What’s a former lawyer and hockey player at the University of Wisconsin doing making Chinese food in a truck in Boulder? Natascha Hess, founder of the Ginger Pig, an Asian-inspired mobile kitchen, took a long road to her current life as a professional cook, but now she’s gaining fans for her honest — and honestly delicious — takes on Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai dishes.
Hess’s journey began with three years of Chinese classes in high school, when she fell in love with the country’s language and culture. Her hockey skills, though, were what landed her at UW, where she scored goals for the Badgers while earning a degree in Chinese language. As part of her studies, she spent a year living with a family in China on a study-abroad program through Columbia University. “Every night, we would cook together — just the four of us,” she recalls. The kitchen in her host’s home was smaller than the interior of the food truck she now owns, but in that year she learned how to make soups, stir-fries and dumplings, writing down as many of the recipes as she could. “I was really into ginger,” Hess adds. “The family I stayed with put it in everything; they said it would give me longer life and health.”
After college, Hess continued to visit China and other parts of Asia, often staying with family friends, which allowed her to get more than a superficial tourist’s view of each country she visited. And, of course, to experience the food.
After her travels, hockey was still a big part of Hess’s life, so she moved to Denver with her husband, Steve, for a behind-the-scenes job shooting Avalanche games for what was then Fox Sports Rocky Mountain. She soon enrolled at the University of Denver law school, and after graduating practiced law here for several years before the job began to take its toll. “It was really depressing stuff, so the way I dealt with it was going home and cooking,” she says, recalling how she would wake up with dreams of Chinese food still in her head.
Life-changing events left Hess wondering if she had made the right career decisions; she loved cooking and sharing her food, and was growing increasingly weary of practicing law. So she and her husband came up with the idea of a food truck that would serve the cuisine she loved cooking. The name Ginger Pig was inspired by her fondness for ginger and because a friend happened to have a pet pig named Ginger.
Hess and her husband were sitting at the chef’s counter at Brazen discussing their plans, back when the restaurant still served a late-night menu and the chef was Carrie Baird (now the executive chef at Bar Dough and a finalist on this season’s Top Chef). Baird overheard the two talking and suggested that Hess stage at a restaurant to gain some professional cooking experience. “I ended up being an intern at Brazen for five months,” Hess says. “And then Carrie actually came and worked on our food truck for four months!”
Today, Hess sees Baird as more than a mentor and friend, and she thinks Baird’s Top Chef appearance only hints at the chef’s depth. “What’s missed is the humanitarian that she is,” Hess explains. “I want the world to understand what character she has; she has this amazing heart.”
The internship at Brazen turned out to be crucial to the development of the Ginger Pig: Not only did Hess gain valuable professional experience (she was washing dishes and shucking oysters on her first day), but she also made a friend who gave advice on menu development and food costs. At Brazen, Hess practiced her recipes during staff meals and received objective input from the other cooks. For example, a cucumber salad that’s now on the Ginger Pig menu was given a brutally honest critique by a co-worker. “He told me it didn’t taste like anything,” she remembers. The lesson helped her improve the recipe and also reminded her to boost the flavor in all of her dishes.
Baird was between jobs when the first customers began to line up at the Ginger Pig, so she helped launch the enterprise and cooked alongside Hess. Together they eliminated a few dishes that were too labor-intensive to be profitable (all those dumplings and egg rolls that Hess loved to make took too long in the truck) or weren’t cost- effective, like grilled lamb skewers. Baird taught Hess how to sous-vide meats, so the menu now includes char siu that’s cooked for fifteen hours in a water bath before being finished with a honey glaze. She also uses a sous-vide bath to poach the chicken for her la zi ji (spicy Sichuan fried chicken) ahead of time so that there are no raw meats on the food truck and guesswork during deep-frying is eliminated.
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A banh mi sandwich (Hess originally purchased the rolls from Denver’s Vinh Xuong Bakery) morphed into a banh mi rice bowl after a customer asked for a gluten-free version of the dish. Baird was there at the time, and Hess says they both knew they had hit on something. The PBR (pork banh-mi rice) is now a top seller, with succulent sesame-ginger braised pork that has the shredded texture of Carolina barbe-cue. More innovation created the Bangkok Balls, which borrow the technique of Italian arancini (fried rice balls) and the flavor of Thai red curry, brightened with a housemade kaffir lime aioli.
The Ginger Pig sets up regularly at the Rayback Collective in Boulder as one of several rotating food trucks, and Hess just landed a slot with Boulder County Farmers’ Markets, so she’ll be making appearances at the main Boulder market every Wednesday and at the Lafayette market every other Thursday during the season. The catering branch of the business is expanding with a build-your-own banh mi bar and box-lunch delivery. The Rayback Collective will launch a Denver location called Improper City later this summer in the RiNo neighborhood; Hess hopes to get in on the food-truck rotation there, too. Her long-term goal is a brick-and-mortar restaurant, though, so the Hesses have just begun analyzing their options and whether fast-casual or full service is the way to go.
In the meantime, working on her food truck reminds Hess of being on a hockey team, where the interactions, the dance-like maneuvering in tight quarters and the reliance on group effort is preferable to the solo existence of a lawyer, and where the friendships made through food are more valuable than a lucrative job.
With a building fan base and a good team in place, all she needs is a sideline commentator to shout “Goaaaal!”