by the Rockwell Kitchen Team
As a Malibu native, Rockwell Kitchen founder Alla Rockwell’s local roots run deep as can be, but in the food industry, she was both a late bloomer and a wild grower. Chef Rockwell got her start in Malibu restaurants about nine years ago (which sounds like a long stretch, but is actually pretty short in chef years) and the journey so far has been equal parts improvisational and studious. As one of the few female chefs running a restaurant experience in Malibu, here’s the story so far, in her own words:
As a high schooler who’d spent most of my life in Point Dume, I figured my future would be spent on horseback. Horses were life back then (Escondido Canyon on horseback was a family favorite), so much so that I could hardly see myself doing anything that didn’t involve a saddle.
The problem, though, was staying in that saddle. After a few too many falls, I basically had to make the choice between riding horseback and the health of my own back, and suddenly everything was recontextualized. How do you go from a singular focus to rethinking what your whole life is going to be from here on out?
So I hopped around jobs from retail to gym management and so on, but nothing really felt right; something was always lacking. It wasn’t until a drive to San Francisco with my dad and husband that a sort of casual conversation led to a crossroads. My dad asked what I liked to do best, other than riding, and the immediate answer was cooking. His advice — true to ancient fatherly principles — was simple: “Then why don’t you do that for a living?” And, of course — having never been to culinary school, having never trained as a chef — I laughed that right off.
To Live (and Eat) in Malibu
Something about that car ride convo just kind of stuck in my brain, though. I hopped on what must’ve been Craigslist at the time (back when you could actually find a job there) to browse Malibu restaurants. A few days later, I found myself interviewing at the pastry department of Nobu, listening to the interviewer go on in what sounded like a foreign language to me and totally bombing.
Naturally, they hired me.
From there, I lived on the time-tested principle of faking it till I made it. Seriously, a good chunk of my time consisted of hiding in the walk-in fridge and Googling whatever jargon the chef would drop. But sometimes, that’s how you grow: good research, your own little place to learn, and working at it every day.
Eventually, Nobu led to work at other local restaurants like Piccolo in Venice, where I honed my prep cook and sous chef skills, and Michael Voltaggio’s Ink., where I got to dabble in molecular gastronomy. These were jobs, but more than that, they were my culinary schools.
As much as I could learn from the big kitchens at those Malibu restaurants, the corporate style was just never going to be for me. I thought back to coming home late after riding, to turning those family dinner leftovers into new and exciting dishes, to my mom’s insistence on always making everything from scratch. These thoughts kind of coalesced with a casual pitch from my husband, a commercial producer, to come cater one of his sets, an offer I took him up on. And honestly? It was just fun. The freedom of experimentation, the receptiveness of the people we served — it was energizing.
That led to just jumping in to the deep end of catering and craft services with my own company, Rockwell-Venice. That was about five years ago, and the company’s still thriving — largely thanks to my incredible crew — but I began to identify a pattern: I’m always ready to leap into something new. For a season, I served as executive chef and partner at Nantucket’s first poké food trailer, Nantucket Poké. After leaving that success in the hands of my partner, I was ready for the next thing.
...and Trucking Forward
Rockwell Kitchen is that next thing. And more than just the next thing, it’s the ultimate opportunity to make my favorite dish to prepare: something I’ve never made before.
At Rockwell, we’re not really going to tie ourselves down to any specific menu type. As a farm-to-table dining experience, what’s fresh, what’s in season, what’s local— that’s what’ll drive the menu. It’s like rummaging through Mom’s kitchen, but Mom’s kitchen is the whole of the Malibu food community. Those local ingredients are core to the experience, too; if the foundation is fresh and delicious, you want to let that shine through rather than overcomplicating it. Simple can still be interesting. If the farmer behind your vegetables really cares about their product, that’s going to come through in the taste.
Why the truck, though? COVID hitting and slowing down film production while simultaneously limiting people’s ability to go into sit-down restaurants made it seem like a natural choice to serve food on the roadside, mostly here on Topanga Beach (and it makes a great excuse to hang out there). Breaking out of the brick-and-mortar mold keeps us safe, but it also helps us participate more actively in the community. Already, that’s allowed us to forge partnerships and strengthen friendships with local businesses like Boardriders and organize events like regular beach cleanups.
Even if we’re socially distanced, we’re still a community; we’re still gathered around that metaphorical table — that’s what we want it to feel like when you’re looking into that big glass window on the truck and seeing our chefs prep the food for you. That’s why we’ve taken into account the preferences of friends, family and regulars in creating a menu that isn’t bound to a single style — we’ve got superfoods fit for Westside personal trainers, but we’ve also got some comfort dishes that’ll remedy any hangover.
Personally, I go for the green shakshuka. It’s tasty; it’s colorful; it’s a fun play on tradition. It’s us in a single dish.