Helene Henderson didn’t plan on becoming a chef. The Swedish-born model-turned-graphic-designer-and-private-chef fell into the restaurant business by happenstance. Henderson developed a passion for food at a young age while cooking alongside her grandmother. She’d get her first taste of the culinary business working in the restaurant where her mother was a waitress.
“I didn’t really think I would want to go into the restaurant profession,” Henderson says. “There weren’t many women doing that in the northern part of Sweden when I was growing up.”
But the kitchen kept calling her name. Then, one day, a friend asked her to cook for her dinner party. The meal was a hit, and she soon found herself catering private events, organizing cooking classes, having farm dinners in her backyard and, ultimately, starting her own catering company. The rest is history.
We caught up with Henderson during February’s South Beach Wine and Food Festival. She filled us in on what it was like growing up in Sweden, the café’s early days and what she has cooking for Miami.
Before there was Malibu Farm, you authored a book, Farm to Fork. How did that come to be?
I was doing cooking classes and farm dinners in my backyard. A Swedish photographer who knew someone who knew me heard about my dinner parties. They told him to come to one of my backyard dinners to take photos. He did. He sold them to magazines, and they ran in Marie Claire.
He asked to come over again and shoot more photos. That turned into a book. After we finished editing the book, that’s when I opened the café on Malibu Pier.
Tell us more about your “fresh, organic, local” cooking philosophy.
When we started, we hoped to continue using small farmers only and foods from my backyard farm. We were using oranges and lemons from my trees, and eggs from my chickens. We keep it as “small farm” as we can.
We buy from local farms in Malibu and shop every week at the Santa Monica farmers market. And we bring foods from our own farm. We have eggs, figs, fresh herbs.
What do you think makes the restaurant so special?
We try to keep it casual and fun and try to strike a balance between being a place where you could feel comfortable coming from your workout class or come dressed up. We also make it so the whole family can come. Food is about the experience, the memory that the food goes with it. Most people will remember the feeling of a family dinner. I always want my restaurant to be that place where you can bring kids, grandma, even your dog, where you can break bread together.
When and how did the partnership with chef Nobu happen?
The café is on the pier, which is close to Nobu Malibu. When we first opened the café, [film producer and Nobu principal] Meir Teper started coming over for breakfast. I didn’t know who he was at the time. He would ask for the chef in the kitchen. [That was] me. He started coming in all the time and we would just talk.
The café is tiny and we had a pop-up lease. We had more customers than the café could service, so we were thinking about finding another location. I started talking to Meir and he told me there was a restaurant next to Nobu that was going out of business. I thought of possibly moving to that space, but when I told my landlord we were thinking of moving, he offered us another space on the pier.
How does a restaurant on Malibu Pier end up in Lanai, Hawaii, and in Miami?
Last April, we opened our Malibu Farm at Four Seasons Resort Lana’i. There is a Nobu restaurant there. Teper brought us there. He was working on a project here in Miami, and that’s how we got here.
How are you translating your family farm locavore roots to your Miami menu?
We’ll have the Malibu Farms classics and local specials. We’ve gone out to local farms and met with them. We hope to get as many local ingredients as we can.
As the restaurant comes closer to opening, we’ll start going back out to the farms for what’s in season. We keep it fresh, simple and healthy for the family.
When we design our menus, we look at the average family — you have one person who is vegan, a kid who is a really picky eater and someone who likes to have a good piece of steak, like my husband. On our menu then, you’ll see quinoa oatmeal for the vegan, mini pancakes with berries and cream that the kids like and a fried egg sandwich.