Helene Henderson was living in the world of the Woolsey fire when she created light from the darkness.
Her family was safe and her home had been spared, but her community was struggling, and Malibu Farm, her restaurant and cafe on Malibu Pier, had been forced to temporarily close.
In the months of rebuilding and recouping that followed the devastation of November 2018, Helene felt inspired to begin writing her second cookbook.
“I took that opportunity and turned it into something positive,” the Malibu resident says. “It gave me a purpose.”
The cookbook, “Malibu Farm Sunrise to Sunset: Simple Recipes All Day,” was published this past September amid another dark period for her community and business—a pandemic.
“It was one thing after another,” she says. “The pandemic was a blur of chaos and stress.”
But the simple joy of cooking always brings her back to center.
Helene says she has always appreciated the food on her table. The 57-year-old native of Luleå, Sweden, says her family picked their own berries, grew their own potatoes, caught their own fish and hunted their own elk.
Even when she was working in modeling and graphic design, cooking was a constant.
“Cooking definitely always drew me back in, but I don’t know that I ever set out to be in the world of restaurants,” Helene says. “It was more accidental.”
The concept for Malibu Farm originated in the kitchen and backyard of her Malibu home, surrounded by her chickens, goats and pig. She began holding private cooking classes and dinners in 2008.
After spending two decades as a caterer and private chef, Helene was ready to focus on what she wanted to cook rather than what others wanted her to cook. Her only rule for her class? She would not accept requests.
“I wanted to turn the table,” Helene says. “I was really trying to find myself and what I wanted to serve and what I wanted to do instead of always trying to please people.”
Her husband, director John Stockwell, encouraged her to start a pop-up cafe at the end of the Malibu Pier. That was in 2013, and now Helene has locations in six cities.
“It always feels good to be able to make something and to feed others and to create,” she says.
She continued to stay true to her mission and in 2016 wrote “Malibu Farm Cookbook: Recipes from the California Coast” to document her dishes.
Helene says she strives to create an inclusive environment that renders the farm-to-table experience attainable rather than out of reach. Every decision she makes is with all members of a family in mind, from the traditional grandparent to the open-minded teenager to the unadventurous child.
“I always try to build my menus and my experiences around the idea that there will be something for most people,” says the mother of three. “We’re trying to make people belong.”
The most validating moments occur when those who are unfamiliar with or skeptical of farm-to-table restaurants enjoy their meals and their memories.
Customers loved the oceanside oasis so much they were often upset when they bought her first cookbook only to find it did not include dishes they’d savored at the restaurant. When writing her new book, Helene made sure it included everyone’s favorites.
“Helene knew exactly what she wanted to achieve with this book,” says Donna Loffredo, Helene’s editor. “Every aspect of the book was approached with creativity.”
This expressiveness extends from the motif of light throughout the book—the colors of the pages mimic the movement of the sun—to the 100 recipes themselves.
For Helene, the secret to a successful recipe is simplicity. Some of her best creations, she says, sprang from the need to come up with a meal when the fridge was nearly empty.
It is this refreshing outlook, Donna says, that “lets the ingredients sing.”
Helene, whose favorite recipe is the surfer rancheros, says she wants to demystify cooking and show readers that once they learn a few basic recipes the possibilities are endless.
“Recipes are just guidelines—they’re not bibles—so you take what you like and you remove what you don’t like,” she says. “My hope is really for people to start creating their own recipes.”
According to Donna, Helene’s book will guide readers down that path.
“This is a book that will help you relax in the kitchen. I think readers will feel inspired to have fun and trust their own creativity,” Donna says.
If Helene has learned one thing, it is that restaurants are all about people, especially after adversities such as a wildfire and pandemic. She hopes her book will bring people together again.
“I think everyone is ready to join each other at the table and make up for those lost memories,” she says.