If you say “Malibu Farm” to anyone in the vicinity of Los Angeles, they will sigh and say, “I love that place.” The guiding light behind the two gorgeous spots on the Malibu pier—the restaurant at one end and the cafe at the other—is Helene Henderson, owner and chef. As farm-to-table as it gets, the food is inspired by her homeland, Sweden, and her backyard farm in Malibu. A new version of her cookbook launches this month (buy it here.) We asked her how she got where she is, and what it’s like being a working mom. Plus she shared her recipe for glazed balsamic steak—perfect for your next BBQ—and her addictive Greek quinoa salad.
Q: Where are you from originally?
I was born and raised in the north of Sweden in a small town called Lulea. My mother was a single mom who worked a lot. So, I would often stay with my grandmother, especially in the summer. I was out there picking berries, harvesting from the land and we cooked together. She’s definitely the person that’s had the most impact on my life.
Q: How did you end up in America?
There weren’t many jobs in Sweden, and pretty much everybody left when we graduated from high school. I had dual citizenship so I went to America for a year, thinking I might return later. I never went back. I tried a lot of different things, dabbling in random professions: graphic design, modeling, retail, anything you could think of. I always got drawn back into the kitchen. My mother was a waitress, so I grew up working in restaurants too. Ultimately, I started a catering company which I ran for many, many years. When we moved to Malibu, some of the women asked me to give them cooking classes, so I started doing that out of our home. It was a very simple, fun thing that I did as a hobby. We picked the produce from the yard. Everything grew from there. After the cooking classes, I started to do farm dinners in my backyard. First it was just people that I knew, then it started to be more and more strangers. Of course, eventually, the City of Malibu found out that I was sort of running an underground restaurant from my home.
Q: And now you’re on the pier in Malibu – how did you snag that?
I ended up starting the cafe in the winter. People were kind of laughing, like “Ha, ha good luck with that. She’s going to open up at the end of the pier in winter.” I was looking for a location where we could operate without having to hide from the authorities, and I kind of stumbled upon this pop-up opportunity on the pier. It was a super short-term lease, just six months. Nobody believed it was going to work out, because there’s never been a restaurant on the pier that’s really done well. It doesn’t have any foot traffic, but because it was a short-term lease, I didn’t have very much to lose.
Q: What do you think makes the restaurant so special?
Somehow, it was one of those things that just grew on its own. Because I had taught a lot of cooking classes, people were kind of invested in my success. They had taken those classes at my house. They had been to a farm dinner at my home. They’d seen my children grow up. They’d been in my kitchen. They walked through my yard and felt like they knew me. I had a lot of support. People just kept coming. In the beginning it was just, “I’ve been to her house for a cooking class or I went to her house for dinner.” They knew me and would see me there. It became more and more popular. Eventually we outgrew the first space, where the cafe is now. We ended up opening at the front of the pier as well.
Q: What’s different about writing a cookbook as opposed to running a restaurant?
The book was actually written before I opened the restaurant. As it turns out, I used all of the recipes from the book in the cafe. If you’re at the cafe, pretty much everything that we serve there is listed in the cookbook. I wrote the cookbook based on my cooking classes and the farm dinners. When I was doing the cooking classes a lot of students were like, “You should make a cookbook!” I had a lot of recipes on the blog, but they kept asking for a book. Then an opportunity presented itself in the shape of a photographer from Sweden who had a publishing house. We made the first version of the book together.
Q: What is your personal style philosophy?
I’m not very adventurous when it comes to fashion. My uniform is jeans, some sort of supportive shoe because I stand a lot, and shirts in black, grey, white or brown. That way, I’m pretty much ready to do anything that I need to do, which might be feeding my animals at home (I have chickens, goats, and pigs), or making breakfast for my son before he goes to school, or jumping behind the line and busing tables at the restaurant. I’m ready for it. I actually aspire to be more fashionable. It’s always one of my New Year’s resolutions. Somehow, I always slip back into my same habits.
Q: What advice would you give your younger self?
If I had to give advice to my younger self, I would say, “You’re not as stupid as you think you are. Be more confident. It’s okay to say no sometimes.”
Q: What would your younger self think of you now?
My younger self would say, “Whooo! I didn’t think you’d do quite that well.”
Q: How are you celebrating Mother’s Day?
I have three kids. My oldest daughter is 26, my middle son is 23 and my youngest son is 13. When you own a restaurant Mother’s Day is a big day; one of the busiest days of the year. I will probably spend Mother’s Day working. I will try to twist all my children’s arms to come and help me work. Instead of doing something for me, they can do something with me.
BALSAMIC SKIRT STEAK + CHILI CHERRY TOMATOES
- For beef marinade:
- ½ cup balsamic vinegar
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 2 garlic cloves, grated
- 1 tablespoon fresh herbs, such as a combination of rosemary, basil, and sage
- For steak:
- 3 pounds skirt steak or hanger steak
- 1 basket cherry tomatoes, halved
- 1 red chili pepper, thinly slived
- 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
- 1 garlic clove, grated
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 bunch arugula or basil
- Combine all marinade ingredients in a blender or whisk together in a bowl. Season the steak lightly with salt on both sides, and pour the marinade over it. Marinate overnight.
- Make the garnish by tossing the cherry tomatoes lightly with salt and chili pepper. Stir in the vinegar, garlic, and olive oil.
- Grill the steak over high heat for a few minutes per side, then let it rest.
- Toss the arugula into the tomato mixture and place on a platter.
- Cut the grilled skirt steak into small pieces, and scatter over the arugula-tomato salad.
Greek Quinoa Salad
- For lemon dressing:
- 1 small sprig fresh oregano leaves
- 1 garlic clove, grated
- 2 lemons, juiced
- Splash of olive oil
- Salt to taste
- For salad:
- 1 basket of cherry tomatoes or 2 large tomatoes, cut in half
- 2 small cucumbers, cubed (I like to use Persian, but any cucumber will do)
- 1 pound Feta cheese, cubed
- 1 bell pepper, any color, diced
- ¼ cup diced red onion
- 1 cup pitted olives
- ½ cup chopped parsley
- 1 cup cooked quinoa
- Whisk together the dressing ingredients in a bowl.
- Toss the chopped salad ingredients together in a separate bowl, add the quinoa, and pour the dressing on top. Be sure to taste for seasoning.
- The salad is best if it sits out at room temperature for 30 minutes before being served.
Recipe Photo Credit: Martin Löf. See our exclusive interview with Helene below.