THE FOUNDER OF ACCLAIMED CATERING FIRM MALIBU SEASIDE CHEF ON HER ILLUSTRIOUS YEARS AS AN INTERNATIONAL MODEL, THE SECRET TO COOKING A PERFECT PRIME RIB AND HOW SHE JUGGLES WORK AND MOTHERHOOD.
Written by Holly Bieler
Gina Clarke-Helm doesn’t have a lot of free time these days. Not that she ever really did. An in-demand editorial model for decades, Clarke-Helm spent much of her 20s and early 30s jet-setting around the world for shoots and fashion shows. Her subsequent and current career as founder and head chef of Malibu Seaside Chef, one of the top luxury caters in Southern California, presents no less a daunting schedule, her days packed whipping up delicious food for A-list celebrities like the band U2 and Josh Brolin and huge corporate players like Adidas and Neutrogena. And did I mention she has an 18-month old baby?
Which is to say that this overcast October Thursday is a rare one, for Gina Clarke-Helm. After months of non-stop catering gigs she’s finally found herself with an afternoon off, a precious chance to recharge. She secured a sitter for he daughter Avila weeks ahead, just for the occasion.
I assume this means she’s going to take a nap, because this is what I would do if I had an afternoon off, and I’m not running a business while simultaneously raising a toddler.
“Nope,” she says. “I’m going to go eat chips and salsa and drink margaritas with my girlfriends.”
How Clarke-Helm recharges says a lot about who she is. A foodie and entertainer from as long as she can remember, she’s the type of person who will travel 45 minutes for her favorite Khoresh Bademjan, a Persian eggplant stew, or brave the I-10 weekday traffic for a table at her favorite Indian food in Beverly Hills.
“Food is my happy place,” Clarke-Helm says. “I plan my life around it.”
Indeed for nearly 15 years, Clarke-Helm’s life has centered around food in all its forms. Since launching Malibu Seaside Chef in 2005, Clarke-Helm has become one the most in-demand caterers in L.A., celebrated for her unparalleled command of flavor, technical skills and deep-seated knowledge of a variety of different cuisines. Clarke-Helm is as comfortable cooking up authentic Thai spring rolls, as she did for a recent collaboration with Airbnb and Mattel Corporation for Malibu Barbie’s 60th anniversary, as she is with the traditional French cuisine she mastered in culinary school. And of course, it being L.A., Clarke-Helm has become an expert at making food taste delicious even when she’s up against a litany of dietary restrictions.
“I was working for someone recently who was vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free, oil-free and he wouldn’t let me cook with salt,” she recalls with a laugh. “I said what are you going to eat, pepper cardboard?”
One-stop Shop Malibu Seaside Chef doesn’t just cater events. A longtime design enthusiast, Clarke-Helm also plays a major role in designing her events, including executing custom tablescapes.
And while Clarke-Helm has mastered the ability to please even L.A.’s most persnickety eaters, her favorite type of things to eat and cook still remain the comforting dishes that made her fall in love with food in the first place. The roast lamb her mother would make at their San Luis Obispo home for her big Catholic family every Sunday night. The multitude of simple fresh dishes she became enamored with while traveling Europe as a young model—cacio e pepe in Milan, the roasted rabbit she made for her flatmates one night in Paris.
“I love simple ingredients that have a lot of flavor,” she says. “That explosion of flavor certain foods have, I love that more than anything.”
Muse Clarke-Helm was the muse of late renowned American sculptor Robert Graham for years. At top and middle, examples of Graham’s full-body and bust sculptures of Clarke-Helm. Below, Clarke-Helm with Graham and his wife, the Academy Award-winning actress Anjelica Huston.
It’s this passion that led Clarke-Helm to transform her life 16 years ago. 28 at the time, Clarke-Helm had worked as a professional model for the better part of the past two decades, since leaving San Luis Obispo at just 15 years old to pursue her first modeling contract in Germany. Print and runway work across Europe would quickly follow, and soon Clarke-Helm was appearing on the covers of major magazines like Cosmopolitan, Shape and Elle.
“[That period] was a lot of fun,” she says. “I was living in an apartment with a bunch of other models. We were all making great money, we were all traveling.”
Her culinary horizons were also broadening substantially. A lifelong food lover, Clarke-Helm had grown up binging cooking shows and trying out recipes. But as she traveled Europe she began testing flavors and encountering ingredients she’d never seen. Her first stop in any city was soon the local market, her senses overwhelmed by the new colors and smells of local food, the freshness and simplicity of the ingredients.
“I remember living in the 7th arrondissement in Paris, and there was this amazing market at the end of our street with hens, chickens, rabbits, all this fresh produce,” she said. “I’d always loved food, but this enticed me in a new way.”
As inspiring and galvanizing as her constant travel was proving, however, as she neared her mid-twenties Clarke-Helm felt the rootlessness of her lifestyle beginning to catch up with her. While the years she’d spent living out of short-term flats with other models had been some of the most fun of her life, she increasingly found herself craving a tranquil home-base. And so when a friend suggested she check out Malibu, only 45 minutes from the airport, Clarke-Helm decided to make a trip, and instantly fell at home. Within a few days she’d signed a lease on an idyllic, light-filled bungalow perched just a few feet above the lapping waves of the Pacific.
Family Time Clarke-Helm with her husband Keith, a Fire Captain at County Line Malibu Station 56, and their 18-month old daughter Avila.
“I just loved Malibu instantaneously,” Clarke-Helm said. “I’m a nature person and Malibu had the ocean and the mountains. It reminded me of home in San Luis Obispo.”
Around this time, Clarke-Helm got a call from her modeling agency that would set in motion one of the most significant experiences of her life. Robert Graham, the world-famous Mexican-born American sculptor responsible for creating 7 U.S. monuments, was looking for a model for his new series dedicated to the female form, her agent said. The sessions would be nude, something which gave Clarke-Helm immediate pause. But as she reviewed Graham’s body of work, and specifically the beautiful sculptures of nude women for which he’d become primarily known, Clarke-Helm quickly changed her mind. She took the job, and immediately she and Graham forged a profound connection that would continue until his death in 2008. In that time, the two would collaborate on some of Graham’s most influential works, producing dozens of sculptures and sketches of Clarke-Helm from hours-long modeling sessions in his artists studio.
“ I was his main girl for over eleven years,” she says. “We were so close we were like father and daughter.”
As she entered her mid-30s, however, Clarke-Helm found that the rest of her modeling was proving increasingly unfulfilling. While she was still booking a steady stream of print and commercial jobs, the work seemed to become more and more uninspired the older she got.
“I mean, it’s not like you can be a model forever,” Clarke-Helm says. “I was modeling into my mid-thirties, but there’s a point where I realized I needed to think of another career. So I thought to myself: what can I do that I’m going to be really good at?”
It didn’t take more than a few minutes for Clarke-Helm to come to a conclusion.
“I realized, ‘Oh my God. I really do love to cook.’”
A few months later Clarke-Helm was enrolled in cooking school at Epicurean Los Angeles, and subsequently moved to Italy to study under legendary Italian chef Giuliano Bugialli. Upon moving back to the states, Clarke-Helm quickly landed a position at Wolfgang Puck’s storied Malibu restaurant Granita.
Cover Model Before launching Malibu Seaside Chef, Clarke-Helm worked for years as a top international model.
While Clarke-Helm quickly took to the work, the long hours and isolated nature of the kitchen made her realize she missed certain aspects of her modeling years; meeting and interacting with new people, utilizing her strong aesthetic eye.
Within the year she had quit working the kitchen at Granita, and was soon catering her own meals at the palatial homes of some of her most devoted Granita regulars. Clarke-Helm immediately fell in love with the work of catering events, from interacting with guests to designing the perfect tablescape.
“I get such satisfaction from being able to create something enjoyable for others,” she said. “From shopping for the ingredients to picking out the right tableware, candles and flowers, to working with the client to create the most memorable dining experience possible. It’s more than just the food itself. It has to taste amazing, look amazing, and the experience has to be memorable.”
It’s that passion for what she does that’s made Clarke-Helm Malibu’s premiere caterer for years now. It’s also that passion that probably keeps her sane, as she juggles running her business with raising her one-year old daughter with husband Keith, a Fire Captain at County Line Malibu Station 56.
But as long as she keeps surrounded by good food and the occasional margarita, Clarke-Helm is a pretty happy camper. When you’ve lived as many adventures as she has, it’s hard not to look forward to what’s to come.
“I will say this,” she says. “I’ve had a very, very fun life.” MM