We’re over the moon to reveal that Chef Natascha Hess, the culinary heavyweight behind Berkeley’s Ginger Pig, will hijack @diningoutmagazine’s Instagram tomorrow, March 30. To whet your appetite for her shenanigans, we chatted with the chef about her whirlwind journey from college hockey rinks to Chinese kitchens, from legal battlegrounds to food truck feasts, and finally, to leading the charge at The Ginger Pig. (In case you’re wondering: yes, she’s a former college athlete, Chinese major, lawyer, and current kick-ass chef and restaurateur with a culinary prowess that’s earned her restaurant rave reviews and landed Chef Hess on Food Network’s Chopped and Beat Bobby Flay.)
Recently recharged from an epic trip to Asia, Hess is gearing up to open a second Ginger Pig outpost, which, after a nail-biting nine-month permitting marathon, is finally under construction and slated to open later this spring in Boulder.
Can’t wait to sink your teeth into some mouthwatering Asian grub from The Ginger Pig? Neither can we. To appease your appetite, follow @diningoutmagazine and catch Chef Hess’s Instagram shenanigans tomorrow. You’ll also have a shot at winning a $50 gift card to her restaurant—check out our Instagram page for all the juicy details.
Take a peek at our chat with Chef Natascha Hess below for a sneak peek of the upcoming takeover, her grand plans for the new Ginger Pig location in Boulder, and her unrelenting passion for sharing the memories and flavors she savored during her time in Asia.
DiningOut: We’re excited to have you taking over DiningOut’s Instagram! What can we expect to see during your takeover? Where will you be spending most of your day?
Natascha Hess: Actually, instead of doing a “day in the life of” takeover, I’ll be showing where we are now, how we got here, and what we’re doing next—which is opening a new Ginger Pig location in Boulder. Many people don’t know that Ginger Pig started as a food truck. We operated as a food truck for four years before we opened the restaurant. So it’s part of our history and story. I’m using this opportunity to share our story a bit, rather than just showcasing a day in my life.
DO: Let’s discuss the name Ginger Pig. Can you share the story behind it?
NH: When I launched the food truck, I drew inspiration from my Chinese host family, with whom I lived during my college study abroad in China. My host mom would add ginger to everything, emphasizing that ginger and garlic are good for your health. As I began cooking, I aimed to incorporate ginger into all my dishes. I considered naming the food truck Ginger Therapy, which is a terrible name. I was discussing some other options with my best friend from law school when she mentioned that she had a pig named ginger. Right away, I knew The Ginger Pig was the perfect name.
DO: Do you ever miss your food truck days?
NH: There are aspects I miss, like the intimacy of just three or four of us doing everything. But I don’t miss the long days, like working from 7 a.m. to midnight. It was brutal. For years, I dealt with the challenges of food truck life—extreme temperatures among them. Both food trucking and restauranting are tough in different ways. I sometimes miss being in different places every day and being part of people’s special events.
There are definitely things I miss about it. It’s where we trained and learned how to do this. But I don’t want to go back. I like to think I’ve graduated.
DO: Do you have any advice for someone considering starting a food truck or who just launched one?
NH: Don’t give up. There will be days when you wonder why you’re doing this. I once had a $26 Friday during a snowstorm, but the same week, I had a $2,000 Tuesday. Unexpected things happen, but don’t give up. That’s my best advice: Even on the days where it feels like you should, don’t give up.
DO: We know the Boulder restaurant is still a little ways off, but do you have any info about how it will differ from the Denver location?
NH: It’s quite different because it will be takeout and delivery only. It’s almost like a big, glorified food truck. At 400 square feet, it’ll offer takeout at the window or delivery through a service. The idea is to have a place that’s like a permanent food truck. Some dishes will be the same as the Denver menu; others will be special and new, just for Boulder.
At the Denver restaurant, we try to make it fun with karaoke on Thursdays, trivia on Tuesdays, and by always having the Rockies, Aves, and Nuggets games on. We aim to make it a fun place where it’s not just dinner, but somewhere you can come with friends and make memories.
DO: What’s typically on the soundtrack in your kitchen?
NH: That’s a good question. I recently promoted my sous chef to chef, so she now runs the music, and she’s really good at it. We often choose as a team, picking a theme and getting everyone’s input. Some days, we’ll choose a letter of the alphabet and everyone selects a band whose name starts with that letter—gives us a good mix and variety and includes everyone.
The main theme is Brandi Carlile—we have many women in the kitchen, which is extraordinary and relatively rare. On Thursdays, all three line cooks are women.
DO: Tell us about your recent travels.
NH: I recently returned from a profound trip to Asia after 23 years, which was made possible by my amazing staff. I joined Chef Ann Kim, who beat me on Chopped, traveling to Korea, Singapore, and Japan. I’ll share pictures during my @diningoutmagazine Instagram takeover.
During the trip, I took cooking classes in each country, including two in Korea. I also went fly fishing in Tokyo Bay, a new and exciting adventure for me, though I’ve been fishing for years. Fly-fishing is different. I caught a sea bass, which we brought to a nearby local restaurant. They prepared the fish in three ways—sashimi, grilled, and tempura. It was truly special to have a fish I caught prepared in various styles at a restaurant just minutes from where we docked.
DO: What do you enjoy about fly fishing?
NH: No cell service. And being detached in a beautiful place. It’s rhythmic, meditative, and feels like ultimate self-care. Spending a day outside, often with some hiking, is my favorite thing to do besides my husband.
DO: Amazing. With your passion for cooking with fresh produce, care to share your thoughts on local farmer’s markets as the season approaches?
NH: While lawyering, cooking became my meditation. I joined a CSA from Lafayette’s Isabel Farm, which offered 80 different vegetables during the 20-week season. It was fun recreating dishes with these fresh veggies, inspired by my Chinese family and travels in Asia, like the Vietnamese watermelon salad.
When I started the food truck, I loved visiting Isabel Farm. We spent a summer there, enjoying the freshest ingredients for our dishes, such as lettuce wraps and Japanese street corn. When it was slow, we’d experiment and play with different ingredients. This is how I created my Vietnamese watermelon salad, which makes seasonal appearances on our menu.
Any additional thoughts?
What I cherish about restaurant ownership and working in a kitchen is the teamwork. Growing up, I played hockey and softball, captaining my teams. Now, my staff and I are a team, making this work together. The 15 people on our team deserve recognition—it takes a group effort to make a restaurant successful, not just the chef or owner. It takes a team, and my team deserves lots of praise.
The Ginger Pig
4262 Lowell Blvd., Denver
1203 13th St., Boulder