Inside Helene's Food Empire
By Jaqueline McCool | Photography by Julie Wuellner
"Fresh. Organic. Local.” That is the slogan that greets you as you walk into Malibu’s coveted Oceanside eatery, Malibu Farm. It was just four years ago that Swedish-born chef, Helene Henderson, opened her first restaurant on the historic Malibu pier. Malibu Farm Café quickly went from pop-up restaurant to tourist destination, extending its stay permanently, and eventually adding a more formal dining experience at the foot of the pier.
“I want all the food to feel like coming home,” said Henderson.
And that it does. Henderson did not begin her professional life in the restaurant business, but after her home (the original Malibu Farm) accidentally became one, she decided to stake her claim. She started modestly, cooking for friends with the fresh ingredients grown in her garden and soon she was filling a void that locals never knew they had. Henderson credits her prime real estate location to her husband, who informed her of the vacated Ruby’s diner space on the 112-year-old pier. The move was a risky one for Henderson, who recounts the many failed restaurants that attempted to run on the Malibu pier. The possibility for failure was omnipresent. Henderson recalls thinking the location would never make money or questioning if any customer would be willing to make the trek down the pier. In the end, Henderson’s gut instinct was the right one and the decision definitely paid off. She says, “simple rustic decor, with healthy food, and a social media campaign run solely by me proved to be the recipe to success.”
Henderson says it was her longtime friend, local Malibu designer, Vanessa Alexander that helped channel Henderson’s “inner simple Scandinavian sensibility.” After all, it is Alexander who Henderson credits with being able to, “transform an abandoned red vinyled Ruby’s at the end of the Malibu Pier into the Malibu Farm Café.” The relaxed demeanor or the restaurants encapsulate what it means to dine at Malibu Farm. Seemingly simple, but always intriguing. Though the recipes seem unfamiliar in their pairings, the euphoric tastes and satisfaction that come from the dining experience Henderson has created not only invoke comfort, but also sheer bliss. The restaurants have become so intertwined in the definition of Malibu culture it is difficult to picture a pier without their presence. Henderson’s career before the farm was just as dynamic, from modeling and then graphic design, to an eventual transition into catering and cooking that brought her to where she is today.
Sitting at her usual table, as the early morning sun bleeds through the windows and the pier begins to bustle with life. This isn’t the location Henderson had always imagined when contemplating opening her own restaurant. Her original vision was to find a space that kept in context with the ‘farm’ portion of the name. When hosting her dinners, Henderson would station different food items throughout the farm.
“When you came to a farm dinner you would get this little welcome sheet and it would say something like, 'in the front yard meet the chickens and have deviled eggs, in the barn meet the goats and have goat cheese pizza,'” said Henderson.
Henderson admits she is not the biggest fan of the water and even needs to wear a motion sickness bracelet when the tide is high down at the pier. She had originally envisioned a space surrounded by wilderness, perhaps even a garden, places where Henderson says she would love to open a restaurant in the future. But now, Malibu Farm, so synonymous with its oceanfront view at every location, could not be pictured anywhere else. The space she has created is dream-like, suspended above a stretch of cerulean, the rustic and simultaneously beachy demeanor of the restaurants embody a culture of Los Angeles dining that is often lost in insincere attempts at recreation. Henderson is the original.
As a personal chef to what she calls, “the quintessential LA family,” Henderson became familiar with what people wanted and needed in a restaurant.
“When you start spending that much time with other people’s families, you just start to get a pretty good sense of what people actually are eating,” Henderson said.
She still keeps family in mind when creating new recipes. Henderson tries to envision what each member of the family would want, including the health-conscious mother, selective kids, a husband with a hearty appetite, and disillusioned relatives from out of town. She wants there to be “something” for everyone. Aside from curating a menu that serves what she wants to eat, Henderson has often been asked how she got her three children to eat her hearty health-conscious cooking. The answer is simple: “You don’t worry about what they eat, you just eat,” she says.
If there’s something for Henderson on the menu, it’s breakfast, at least twice, if not three times a day. She credits this love to her Swedish heritage, which has a visible influence on her menus. A smorgasbord is a necessity for Henderson.
“One of my biggest pet peeves is when someone just gives me a sandwich,” she says. No plate at Malibu farm is simply a sandwich, and almost all abide by Henderson’s three side rule, her own kind of smorgasbord.
Taking her farm to table idea to tables outside of California happened faster than Henderson could have expected. Meir Teper, co-owner of Nobu Malibu, has been a personal friend of Henderson’s for years now. He was one of her first customers on the pier, and the two formed a close bond which has led to many business ventures. Henderson believes Teper has an indisputable talent for knowing what the community needs.
“He understands the restaurant business and Malibu unlike anyone else,” says Henderson “[He’s] the only person who could turn a Malibu location into one of the highest grossing restaurants in the world.”
Teper introduced Henderson to Larry Ellison, founder of Oracle, and owner of Four Seasons Lanai as well as 98% of Lanai. Ellison has long been a driving force behind Malibu’s changing social scene. He owns several homes along Carbon Beach, the property that houses the Nobu restaurant, as well as co-owns the Nobu Ryokan hotel. Together the two have helped take Henderson’s pop-up on the pier to two new shores already. The Malibu Farm Café had only been open a few months when a new location across the United States was proposed to Henderson. She was offered a space in the new Nobu Hotel Miami, in the renovated Eden Roc hotel.
Following this partnership, Ellison wanted Malibu Farm to be the new poolside eatery at Four Seasons Lanai; she opened three months later. Miami is set to open its doors in weeks, and Henderson is prepared. She expects the location’s first year to work like Lanai, with upwards of five visits. Henderson says it is funny now to think the Miami restaurant has been in the works for two years, a move she says she may not have been ready for at the time, but is now anxious to see through.
“When I signed on Miami, I only had the café, and it definitely felt like a really big leap,” said Henderson. “Now I feel like I’m more ready for it.”
Her new locations may not be within the confines of the Malibu coast, but they incorporate the unique blend of health and heartiness that have made Henderson an institution. As licensed establishments, the new Malibu Farms incorporate a menu curated by Henderson as she works to make sure her brand is consistent. No matter where Henderson’s restaurants expand to, they take a slice of the Malibu culture with them. Maintaining her motto of “Fresh. Organic. Local.” is a key part of this. That means sourcing from fisherman in Lanai, and growers in Miami. Although the Lanai location was quick to launch, it faced its own set of challenges as a private island. Once known for being the home of the Dole pineapple plantation, Lanai is still largely unpopulated. Henderson says this has made it difficult to locally source, as she generally prefers doing, with a lack of local business. However, soon with Ellison’s launch of a hydroponic farm, the island will have food worthy of Henderson’s backyard.
As even more new locations in Newport and Montecito are forging ahead, it is easy to imagine that Henderson will soon become a household name. Even with these exciting changes, Henderson hasn’t forgotten her roots. She still finds herself at the original location almost every day of the week following her morning run and the firsts of her breakfasts.
When Henderson walks into her restaurant, she immediately starts laughing wagging her finger, shouting “who did this,” playfully at her employees. She motions to the Malibu Farm cookbooks placed around the entrance, “they’re always doing this,” she says with a smile. Every cookbook’s page is flipped to a large portrait photo of Henderson holding one of her creations. “Sometimes I’ll be standing here, and everyone is laughing, and then I realize.” Henderson scolds her laughing employees as she promptly flips the pages back. However successful, she remains humble.
Henderson hopes to continue her backyard meals in the near future, even as it may seem there is no time to take off from maintaining and expanding the Los Angeles institution. “One day at a time, one foot in front of the other,” she says. “While almost everything has changed, everything also stays the same.” MM