There’s no question that Malibu has a magical quality that’s captured the hearts and minds of people the world over–and if you’ve spent time there, you know that its reputation for salty air, sunkissed skin and surfer vibes is actually pretty true to life. That endless summer spirit is captured in restaurant form at Malibu Farm, located at the iconic Malibu Pier that welcomes everyone who enters on the Pacific Coast Highway.
A few years ago, someone gifted me the Malibu Farm cookbook, and I fell head-over-heels for the more rustic side of Malibu shared through the lens of its author, chef Helene Henderson. Through her stories and recipes, I was transported to a Malibu that’s all about local farms, hikes through the mountains, and cooking at home with California’s beautiful, seasonal produce. In the years since, her restaurant has become a global sensation with locations in New York, Miami, and beyond. And now that I get away to our beach house in Malibu as frequently as possible, it’s a “pinch me” moment that I get to call Helene a personal friend.
What strikes me most about this culinary powerhouse is that, despite her major success, her approach to food and life is incredibly casual and simple. Helene works hard, but doesn’t sweat the small stuff. Whether she’s setting a beautiful table, arranging a cheese board topped with edible chive blossoms from her garden, or hollowing out melon rinds to hold watermelon-vodka cocktails–it all feels effortless, an outpouring of her natural gifts and singular style.
In celebration of the launch of her second cookbook, Malibu Farm Sunrise to Sunset, Helene invited us into her home to gather a few close friends and cook a dinner menu of recipes from the new book. As the sun set over the mountains, we gathered at a long table set in front of the wood burning oven and feasted on grilled fish and the most beautiful rainbow-hued salad I’ve ever laid eyes on. It was the Malibu dinner I’d dreamed about all those years ago, come to life.
Scroll on for my interview with Helene to find out how she entertains at home, plus her super simple cooking tips and the recipes for everything she served at our dinner together. And head to the Malibu Farm Dinner Party page to shop it and get all the recipes in one place!
Helene’s home feels like a more modern interpretation of the farmhouse vibes at the restaurant. Designed by architect Doug Burdge and team, it features clean lines and and lots of glass to let the outdoors in, but still manages to have a warm, “kick off your shoes and stay awhile” vibe throughout.
On her approach to cooking…
Hi Helene! First things first: how did you learn to cook?
I started working in restaurants while still in school, in the north of Sweden where I grew up. It never occurred to me that I could have a future in the kitchen. I only worked to earn money as I was saving to go to America as soon as I graduated from high school. I came to America alone with about $500 in savings. Not sure what I was thinking! I never planned or considered making cooking a career path, I was just cooking for fun, often inviting friends over for dinner. Then friends started hiring me to cook for them, and suddenly, I had a one woman catering company out of my home kitchen.
My company, Lavender Farms Catering, grew, and soon I was catering for celebrities, studios and corporate events. When we moved to Malibu, I transitioned into private chef work and began teaching cooking classes out of my home. I then started selling a backyard farm dinner experience, where anyone could buy tickets online to eat dinner at my house. I learned cooking along the way, on my own, and I still don’t consider myself a “real” chef, as I have no formal training.
Why do you think people are so drawn to your food?
I really try to keep it as simple as possible. I used to automatically add pepper to everything, but one day my favorite pepper mill grinder broke, and I realized not everything actually needed black pepper. Then I started to further simplify my cooking and focusing on better ingredients, minimally seasoned. A tomato straight from the garden with olive oil, salt and a little balsamic. Arugula tossed with juice from my Meyer lemon trees, garlic and olive oil, is all you need to make it delicious. And then a funny thing happened, the more I stripped myself bare, inviting strangers, customers, friends, into my home to eat the food I cooked, while adhering to a minimalist cooking style, the more popular the food and the dinners became.
So, the moral of this story: strip yourself bare, no makeup (haha – for me) no pretense, be exactly who you are. All you need are good intentions and good ingredients.
Now, tell us about your new cookbook – I’m so excited to start cooking from it!
The first Malibu Farm cookbook was actually written while I was still operating in my backyard, before I had any clue that restaurants were in my future. And the one negative feedback I received since then about book one, was that it did not include restaurant recipes. Obviously I could not include recipes for a restaurant that would come many years after the book was written, so my main purpose with this new book was to include as many restaurant recipes as possible, in an easy to cook at home format.
The second thing I wanted to tackle with this book is a pet peeve of mine: leftover ingredients! In this book, there are lots of suggestions and cross referencing of ingredients. A berry meringue recipe which uses 4 egg whites, is followed by a creme brulee recipe using 4 egg yolks. A Miso Tahini sauce recipe includes notes to make a miso dressing and miso butter with any leftover miso, and so on. I tried to be very conscious of waste, and find multiple uses for many ingredients in the book. I worked really hard on that idea and hope readers find it useful!
On Life in Malibu…
Tell us about your morning routine.
I am a pretty early bird. I wake up usually around 5:30 am, but since everyone else in the house is sleeping, I just scroll on my phone until 6:30ish. Once I get up, dogs are barking, roosters make a racket, the cat is meowing and goats are bleating and everyone is awoken, whether they want to be or not.
Although I appreciate fashion, I am not very fashionable. I pretty much wear the same everyday “uniform”: Mother jeans, Malibu Farm or James Perse tee shirt, Brooks sneakers or Frye boots. Every year I think, “This year I am going to dress more stylishly… but I hate shopping, so yeah, not sure that will ever happen.
Once I’m up, I feed the animals first, and then I eat a very traditional Swedish breakfast: yogurt and wasa crisp bread with pickles and cheese around 7:30 am. I have eaten this breakfast my entire life. I drink tea, sometimes green, sometimes chamomile. Then I attempt to work out by lifting some weights or go running, but I am rather unsuccessful. My daughter is super athletic (jealous)–she runs several marathons each year. My husband surfs every day, but for me, getting fitter (like dressing better) is a future and likely futile goal.
What does a typical workday look like for you?
I go to the Pier around 10 am when I have my one latte, which is my addiction / pleasure / treasure of my day. I usually have whole milk in my coffee, but aspire to consume less dairy and I go through phases when I drink almond milk, oatmilk and so on. Maybe one day soon I will be dairy free–we shall see.
At the Pier, there is always some drama or the other, but it’s also a lot of fun. Without fail, there is always something broken, the curse of restaurant equipment. A customer will drop their phone or their keys in the ocean and we will try to retrieve them. There are always upset guests because of the weather: it is too sunny, too cold, or too windy, but no matter how many complaints there are, there is not much we can do about Mother Nature. The phone is always ringing, I don’t know why–all the information is available online. ‘Are you open, what is on the menu, where are you located?’ Someone will tell us a cauliflower crust pizza isn’t a “real” pizza (yeah) and someone else will say they had a great time, you never know. We will have a manager and chefs meeting to review the specials of the week, and if the menu needs updates or changes. I do not usually eat lunch, so I eat dinner super early with my youngest son, Caden, around 5:30 pm.
How do you spend your evening hours?
During the pandemic I went home early every day to walk with my son Caden who has, like most kids, been stuck for a year at home zoom schooling. Normally between regular school, homework and after school theater, by the time he came home, it was late, and there was barely any time to connect. I definitely gained a priceless amount of time with him during the pandemic. He’s big into politics and a pretty radical and passionate kid. We have walked over one thousand miles together since March 2020. We also watched a movie almost every night. He has interesting movie taste. We saw over 500 films, the entire Ingmar Bergman collection (great to practice my Swedish), all Agnes Varda, and Jaqueues Demy films, and much much more. I am going to miss him like crazy when he goes to college in the fall.
I adhere pretty closely to a “Malibu Midnight” aka 9 pm, when I am off to bed. I need dark and silence to decompress so I can try to fall asleep around 10 pm.
Helene’s cooking must-haves…
What’s your must-have cooking tool?
I love my “lady grater” for grating garlic and ginger, I have had mine for decades. Always use fresh garlic, never pre-peeled, that stuff is garbage and makes the food taste bitter. I keep ginger in the freezer, and whenever I need it, I pull it out from the freezer, grate what I need, and then back in the freezer the ginger goes until it’s needed again. It last forever this way.
What are your favorite cookbooks?
I like the Ottolenghi books a lot. They are visually very vibrant, and it makes me inspired to cook.
I have this old Gourmet Menu cookbook from 1963. I love it because the photos are hilarious, they always put a smile on my face, the recipes are super short, but they are so well written, that all important instructions are so precisely and briefly described it is very impressive.
When the French Laundry cookbook came out in 1999, I read that book cover to cover, again and again. I was running my catering company Lavender Farms at the time, and that was the closest to insider professional knowledge that I had access too.
What will we always find in your refrigerator?
I mostly have vegetables, broccoli, cauliflower, butternut squash, brussels sprouts. I always have too many eggs because we have chickens. There is butter, yogurt and cheese. Hmmm, my husband has a lot of wine chilling at all times. I grow herbs, greens, tomatoes, lemons, chilies, zucchini so those I pick directly from my yard as needed.
Must-have pantry items are olive oil, vinegars of all kinds, lentils, quinoa, farro, couscous, pasta and must have many types of mustard.
Your go-to weeknight meal to eat at home?
My youngest son is a vegetarian, and his favorite meal is pasta, with lots of beans or lentils and vegetables. He does not like tomatoes or anything spicy, so if I am rushing I will just expand on his dinner for myself by adding, tomatoes, chilies, olives, capers and lots of arugula, so it is more of a pasta vegetable salad.
architecture by Burdge Architects
What’s one skill that every cook should have in her back pocket?
Every cook should know how to make a quick marinade for chicken: Mix whole grain mustard with lemon vinaigrette, herbs and chili flakes for a quick marinade for chicken, or a salad dressing for any greens. You can also mix whole grain mustard with mayonnaise and toss with roasted brussels sprouts or any vegetables.
Another quick combo is soy sauce, agave, rice vinegar, garlic, ginger, and chili. It’s a great marinade for steak, korean cut short ribs, chicken or fish, or to season vegetables.
And since I love anything spicy, everyone should know how to make a basic salsa with fresh tomatoes, chilies, lime, cilantro, onion and salt. The next day, you can blend leftover salsa with mayonnaise to convert into a creamy spicy ranch dressing.
However, I never tire of dressing made with lemon, olive oil, garlic and salt. I’ve you’ve got lemon dressing, I’ve got no complaints and I am coming over for dinner.
On hosting gatherings…
What are a few products you love for the table?
I love all the Gjusta home goods – they are so cool that it makes me feel uncool (haha!) Their plates and napkins are gorgeous.
Since my favorite jeans are from the brand Mother, rather than using a traditional tablecloth to set my table, I love using their four corners scarf, which gives the dining experience more of a picnic and beachy feeling, even if you’re not on the sand.
Staub’s cast iron baking dishes go perfectly from the oven to the table, and I love the classic style. The bakers are oven safe up to 572 degrees, and they’re dishwasher safe, too.
What scares you about entertaining and why?
I am a super awkward social being and a total introvert, so large groups of people scare me and make me anxious. I’d always rather be working a party cooking and serving than being an active social participant. That, and that the guests won’t leave by my early bird schedule (haha!) I am probably going to shoo you out of the door right around 9 pm…
For this jaw-dropping cheese board, Helene shaped goat cheese into rounds, then topped with herbs and blossoms from the garden: chives and chive blossoms, fennel fronds and flowers, and sliced lemon with nigella seeds.
Your signature dishes for parties?
I don’t know that I have a signature dish, but I do have a signature style. I like to serve a lot of things, a smorgasbord if you will, and am likely to include two proteins, maybe a simple grilled fish or chicken, and something vegetarian like grilled portobello mushrooms.
The rest of my menu has to include…
CREAMY: mashed potatoes or sweet potatoes.
CRUNCHY such as quinoa, couscous, wild rice, farro.
VEGETABLES: something sweet, kid and grandparent friendly, like corn or green beans
CRUCIFEROUS like broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts
HEALTHY. I need a salad of course, arugula and kale
… and maybe just some cheese on the side, because it is a “smorgas – more – board” after all! I hate plated meals and always do buffets or platters.
What’s one tip for someone who wants to host a gathering on a budget?
I love grains and starches, and all of these can be quickly and cheaply made in advance as well. My pantry is always fully stocked with tons of grains, and with that I can make dinner always happen. Grains in bulk can often be purchased reasonably priced and can stretch out your fresh vegetables considerably.
Vegetables can be super expensive, so I often mix 50% grain with vegetables, making one dish, lots of bang for less bucks and little work. I mix and match in different combinations, but for example: wild and white rice mixed with roasted cauliflower, dried cranberries and caesar dressing, or roasted carrots tossed with lentils, (or quinoa) and lemon dressing.
Try green beans, and peas tossed with pesto and pearl couscous, all are options for quick vegetable forward sides stretched out with a starch. I eat very little protein–chicken and fish only–I have not had pork or beef for over thirty years, and hope to be animal free soon. Eating less protein also saves money: one chicken breast thinly sliced serves four in my mind when I cook at home.
Favorite conversation starter or question to get to know someone?
In this particular time of history, I think “did you get vaccinated?” is probably a pretty good question which is going to tell you a lot about the person, their views, and beliefs with one simple question. Asking if someone surfs, or has pets or kids covers a lot of ground, too.
The perfect dinner party playlist includes:
I always put my older son Casper in charge of the music: he used to have a band and they played at all my backyard dinners, now he builds furniture. His party vibes include music by: Leon Bridges, Raphaepl Saadig, Tame Impala, Daft Punk, Phoenix, Steve Lacy, and Florence and the Machine.
Florence is my niece, she was the flower girl at my wedding. She told us when she was five she would grow up to be a singer or a Disney princess.
Helene brings the most stunning crudité and dips display to the table for pre-dinner grazing.
Go-to centerpiece solution:
Food, aka “pre-dinner snacks!” Although I love flowers, they are often in the way once guests are seated.
What is your no-stress party rule to live by?
Finish all the cooking just before the guests arrive, and serve a room temperature style buffet (keep in mind food safety–you should consume within 2 hours.) If there’s grilling involved, I’ll let my husband be the grill master for last minute cooking. He’s pretty good at it.
If I had to choose, my favorite part of the meal was Helene’s Cauliflower Mash. It somehow felt nourishing and decadent all at once, and we all went back for seconds.
Dream dinner guests?
When possible, the guest list should include someone old, someone young, someone funny, and someone controversial/ eccentric to stir up the conversation–everyone nodding in agreement can make for a boring night. My husband, John, usually fills the controversial role, so we’ve got that covered. ????
There was a moment of silence when Helene carried the platter of rainbow-hued salad and placed it on the center of the table. An ombré of colorful vegetables ranging from sweet potatoes to beets to avocado were arranged in the most striking (and delicious) combination.
For dessert, Helene hollowed out papayas to use as perfect little bowls cradling scoops of sorbet and chocolate-covered sunflower seeds.
What’s your idea of a perfect meal?
A perfect meal should step away from perfection – and any other pressures. A perfect meal can be as simple as bread, cheese and wine, a full moon and a sky full of stars.
Cheers to an unforgettable summer dinner, and hop right over here for the full guide to throwing a Malibu Farm-style dinner party at home!