Industry Insights: Malibu Farm Chef Helene Henderson
The Swedish chef, farmer and restaurateur tells Loop21 how she made it in California’s culinary scene.
It’s hard not to be inspired by a woman like Helene Henderson.
Born in Sweden to an African American father and Scandanavian mother, Henderson, who is also the author of the cookbook The Swedish Table, went from cooking in her family home to catering events for Hollywood’s A-list before opening her own restaurant, Malibu Farm Café on the Pier. Helene’s seasonal organic dishes have made her one of the most in-demand chefs in Southern California, and Loop21 stopped by her bustling restaurant to get insight into how she’s accomplished so much in such a little time.
Loop21: What attracted you to the culinary world?
Helene Henderson: Well I don't know that that's anybody's necessary decision, but my mother was a waitress and I started working in the restaurant when I was like 10 years old. So, I have been stuck in the kitchen forever, made several attempts to get out, but none of them successful.
Loop21: Who have been some of your mentors in this industry?
HH: I am not sure that I have had a lot of mentors, but the one person that encouraged me to go to America is somebody who owns one of Sweden's largest independent burger chains in the world, that is holding McDonald's and the others a bay, which is called Swedish Mac's Burgers. That person that started that company is from the town where I grew up and I was working as a waitress at the restaurant where my mother worked. He also had a little French restaurant at the time, where he hired me and encouraged me to work there. When I went to America he is the one who set me up with my first connection here, so if I ever had a mentor it was probably him.
Loop21: Do you think it’s important for people to have mentors in this industry?
HH: I think it would be excellent! There are definitely some things I would have done differently if I knew. You know, the town I grew up was in the steel industry and no women were really in the food world, so there was nobody that even suggested it. You go to culinary school or go down that path so, you know I think that is a great thing to have somebody that has the bigger picture and can look at you as a young person and guide you to where you're going.
Loop21: How did you build up the buzz around your business?
HH: You know what, that was really accidental because I had another catering company called Lavender Farms Catering. I went into being a private chef, and I was doing that for Stacy Snider, who is the CEO of DreamWorks.
Just for fun, some of the women in the neighborhood asked if I would start teaching cooking classes. I did these classes for just pure self-amusement and one of the husbands said, "Why don't you start a blog so you can post your recipes for the class?" That's really how it all started.
More people came to classes and then after about a year and a half someone said, "Well why don't you host a dinner?" It was really just women in the beginning and they said, " Why don't you have a big dinner so that the husbands can come and see what we are doing at the classes."
We threw it as a fundraiser for the school, because I was like “Who is going to buy tickets for this?” So we did that and immediately it was big and everyone was like “When is the next dinner?”
The first dinners were at the farm at my house and then we started taking the dinners on the road and it kind of just all grew by itself. We started getting visitors from China and Russia that were like “Hey we are coming to Malibu how do we get to Malibu Farms?” I was like there is not really such a thing as Malibu Farms. This is like my house and it's not open to the public and then this location came about.
Loop21: What's something you'd like to see change in the culinary industry?
HH: Well, you know I haven't been in this particular industry that long to have the foresight to say what changes there should be, but there is definitely not a lot of women. There aren't a lot of women on the line, but I'm not sure women want to work the line. In applications that we post online, I would say the responses we got are 100% male applications. So, I think women should enter into the field more.
Loop21: Do you think people of color are fairly represented in this industry?
HH: Not in the kitchen. I would say it's really heavily white male dominated or Hispanic male dominated. It’s like you post an application and you look at the responses and there really aren't any out there. So maybe it’s that the interest from women or blacks isn't there but they just aren't responding to us. I think it’s not that they aren't being hired, it’s that they aren't pursuing those fields and they aren't responding to the chances that are out there.
Loop21: What advice would you give to someone who is trying to break into the culinary industry?
HH: I would say just getting out there and cooking is number one. When I started my first catering company, I never set out for it to be a company. If you want to be in the cooking world just get started. You could just start cooking for your friends a lot and put your food out there and see what the response is. If your friends aren't digging it that means you probably aren't that good at cooking.