"If Donna had not cut her hand that day, I'm not sure I would be in the food business today!"
As the late Bob Ross often said, "We don't make mistakes, just happy little accidents." Well what started as a happy accident–also known as a friend slicing her hand while prepping food for a dinner party–unknowingly spurred a lifelong passion and new career calling for chef Helene Henderson, owner of Malibu Farm restaurants.
"I don't know if I ever really set out to be in the food industry…In America, I worked as a graphic designer and in retail stores. I rather accidentally started a catering company, Lavender Farms Catering, while we were living in Hollywood," Helene shares. "My friend Donna was having a dinner party, and she cut her hand while she was prepping the food. She went to the emergency room, and I went to her house and cooked the dinner for her. This dinner was a huge surprise success, and I was suddenly getting hired to cook for others. So I started a catering company. If Donna had not cut her hand that day, I'm not sure I would be in the food business today!"
Malibu Farm is a home, a community, and a desire to live local, eat local, and celebrate local. It's the ultimate proof that if you do what comes naturally, anything is possible.
In November, we opened our third retail location at the Malibu Country Mart, just a short stroll down the beach from Helene's original restaurant location. So we, of course, had to stop by to visit our new neighbors and chat with the Malibu Farm owner to hear more about her inspiring story. We also had a chance to collaborate further, creating custom Blanket Shirts for the restaurant team, which you can purchase at the Malibu Farm store or at our Outerknown Malibu retail location next to Helene’s cookbook, Recipes From the California Coast.
How did you decide to settle in beautiful Malibu?
My husband is a surfer, and he always wanted to move to Malibu, so we saved like crazy for about fifteen years until we were able to make it happen.
When did you first become interested in farm-to-table food?
Some things just come naturally; I don't know that farm-to-table was ever an interest per se for me; it was rather a reality. I never understood the appeal of burgers, fries and soda. I grew up in the north of Sweden, and we spent all our summers in a tiny summer house where we foraged for berries, grew our own vegetables, and fished and hunted elk and deer. Forest-to-table and lake-to-plate are how we ate and how we lived.
What inspired you to create Malibu Farm?
I was catering and working as a private chef. For fun, I was teaching cooking classes out of my home in Malibu. The name of my recipe blog where I posted the cooking class recipes was called, Malibu Farm. The cooking classes led to underground farm dinners in my backyard, to which I sold tickets online. So I was essentially operating an underground and non-permitted restaurant out of my backyard. Eventually–as I should have been–I got shut down by the city of Malibu. I then started looking for a commercial location to hold my dinners, which is how I ended up on the Malibu Pier. It started as the idea of a one-night dinner, which led to a six-month pop-up, and here we are almost ten years later.
What sets Malibu Farm apart from other "farm-to-table" style restaurants?
We try to be fun and not take ourselves too seriously–it's just food, after all. We try to create a memorable experience with our atmosphere, dishes, and presentations–hopefully, you can't get that at other farm-to-table restaurants. I can be endlessly entertained by the silliest things, red tortillas (omg), squash noodles (having a blast), broccoli mashed potatoes (haha, yes, please).
In your earlier years, I read that the eggs at the café were from your very own chickens–talk about homegrown! Do you still incorporate any of your homegrown foods?
When I opened, I thought I would be using all the oranges from my yard for our fresh juice, all the eggs from my coop for our egg dishes, and all the arugula and vegetables from my beds. Not sure what I was thinking, but yeah, that was my vision but sadly nowhere near a reality. Luckily, Malibu has a couple of hyper-local farmers, and just up Pacific Coast Highway, you will reach lots of farmland about 20 minutes past Malibu. We are very lucky to have access to so much local produce all over California.
What were some of the biggest lessons you learned during this process, from hosting "underground dinners" to eventually opening your own restaurants?
After about twelve years in catering, I totally burned out and needed to take a step back and instead took a private chef job. I went from catering big Hollywood celebrity events to cooking for a family. Many nights, I just cooked dinner for the kids, as the high-profile parents were often out. I felt like a massive failure at the time and referred to myself as a "cooler" lady, not someone cool but someone dragging a "cooler" to work. However, in retro spec, I learned everything I needed to know in the period when I perceived I was learning nothing. My assignment as a private chef was to cook for a family, and failure in private chef work is when the kids and the grandparents can't eat your food. In restaurants and catering, you can be very insulated from those needs and build menus that don't take that into consideration.
Why are sourcing and shopping locally important to you?
It is important to me, but I also recognize that it is not realistic for an ever-expanding population to live near farmland and eat locally. It is easy to preach about local when you live in Malibu, California. Eating local should be a right, but the reality is that it is a privilege. It is easy to get caught up in the bubble of exclusivity and forget that eating local and organic is unattainable for many families who may struggle with food security to begin with. I always hesitate to be too much of a preacher of organics and local and hope to rather be teaching that any changes which include more vegetables forward diets are steps in the right direction, local or not, organic or not. But obviously, if you can select local and organic products, that is amazing!
There is always some controversy about hydroponic farming and if it should be considered organic as there is no soil used. As much as I am personally a fan of the old-school small-scale farm, we probably have to be open to all sorts of farming that can grow the produce closer to the consumer and reduce the number of miles and fossil fuels to bring it from farm to plate. Perhaps the future for high-rise buildings in big cities is to have in-house hydroponic produce grown for their tenants.
It is easy to believe that we as an individual can not make a major impact, so what does it matter if we recycle, use straws or plastic bags. Can one individual person among millions and billions of people make an impact? Which is definitely a yes.
Why do you think Malibu Farm and Outerknown sit well together?
Influence in the industry in either restaurant, retail, or how we impact the environment individually. The path and passion for Malibu Farm has always been to create super inclusive environments, with simple menus that (hopefully) do not intimidate anyone to join us at the table. It is easy to believe that we as an individual can not make a major impact, so what does it matter if we recycle, use straws or plastic bags. Can one individual person among millions and billions of people make an impact? Which is definitely a yes. Greta Thunberg, (obviously from my homeland) but what a legend who inspired generations and a reminder that we can all make a difference, no matter who we are or where we are from.
What has your journey been like as an environmentally friendly chef?
Environmental health is human health and animal health. We are all on this planet together, and there is no planet B, at least for now. I garden with a philosophy of not fighting nature. I grow tons of arugula because snails, gophers, coyotes, etc., do not eat arugula, which makes it the easiest crop to grow, and why I started putting it on everything. I used to grow heirloom tomatoes, but those got decimated by critters all around, so I switched to cherry tomatoes; they leave those alone. I like to grow and garden crops that can be grown organically and easily, which for me is a win-win.
"Eating local should be a right, but the reality is that it is a privilege."
How do you believe the food industry can improve?
The food industry, farming and production are responding to the customers’ needs for cheap, fast and quick meals, which intersects with capitalism and the need for corporations and businesses to make a profit. In order to produce healthy meals and pay everyone involved in the process–from the farmworkers to the factory workers to restaurant employees–higher pay comes with higher-priced meals for the customers or lower profits for corporate America.
The biggest change we can make is to offer healthier, affordable meals and bring the customer who would normally order fast food to join us at the farm table. Mcdonald's, Shake Shack, or any fast-food chain could probably make a bigger impact than any independently owned restaurant if they became more vegetable-forward and used sustainable products and to-go packaging.
Environmental health is human health and animal health. We are all on this planet together, and there is no planet B, at least for now.
What other restaurants and brands inspire you?
Gjusta, Great White, Bob's Well Bread, John's Garden. I just went up to a great new restaurant in Ojai, Rory's Place.
What advice do you have for other chefs interested in the environment?
Start a garden, small or big, even on a windowsill. The more you grow, the more you know.
What is your favorite meal?
Hmmm not sure about my favorite meal, but I do love potatoes because it reminds me of home in Sweden and the people I hold dear no longer here. The simple and humble potato always gives me a sense of peace, and the tuber from the soil and earth grounds me.
Tell me about your new book, Recipes From the California Coast.
The original cookbook was written before the restaurants opened and was based on my cooking classes. Restaurant customers often commented that the original cookbook did not include any restaurant recipes, so that was the thought behind the new book, which is available online, in our restaurants, and at some Outerknown locations.
What do you enjoy doing apart from cooking?
I love solitude and quiet, skipping in a garden or a forest, living in my own little fantasy world. I also love routines, no matter how mundane, feeding animals, gardening, running, and hiking.
Aside from opening your own restaurants, what are some of your proudest accomplishments, both personally and professionally?
I try to encourage all our staff, our back of house staff especially, to eat more vegetables and greens and feel accomplished when they skip on the steak nachos and instead eat vegan squash tacos or a raw brussels salad. It actually happens, so yeah, some days, dreams do come through.
We are opening later this year in fall 2022, both at Seaport San Diego and Tiburon outside San Francisco. We are also working on a new concept–shhhh, it is a secret–set to open in Newport Beach this summer. We are also finalizing our lease at the Dana Point harbor revitalization as well, but that is probably not going to open until 2024.
I saw the photos of your team in the Outerknown Blanket Shirts, they look amazing! Do you have any favorite Outerknown pieces?
I appreciate fashion, but I am definitely more of a uniform sort of person. Jeans and a solid color Blanket Shirt, sneakers, or boots are all I need. I find patterns and colors super cute on others, but I am all about the grey, blue and black. The Outerknown Station Jumpsuit is awfully cute.
You can also buy limited-edition Malibu Farm custom Blanket Shirts at our Malibu Outerknown store!
3835 Cross Creek Rd, Suite 9
Malibu, CA 90265