3 local couples who share their lives together, as well as their love of feeding Orlando 

You think marriage is the ultimate commitment? Bah! Try running a restaurant with your bae. These three dynamic duos not only share their lives together, they share their livelihoods — feeding Orlando delicious dishes truly made with love.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ROB BARTLETT
  • Photo by Rob Bartlett

The restaurant: Saigon Noodle & Grill
The couple: Thuy "Vincent" & Thoi "Tudy" Nguyen

As a law student at Saigon University, Vincent traveled to New Orleans in 1984 for a meeting of the National Vietnamese Catholic Convention, where he met Tudy. They've been married for 30 years, have four children, and own and operate two locations of Saigon Noodle & Grill (the newest locale is on Bumby Avenue in the former Pho K5 space), which they started when Vincent immigrated to the United States.

"The biggest challenge is that we are both very competitive and sometimes we have to find ways to compromise and respect each other's ideas and opinions. But the most rewarding part is that we can always rely on each other and know that we can both put in 110 percent in order to be successful," Vincent says.

"We get to see and communicate with each other more and on a daily basis. We always find a way to resolve challenges as a team and because of that, our restaurant business grows stronger every day."

(Insider tip: Saigon Noodle & Grill has the best pho broth in town. We dare you to find better.)

While they both run the restaurant together, there's still a division of labor to some degree. Tudy takes care of the front-of-the-house dining room operations, while Vincent oversees the kitchen, marketing and public relations. Together, they manage the finances as well as train and manage the staff.

Even spending more than 40 hours a week together, they still find things to admire about each other. Vincent appreciates Tudy's guest savvy and "her ability to remember our customers' names and food preferences, while maintaining a clean and healthy environment." What Tudy loves about Vincent? "I admire Vincent because he is intelligent and knows how to make difficult business decisions. Three years ago, the Goldenrod location was struggling before we took over from the few previous owners, and in a short time we made a complete transformation under his leadership. He has a big vision and strong work ethic to make sure everything is running smoothly. He works hard and will not be at ease until a task or goal has been achieved."

Saigon Noodle & Grill, 710 S. Goldenrod Road, 407-658-1967, and 101 N. Bumby Ave., 407-532-7373, saigonnoodleandgrill.com

click to enlarge PHOTO COURTESY OF TRINA GREGORY-PROPST & VA PROPST
  • Photo courtesy of Trina Gregory-Propst & Va Propst

The restaurant: Se7en Bites
The couple: Trina Gregory-Propst & Va Propst

Anyone who says nothing good happens at a strip club hasn't met Trina and Va Propst. They attended a birthday party for twin friends and were each friends with one of the twins. When they met, Trina was still in culinary school and Va had taken a few years off from the restaurant industry to work for an insurance company. "She couldn't resist my chocolate peanut butter bacon cupcakes," says Trina. We're not surprised, and if you've tried any of the sweet delights at Se7en Bites, you probably aren't either. The pair dated for a year and married in Manhattan on July 17, 2013. They've been married for almost three years.

You might think that working together in the same restaurant means plenty of QT as a couple, but for Trina and Va, that's not always the case. "The biggest challenge for us is not having enough time together. I know that's hard to believe, but it's true. We may be in the same 1,000-square-foot space all day, but we are definitely busy with separate tasks," says Trina. "Va does most of the savory kitchen tasks and maintenance, while I take care of the sweet kitchen as well as front of house and customer service."

As much work as it is, there are big rewards too: They cite being able to bounce ideas off each other and collaborate (especially on breakfast specials), as well as knowing they've accomplished all this together. There's a lot to celebrate, too. Se7en Bites' new, larger space will open in July. One more plus: "Maybe a stolen kiss in the walk-in, on occasion," Trina says.

According to the couple, either one could run the entire business if needed, but their efforts ebb and flow with daily, monthly and yearly tasks. Some things they divide and conquer, and some things they take on together.

Trina admires Va's work ethic and ninja-like knife skills. "I know if she says something can be done, it'll happen. She's never let me, or our business, down." Va says she's never seen anyone "pinch pies" as fast as Trina (sexy!). "We are each other's biggest fans."

Se7en Bites Bake Shop, 207 N. Primrose Drive, 407-203-0727 (planning to move to 617 Primrose Drive summer 2016), facebook.com/Se7enbites

click to enlarge PHOTO COURTESY OF HARI AND JENNIFER PULAPAKA
  • Photo courtesy of Hari and Jennifer Pulapaka

The restaurant: Cress Restaurant
The couple: Hari & Jenneffer Pulapaka

Appropriately, James Beard Foundation award nominees Hari and Jenneffer Pulapaka met over a glass of wine in 2005 at the Elusive Grape, also known as DeLand's "living room." Just months later, they married on Yarnet Glacier in Alaska in the summer of 2006.

"The decision to open Cress in 2008 was an exciting addition to our already-busy lives," says Jenneffer. "I loved the idea of a global kitchen that showcased our regional bounty." With dishes that call attention to freshness and respect for ingredients as well as sustainability and local sourcing, Cress' success has been largely due to the Pulapakas' global savvy and love of travel.

Jenneffer works as the general manager of the restaurant and is a certified wine director and member of the Wine Scholar guild. "My main goal is to maintain a dynamic and elegant wine menu that showcases Hari's food," says Jenneffer. From menu development, sourcing, ordering, preparation and running the line with his sous-chef, Hari is the maestro of the kitchen. "When I'm not traveling, I'm in the kitchen prepping food, overseeing and managing some of the financial aspects," says Hari.

"Initially, since Cress is open Tuesday through Saturday, we had little time together, but as our concept and hours have evolved, we now enjoy spending time together and with friends and family doing what we do best: hosting dinner parties at our home," says Jenneffer. "The fact of the matter is," says Hari, "our love and respect for each other has contributed more to Cress' success than anything else."

Jenneffer is most proud of Hari's involvement with the Chef's Action Network, which has led to Cress championing the sustainability movement and anti-food-waste programs. Cress has real relationships with those who supply their ingredients: the farmers, the fishermen, the foragers and cattlemen. Hari adds, "I admire Jenneffer's relentless and passionate approach to the blue-collar fabric of the restaurant. She seamlessly accepts and elevates the grunge and unglamorous aspects of running a restaurant day in and day out. She has a tremendous palate, which despite her vegetarian lifestyle facilitates some of the best food and wine pairings around."

Cress Restaurant, 103 W. Indiana Ave., DeLand, 386-734-3740, cressrestaurant.com

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