Three years ago, Natascha Hess was a lawyer who dreamed of cooking for a living. Specifically, she wanted to open a food truck to share the recipes she learned from her host mother, Zhang Nalu, with whom Hess lived in Beijing as a student. Memories of dumpling-eating contests with her little sister, Zhang Na, and mincing pork with a cleaver side-by-side with her mother fueled her excitement about Chinese food; after college, Hess followed her blooming palate on several trips across Asia, from Tokyo to Hong Kong to Singapore.
Then, one day many years later, after Hess had settled in Denver with her husband, Steve, she was overcome with a craving for Zhang Nalu’s version of borscht (a tomato-based sweet-and-sour soup common in Hong Kong). Into the kitchen Hess went to recreate the recipe. It was the moment of clarity: Hess vowed to realize her food truck aspirations.
As the Hess’s planned their concept, the Ginger Pig, and tested recipes in the spring of 2015—pot stickers were to be the main draw—the couple met Carrie Baird, then executive chef at Brazen in West Highland, while dining at the chef’s counter. When Hess told Baird about her dream of owning an Asian food truck, Baird suggested that she “stage” (work as a kitchen apprentice) in a Denver restaurant. “I explained that I was an attorney and had no professional cooking experience,” Hess says. “But Carrie said, ‘I’ll take you.’”
Hess staged in the Brazen kitchen for five months, learning how to cook and clean like a pro from Baird and the rest of the crew. While Hess was there, Baird encouraged her to make recipes for the Ginger Pig to get feedback from the other chefs; Hess would cook the food at home and bring it in for family meal. “It was so intimidating for me to make food for that team,” Hess recalls, “but it really helped me and pushed me to improve.” The Bangkok Balls (Thai red curry rice balls) on the Ginger Pig’s current menu is one such recipe, enhanced by a wild lime leaf aïoli that Hess learned to make from Jorge Cazares (at one time a Brazen cook, now owner of Boar & Castle, a new Denver area food truck specializing in wonderful fresh pastas and Spanish fare).
The Ginger Pig opened in July 2016, parked at the Rayback Collective in Boulder. The first month of business, Hess felt elated…and overwhelmed. She had three people making her potstickers at full tilt three days a week, but they still couldn’t keep up with demand. Labor costs were busting their bottom line. But Baird came to the rescue. Having left Brazen and with time to kill before opening Just Be Kitchen, Baird offered to work with Hess on the Ginger Pig. For starters, Baird insisted that Hess take the dumplings off the menu. “She helped us see that if we wanted to be open in a year,” Hess says, “we had to get rid of them. Fast forward to the end of our second season, and our menu is 100% different.”
Baird stayed for four months, helping the Hess’s streamline their process, master the basics of truck cooking, and even absorb what it takes to lead a food business. “Carrie is so impressive because she’s the one cleaning the hoods and taking out the trash,” Hess says. “She doesn’t ask anyone to do anything she won’t do herself, and watching her run a restaurant was how I learned about true leadership.”
“Natascha had a vision for food truckin’ and is living it,” Baird says. “I’m super proud of her, not only as my buddy but as my ‘mentee.’ Someone much wiser than I once said (something like), ‘A great chef isn’t measured on their accomplishments, but the great chefs they turn out.’ I wasn’t born with these skills, I have been taught them. I am just as much a teacher as a chef.”
Last summer was the Ginger Pig’s best season yet. Its revamped menu offers dishes from Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, and China. The truck’s best seller is a deconstructed sesame-ginger pork banh mi rice bowl, which takes the best elements of the beloved sandwich—braised pork, house-pickled veggies, fresh cilantro, and jalapeño—into gluten-free territory. Hess also creates veggie-forward specials on days she’s parked at Isabelle Farm in Lafayette (her main provider of organic produce) such as grilled bok choy with gochujang vinaigrette.
The truck is closed for the winter (unless you want to hire the team to cater a party for you), but will resume serving its Asian street food on opening day at the Rayback Collective, March 2. The Ginger Pig will also continue its weekly visits to Isabelle Farm and hopes to make appearances at the Boulder Farmers Market, too.
To watch Denver local Carrie Baird and the other Top Chef: Colorado cheftestants cook on local food trucks for their next elimination challenge, tune in to Bravo tonight at 10 p.m. MT.