Natalia Hess Kopfler, 36, general manager and pastry chef, Freret Beer Room, New Orleans, LA
Growing up in Milwaukee, Hess had been a superb student, getting all A's, joining all the clubs, and doing all the things in order to get into the University of Wisconsin-Madison with an eye towards being a doctor. But after working so hard to get to Madison, the idea of spending another 12 years in school seemed daunting, and so, after her first year, she came back home, recalibrated, and thought about cooking.
Restaurants had always been a part of Hess' family. Her grandparents owned restaurants in Milwaukee, her mother had been a server when she was growing up, her older brother Peter was a chef -- it just made sense. And so she began to study culinary arts at the local community college and make money on the side working as a server at a local Neapolitan pizzeria and Applebee's, having the sort of lighthearted, low responsibility fun you'd expect from a typical college-age kid. And then life intervened.
When Hess was 19, her mother was diagnosed with colorectal cancer. It took the doctors awhile to figure out exactly what it was, as it had presented itself in her uterus and ovaries first, but after multiple tests they finally figured it out and she began chemotherapy. Not wanting to be a burden to her elder daughters, in 2003 their mother moved up with Hess' aunt in Menominee, Michigan, a city of 8,500 people in the Upper Peninsula, and brought Hess' two younger brothers Lennie II and Jacob.
Over a decade younger than Hess, and from a different father than her and her brother and sister, the two boys had nonetheless always played a big role in her life. Born three months premature, Lennie II has cerebral palsy and epilepsy, and was never going to be able to take care of himself; and with his and Jacob's father not really in the picture, Hess and her younger sister Elizabeth had always helped their mother raise and look after them. But after two years in Menominee, and several remissions and relapses, it became clear Hess' mother's cancer was not going away, and she was becoming less able to provide care for her boys as she needed more care herself. So in 2005, Hess and her sister moved up to this small city 55 miles north of Green Bay to be with their mother until the end.
For two women in their early twenties who'd grown up in a happening city, living in Menominee was culturally shocking. What social life they could piece together when not tending to their mother or brothers seemed to revolve around trips to Walmart and meals and drinks at the bar at Applebee's. For awhile, Hess took a job in HR for a company in town that made engine parts, but during the economic downturn, she was laid off.
Hess' mother passed away on February 6, 2008. They had had so much time to reflect on the fact that she was going to die, and say all the things they wanted to say, and make whatever peace needed to be made, and so, in theory, they should've been ready. But once it actually happened, the gravity of the situation fell heavily upon Hess. Before she died, their mother had made arrangements for Hess and her sister to have full custody of Lennie II and Jacob. The four of them would be a version of a nuclear family, and would figure it out together. Hess was just 24.
A year later, Hess and her sister made a special trip to New Orleans for her birthday. They'd always loved New Orleans -- it had been a special place for her mother, and once on a road trip to Texas in high school in their tiny Geo Metro, her mother made a point to stop there for a couple of days to show her kids this city she loved so much. And now on this birthday trip, while tipsily wandering back to their hotel from the French Quarter, her sister blurted out, "Hey, do you want to move here?"
"Yes," Hess said immediately. "Let's do just that."
Energized by this plan, the Hess women went back to Menominee, saved their money, waited for the school year to end for the boys, and, in July 2009, moved down to an apartment in New Orleans to start again.