Though it’s been more than a decade since Helene Henderson hosted some of her first farm-to-table dinners in Malibu, where she dazzled celebrities like Madonna and Barbra Streisand with Swedish lamb chops and colorful plates of just-picked produce, it’s still hard for her to believe she’s a “real restaurant owner.”
“I often think to myself, ‘Wow, I have a real restaurant? What the heck,’” she says, sitting on the deck of her oceanfront Malibu Farm outpost in Miami Beach. “When I started those dinners in my backyard, it was all for fun. It’s basically the hobby that took over my life. I really can’t believe I’m here right now.”
In just six years, the Swedish-born chef and restaurateur – who is known for her pioneering farm-to-table work at the flagship Malibu Farm on the historic Malibu Pier – opened six more locations around the world. Sometime in the next year, she’ll open the seventh, bringing the concept nearly 3,000 miles away to NYC’s South Street Seaport. The restaurant will be part of the Pier 17 complex, which will also include concepts by David Chang, Andrew Carmellini, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten.
“We’re literally going pier to pier,” she says. “I moved to the U.S. from Sweden with only $500 and landed in New York. It feels unbelievable to now open up a restaurant where it all started. It’s a full circle moment.”
NYC’s Malibu Farm, which will be located on the water with a direct view of the Brooklyn Bridge, will take on a slightly darker and moodier look compared to Henderson’s other locations, which largely feature whitewashed bricks and light woods. There will be plenty of indoor-outdoor seating, large farm-inspired communal tables, and a bar area.
“The restaurant will definitely have more of a city vibe compared to the others,” she says. “But there will be a similar menu with local specials. We like to let the chef of each location come up with his or her own spin to the restaurant and incorporate something we’ve never done before. For example, in Miami, we have a pizza oven and all of these different wood-fired options.”
Either way, New Yorkers can look forward to Henderson’s signature lineup of California-cool classics, including the Swed-Ish Meatballs, made with a blend of chicken and ricotta, the Zucchini Crust “Pizza,” layered with mozzarella and tomato sauce, and the Fish Tacos, served with cucumber tomato pico, pepper jack cheese, and cilantro lime crema. Henderson plans to develop relationships with local farmers and artisans, and ingredients will be sourced locally whenever possible.
After New York, Henderson, who spends a majority of her time in California, plans to take some time to slow down and embrace how far she’s come. It’s been a hectic year for her, she says, after losing more than half of her backyard farm to the 2018 California wildfires. Her flagship Malibu Farm on the Malibu Pier was unaffected, but business still hasn’t quite recovered.
“When we were trying to leave, there was a moment when I really wondered if we’d make it out alive,” she says. “My son and I were driving with fire on both sides. I still can’t believe it. They actually just started the debris removal in my neighborhood, where more than 100 houses burned down. People actually told my family that they thought our house burned down, but fortunately it didn’t. We did lose a good amount of our farm, which still hasn’t been replanted. All these months later, we’re still feeling it.”
Henderson says she won’t let the possibility of future fires get in the way of how she runs her restaurant. “Our neighborhood is burned so badly, there probably couldn’t be another wildfire for many years,” she says. “But other parts of Malibu are a concern, especially close to the pier where it didn’t burn. But you can’t let that stop you. We’re a strong community here.”
Beyond Malibu, Henderson fantasizes about one day expanding her farm-to-table empire beyond the six locations she operates between California, Miami, and Hawaii, and the soon-to-open outpost in NYC.
“No question, I would go to Scandinavia,” she says. “I don’t have many living relatives there anymore. It’s always a question of finding the time and the logistics of getting there. I’d love more than anything to have a reason and to bring it back home.”