Dine + Design: Malibu Farm Delivers Cauliflower Pizza and California Charm New Yorkers Never Knew They Needed
At the helm: Swedish-born home chef, Helene Henderson.
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It's hard to pinpoint where the modern-day farm to table trend began. In Malibu, California, it was most certainly on the grounds of Helene Henderson's 1500-square-foot craftsman house, more lovingly known as Malibu Farm by guests and followers of her blog of the same name. There, Henderson's private catering business and cooking classes blossomed alongside her vegetable garden, vineyard, and a stable of animals she'd curated in part to entertain guests.
"I'd have people asking, 'how can we come to Malibu Farm from China?' and I felt anxious thinking, are they thinking this is some massive thing? Are they going to come and be disappointed?" But the response, Henderson recalls, proved to be the opposite. "I think part of that core initial success is that people didn't feel it was unattainable. It had this very ramshackle real feeling, which people responded better to than a hyper glam kind of thing." She even overlooked experience in favor of a staff who felt like they were family members—an aunt, an uncle, a grandparent—she says.
Before long, demand for Henderson's dinner parties outgrew her backyard space and she found herself at a crossroads—or, more precisely, a pier. "[The dinners] got way too popular, so I got shut down by the city of Malibu," she explains, admitting that she hadn't exactly been a very good neighbor. "My husband read an article about the Malibu pier, how it was completely vacant and no business had operated there for several years. He suggested I reach out, which I did." For her next event, Henderson proposed a three-day pop-up over Fourth of July weekend. The landlord offered up the café at the end of the pier, a space formerly occupied by a 1950s-style diner called Ruby's, a time capsule of red vinyl with a replica Mustang convertible out front. "It was hideous," Henderson says. So, she settled on a six-month pop-up instead, allowing her extra time to work out the décor. After removing all of the "shiny red stuff," as she puts it, Henderson called on friend and long-time neighbor Vanessa Alexander to decorate the space. Henderson and Alexander had furniture built by a handyman, which patrons will find still outfitting the original Malibu Farm location today.
Another thing that hasn't changed since the day Malibu Farm opened as a pop-up back in 2013: the menu. From Swedish pancakes to fried egg sandwiches and lasagne, "it's exactly the same menu that we opened with," Henderson says. One of the most popular items then and now—the cauliflower crust pizza—was adapted from a cauliflower lavash pizza that was a staple of both the café and Henderson's cooking classes. "People would come in and ask if it was a cauliflower crust pizza. I probably answered that question about 500 times, but I didn't know what the heck a cauliflower crust pizza was," she jokes. It would end up being the very first item added to the menu when she expanded the Malibu Farm footprint to a full-fledged restaurant at the opposite end of the pier. "And even to this day, I've never eaten anyone else's cauliflower crust pizza, only my own," she says.
Going from an occasional backyard affair to the seven-restaurant franchise it is today sounds easy the way Henderson describes it. Staying true to self—whether on a farm or on a pier—was more of a challenge, but a point of pride as she pulled it off, and it's a key component of her success. The other primary drivers of Malibu Farm's growth was film producer and Nobu Malibu co-owner Meir Tepper, who Henderson says was one of the café's first patrons. "He told me, 'I'm a super fan of your restaurant and I want to find a way to work together.' He's really the connection with all of the locations that we've opened since."
Over the years, Henderson has scoped offers far and wide, including New York where she opened at the famous South Street Seaport in the fall of last year. Few locations had that wow factor or lived up to the experience-based approach she was after, until David Weinrib approached her about Pier 17. "It was definitely something about this pier-to-pier, coast-to-coast, East Coast-to-West Coast [connection] that was very appealing."
The pier, as Henderson describes it, is an old funky building from 1938, but her new digs are located inside a modern industrial-style building erected after a hurricane ravaged lower Manhattan back in 2012. "The décor is kind of built around that with a big pillar in the room, cement floors, and ceilings," she explains, nodding to her friend Vanessa, who she called on once again for her interiors expertise. "Building on those elements of the architecture, the design grew from there," she says. "The tables are all wood because everything else is either steel or concrete, so we wanted to warm the space." Buttery leather chairs with oatmeal-colored cushions work to similar effect.
Although they're modeled after Henderson's flagship, "we try to push it a little so each location has its own identity," she says. "A dream of ours is to find a location where we can operate back to our original roots," perhaps this time on an actual farm.