eve, and sometimes I’m a hostess here at Vidalia.”

Khoa: “I came to the United States from Saigon, Vietnam, when I was 11. We practically grew up together. I went to William and Mary and my parents expected me to be pre-med. My freshman year, I was like, ‘Mom, Dad, I’m not doing that. I’m not good at bio or bio-chem,’ and they said, ‘Okay, you’ll be a lawyer then.’
I had an epiphany sitting in a little cubicle. I thought ‘I don’t think I can do three years of something that I’m not really passionate about.’ I’ve always been so in love with food and cooking. I was always looking at cookbooks, and so I decided to just apply to culinary school. I went to the Culinary Institute of America. When I graduated, I moved to DC almost immediately and got a job as a front-of-the-house manager at Vidalia.

What did you have to do for the Chopping Block audition?

Denise: “We found out very last-minute, so the night before the auditions we put everything together. They asked us to take a picture of ourselves. So the day of the auditions, I was at CVS printing out a head shot. The auditions were at the Sofitel Hotel, and we walk in and there’s hundreds and hundreds of people. The questions were like ‘Let me get to know you in 15 minutes.’

Khoa: “I felt like it was a dating show. ‘What sort of things do you like to do?’ Long walks on the beach! The initial meeting was just to see if we have chemistry. We finish off each other’s sentences just because we’re together all the time. So I think they caught on early that we have this close relationship, and they were intrigued by that.”

Then what happened?

Khoa: “It was an achingly prolonged, ambiguous process. It was probably about two months before we found out that we’d be on the show.”

What was Vidalia owner Jeff Buben’s reaction when you told him you had to go to New York to film for a month? Did he give you any advice?

Khoa: “ ‘What are you talking about, and why didn’t you tell us sooner?’ But he was very supportive. I think I get his advice every day that I work here. He has all these theories and sayings. I didn’t know until we actually got there—all those tiny little details that Buben always tells me to do, it’s great. Marco’s like that too. The producers call them ‘Marco-isms.’ ”

What did you do to prepare for the show?

Khoa: “Most people don’t know this, and NBC didn’t really focus on it, but I haven’t picked up a knife since I graduated from the CIA in 2005. I asked [Vidalia executive chef] R.J. Cooper and chef Buben if I could work in the kitchen. I did it for two days, and I was really rusty.”

Denise: “I’ve never served in a restaurant before. I used to work at PX, so my serving experience was cocktail-based. I came in and staged behind Khoa for a few days. It was really funny. Khoa said, ‘Go make a latte.’ I was like, ‘uhh…’ “

Before the show, had you talked about opening your own restaurant? What type of place did you envision?

Denise: “Growing up, my parents owned a Chinese restaurant. And I said to myself, and Khoa too, that we would never own a restaurant. It was in a mall, a fast-food type place. You know, shrimp fried rice, combo one, small drink, biggie size plate. You understand why we’d hate it.”

Khoa: “The Vietnamese culture is that we grew up in the kitchen with our moms. They made us pick herbs if we couldn’t hold a knife—it was an integral part of our childhood. So we would want to translate that. For me, I can’t imagine making anything other than Vietnamese. You’ve probably been to Falls Church so you know there’s a big Vietnamese community. But there’s a lack of Vietnamese eateries in DC itself, so there’s not a lot of choices here. Ultimately, that’s our dream.”

What was it like when you got to New York to do the filming?

Khoa: “Everything was shrouded in secrecy. They strip-search you when you land. It’s weird because you feel like you’re being baby-sat. You can’t go out of your hotel room. When you want to exercise or get fresh air, you have to schedule an appointment, and then somebody comes to your room to get you. During the actual filming, when the camera’s not rolling, you’re not supposed to talk to any of the other contestants. It’s so militant. They don’t want to miss anything.”

Marco Pierre White has a reputation of being mean, scary, and crazy. Is he actually mean, scary, and crazy?

Khoa: “I have a very different perspective because I’ve worked with some very high-strung chefs. I did an externship at one of Daniel Boulud’s restaurant’s in New York, and with the French system, if you’re a new guy, they beat you down, but it’s such a good feeling when you succeed. But Marco can be intimidating. When people yell at you, it can be easy to deal with. But he would look you in the eye and pause for 30 seconds and then point out your weakness.”

Denise: “It was more of a grandfatherly, austere, strict mentor. It’s more like life learning—you want to hear what he has to say. It wasn’t necessarily fear, it was more like ‘Oh God, he’s going to call my soul out right now.’”

How does his temper compare to Jeff Buben’s?

Khoa: “They’re very different. With Buben, he demands certain expectations of you, and if you don’t meet those demands, you feel bad because you feel like you let him down. He would tell you why you missed the point—it’s more of a guidance. He’s very strict and wants certain things done the right way, and if it’s not done that way, he’ll be very upset. With Marco, he would always have an instance to relate it back to him. Buben just talks about what needs to be done and deals with it.”

What caused you to drop out?

Khoa: “It happened within five minutes of the elimination process. There was lots of bickering, yelling, and screaming. At that point, I had a sick feeling in my stomach, that feeling when you know that something’s not right here. I thought ‘Man, this is going to be a hard decision. If I don’t do this, I might not have the courage to do this again.’ Poor Denise didn’t know. I said ‘Do you trust me?’ When Marco said Zan and Than’s names, I spoke up about what I like about this business. It’s all about teamwork in a real restaurant. I rely on my staff and everyone works together as a team. How can I be in a competition? It goes against everything I love about the restaurant business.

Was there a straw that broke the camel’s back?

“I was totally fine with everything until the last ten minutes of the debate when Angie and Zan were just going at each other. Working in a restaurant, there’s heated debates, there’s lots of things going on. But at the end of the day we all work together for the same goal. We all drink a beer together at the end of the night, we’re battlemates and we go to war together. It didn’t seem like that was happening at the elimination. Everyone was on their own and throwing each other under the bus. How can you run a restaurant like that?”