As we patiently await Spring in NYC, I find myself reminiscing about my trip to Miami for the South Beach Wine & Food Festival a few weeks ago. Maybe it’s the longing for the rooftop pools and ocean breezes, or maybe it’s because I JUST did my laundry from that trip, so it’s all very fresh in my mind.
Regardless, let’s stop talking about me and rewind to dining poolside at the Nobu Eden Roc Hotel, where I had the pleasure of chatting with Chef Helene Henderson about her new home for Malibu Farm, a popular restaurant on the Pier in Malibu, CA. The new Malibu Farm isn’t complete yet, but should be opening in April/May. I got a sneak peek at the space and the food. Beautiful views as you can see here!
A California native by way of Sweden, Chef Henderson believes in simple and colorful farm to table cooking, Tom Colicchio’s Twitter feed, and no runny yolks on her food.
PS – you can read more about chefs and their food fears on this roundup I did for Bravo. This is my blog and I’ll shamelessly self promote if I want to.
Peeling the onion: Helene Henderson
Dara: I’m picking up on an accent here, but I’m not good at placing them. Where are you from?
Helene: I’m originally from Sweden but I’ve been in California for over 30 years. I had a catering company for a really long time and then I left catering and went to private chef work. It was a hobby. I started teaching cooking classes out of my house and I wanted my classes to be free form. I wanted it to be simple. Like, ‘come to my house, we have chickens and goats and a vegetable garden. Lets go out, get the food, and cook the food.’
D: Nice. And how did it progress?
H: Someone was like, “why don’t you do it as a blog? That way you can leave the class free form and then post the recipe the next day?” And I liked that so I thought, ‘ok, I need a name for my blog…I live in Malibu…I have chickens, goats, and pigs…a vineyard…a vegetable garden…ahh Malibu Farm!’
D: That’s awesome. And how did the dinners come about?
H: After a while of doing the cooking classes, somebody said ‘you should have a dinner in your backyard’. So I did one backyard dinner which was a fundraiser for the schools. The dinners grew and I was doing it sometimes three nights in a row, 150 people per night.
H: And of course the city told me I needed permits because this was totally underground. So I started taking my dinners on the road to other farms around Malibu, but there’s not many places to go, so I was like where can I have a location? I ended up at the Pier and when i reached out to the landlord we settled on a 6 month pop up.
D: And this was full time?
H: No I was just doing breakfast and lunch because I still had my private chef work at night. Because in my mind, I didn’t know if it was going to work out, I was just experimenting. Figured I’ll try it and see what happens, and then right away but it became very popular. Luckily [bc of the blog] I had a huge internet following. I was one week into the pop-up where I gave a 3-month request for time off and I ended up never going back.
D: Wow that’s some luck!
H: Yea it turned into a real restaurant! Then suddenly I’m in Miami opening a restaurant?! Like what the heck happened?! I was never doing Malibu Farm for money.
D: What is your favorite thing to eat or favorite thing to cook?
H: I want food to be happy and colorful. And I’m also from Sweden so I like a bit of a smorgasbord. Like if someone gives me a sandwich I’ll ask “where’s my salad?”. I like to have multiple things on my plate and I like to be comfortable but healthy. Sometimes when you eat healthy you feel like you’re doing homework. I don’t want to do homework I want to eat something that feels healthy but still feels like home. And I love potatoes. I can’t live without them.
D: Me too! What’s your favorite potato dish?
H: In Sweden we’re all about the baby spring potatoes. I remember my childhood. My grandmother picking potatoes and boiling them with the skin on. If I don’t eat any carbs I feel so deprived.
D: What about a workout regimen?
H: I try to go running in the morning. I’m not a huge workout fan. I like to lift weights a lot. But I need a babysitter/trainer because I’m not self motivated enough.
D: So why this space? And how did it come about? Tell me the story.
H: So we’re in Malibu on the Pier, and not far away from us is the Nobu Malibu restaurant. Randomly, Meir [Teper], one of the owners, lives nearby and he was there [at Malibu Farm] having breakfast. And he kept coming in! The owner of Nobu! I had no idea. The cafe was getting super crowded and its a really small cafe. And at the time, I just did a pop up so I started talking to Meir about finding another location. There was another building next to Nobu Malibu that was vacant which his friend Larry owned. So we started talking to Larry and Meir about moving from the Pier to there, and then we told my landlord we were thinking about moving, so he offered us a second restaurant. And now we have both. So they [Nobu] do all the food services and they needed a casual breakfast lunch and dinner spot. And then [Meir] said ‘Oh Helene what if you come and we operate it for you by Nobu!’
D: Wow that’s amazing. But there’s no Nobu influence in your menu?
H: No no. And they’re a very experienced restaurant team. They’re still doing training on the dishes here. They’re still working out of the Nobu kitchen right now and Nobu is not a vegetable focused restaurant.
D: Do you have a preference for the Malibu menu vs Miami menu?
(Our food comes)
H: See it comes with a side salad! (pointing to the steak sandwich and laughs). So, we’ll have the classics and then there will be Miami specials. We’ve gone about three times to meet the farmers but the opening has been delayed 6 months from last time.
D: So you don’t know what the Miami specials will be yet?
H: No, we’re still working on that. But we’re doing wood burning pizza ovens here which we don’t have in Malibu! So in Malibu we just have vegetable crust pizzas like zucchini and cauliflower crust pizza, but here we’ll also have REAL wood-fired pizzas. And because we have those ovens, we’ll be making whole roasted fish, some roast chickens and things like that.
D: That’s awesome. And what’s your approach to cooking?
H: What we try to do at Malibu Farm is, for example, have a steak sandwich like the one you’re eating for the guy who wants to eat steak, but then have healthier salad options and sides – we try to make it recognizable. Like white rice with a little bit of quinoa in it. Broccoli mashed potatoes. It’s friendly. We’re not giving you 100% quinoa because we’re trying to bridge that gap between the person who isn’t ready to go full steam ahead but wants to eat more healthy.
D: Yea that seems really smart actually.
H: Yes I’ve worked with people who go from one extreme diet to another. If I’m your private chef and working for you, I’ll go from making you white rice to basically quinoa salad over time. But it’s a slow transition so it doesn’t shock you.
(Helene starts explaining to me what I’m eating which is this delicious steak sandwich and a beautiful, colorful salad with beets, string beans, chickpeas, and a tangy vinaigrette)
H: I don’t eat meat. so the steak sandwich is all you.
D: Don’t threaten me with a good time. So you don’t eat any meat?
H: I’ll eat a little bit of chicken, thats it. And same with fish, like a little bit.
D: Is it because you had a farm and raised animals? Like is it an animal thing?
H: A little bit. But my youngest kid, he’s vegan and he won’t eat animals. One day I saw something crawling up his neck and i swatted and stomped on it and he was like “why did you kill that bug minding his own business?!” and he got upset.
D: Aw. What about differences between the restaurants?
H: Yes so on the Pier we have the cafe and the restaurant, and now we have Miami. It will be “best of”. Best of dishes from the cafe and restaurant, and then the local specials to create the menu here.
D: What are the top sellers in Malibu?
H: Cauliflower crust pizza. For entrees – spaghetti squash, lasagna, steak. The vegan person has some choices, the average person does too. Something for everyone.
D: What’s most important to you when having a meal?
H: How you feel afterwards. I want to feel light and good.
D: And what are you cooking for the SOBEWFF events?
H: Saturday is Bacardi on the Beach – doing a little chicken and broccoli quesadilla. We’re taking something familiar like chicken and cheese and shoving a bunch of broccoli in there. And Sunday is the Grand Tasting – doing a vegan coconut dish. You put a bunch of dishes out to them and then they choose. You basically get assigned a dish. because they don’t want everyone making the same thing.
D: Oh interesting, didn’t know that! Makes sense though.
H: Wouldn’t necessarily have been my first choice, but it will be good.
Editors note: I ate this on Sunday and it was delicious. Pic doesn’t do it much justice.
D: Definitely. Anyone that you are looking forward to meeting?
H: Last time I was here there was a lunch with Nobu, and somehow I was seated between Nobu Matsuhisa and Martha Stewart. I wanted someone to pinch me and I didn’t even know what to say to them.
D: That’s so cool! Anyone that you haven’t met yet and would like to?
H: I would love to meet Tom Colicchio. Have you read his Twitter? He’s really bold and I’m very impressed with his Twitter feed! I’m always afraid to say the wrong thing (with politics, internet drama,) and he has a lot out there [restaurants] and he is just not afraid! He’s funny.
D: I will have to check that out now and Tweet to him! And what is on this steak sandwich? It’s so good!
H: Soy ginger marinade on the steak, and there’s a lemon aioli. There is never too much lemon!