There’s no need for a playlist when you go to dinner at Shelley Kleyn Armistead’s house.
As we entered the open door of the communal beach shack where she lives, there was an immediate quieting of the speeding cars on the Pacific Coast Highway as the sounds of crashing waves took over. Soon, the rhythm of the sea right outside the windows became the rhythm of our movements as we shelled peas picked from the farm earlier that day and stood barefoot in the kitchen becoming fast friends. It’s been shown that the ocean changes the brain’s frequency, and the near-meditative state I felt on the day of our shoot made any other soundtrack superfluous.
Shelley is partner and chief operating officer of the Gjelina Group, overseeing all operations, as well as the look and feel of many of the restaurants that have come to define the west side of Los Angeles over the past decade: Gjelina, GTA, Gjusta, and MTN. The group recently opened a shop, Gjusta Goods, that encapsulates the restaurants’ signature style in a lifestyle brand. Few restaurants have had more of an impact on my own aesthetic and approach to cooking than Gjelina, so when a mutual friend intro’d me to Shelley before a recent editorial trip to LA, I jumped at the chance to meet this woman.
Despite (or maybe because of) her incredibly demanding job, the home life Shelley leads with her sons, Joseph and Isaac, is one of simplicity and deep connection with the earth. There’s time spent reading, cooking, and being outdoors. They live in community with their neighbors, sharing food and friendship. When you learn more about Shelley’s diverse background that’s included stints at Soho House and London’s storied The River Café, it’s evident that there’s an intentional slowing down that comes from getting very clear on her priorities.
Photographer Kristen Kilpatrick and I were lucky to spend the day with Shelley, first at the farm stand at Malibu Fig Ranch gathering ingredients for dinner, and then back at home, lazily prepping ingredients and cooking over an open fire on the beach. Scroll on to get an inside look at our day together and my interview with Shelley.
You’ve played a major role in defining the restaurants that represent the west side of LA. What’s your own approach to food — and how do you cook at home?
I work with the most incredible food teams who source directly from 4-5 farmers markets in Los Angeles every week. While I get to watch all of this produce come into the spaces, and listen to the conversations around dish ideas, I am 100% a domestic cook. I cook what is available to me, which is what is available at the farm stand that week. Meat maybe informs 1-2 meals a week; the rest are plant-based.
I love cookbooks, enjoy reading them and find them inspirational to look at for ideas. I have yet to follow a recipe. I am far more intuitive and experimental. If it works, great. If not, I never get stressed about it. I love cooking, it’s more the process of cooking and feeding than any form of perfect outcome for me.
The staples in my pantry include multiple grain varieties and an obsession with legumes. I do batch cook rice (my current favorite is a brown rice cooked with coconut & squash), mung beans, lentils and garbanzo beans for bento-style school lunches, the boys build their own each morning adding greens, protein & dressing.
I also have a long term love affair with my crockpot (in fact I need to upgrade to a new one) which I primarily make bone broth in. As someone who works 6 days a week and time is so precious – as it is to all of us – the ability to put an oxtail or short rib on overnight to make lasagna with the following night, is a great use of time so that I can spend more time with my kids.
Tell me about your home, and the commune where you live.
I live in the oldest shack on Carbon Beach — it was built at the same time as Malibu pier. You can’t swing a cat in it, it is really teeny and will eventually one day disappear into the ocean, but it is very much home and a very peaceful place to live.
John, Daniela, Bob and I share a communal deck where we eat together once a week, and John is a painter and sculptor and uses it as his art studio during the week. Bob has lived upstairs for the past 25 years, and is a kitchen designer. His stories about living in Topanga in the 70’s have certainly played a huge part in me imagining our next restaurant. Daniela is a screen writer and documentary producer and has two great projects on the go: a documentary about sustainable fashion, and a series on food and planet sustainability, so table conversation is always interesting.
Meals are mostly what we are craving that day, we have a brief chat about it and then divide the responsibilities. Daniela is a phenomenal cook, makes the best gluten-free bread – I call it Love Bread. If we can’t manage a full meal, either due to the weather or tides, we will meet for tea and a chat.
It’s really beautiful when I am midst a long week and Daniela surprises me with lentil soup; it only adds to the sense of home.
Jojo and Isaac squeeze fresh orange juice to mix with sparkling water for an aperitif.
What part does travel and story play into the way you cook and gather people together?
I love story, I love travel and I love humans, so I am very lucky that I get to enjoy and explore all of those elements through my work. I believe in the integrity of all aspects of my work, not just food and beverage, and that deep dive has led me the great fortune of meeting makers and creators of ceramics, textiles and glassware who’s stories are additive to the hospitality space. This is expressed in the restaurants, but also through my lifestyle store Gjusta Goods.
I think that when you have been fortunate to create, or witness creation with someone that you then get to enjoy – be it a plate, napkin, harvesting an ingredient, or cooking a dish – it creates more meaning for the moment. It personally brings me enormous joy.
And really I think that’s what happiness is: multiple moments of joy.
How do you get inspired when you’re setting a table?
The weather plays a big part in it for me, if it is super sunny the table may be on the beach and I will use more enamel tableware with wooden serving platters, if it’s raining I will layer table cloths on my indoor dining table for a cozier feel with vintage china. Flowers always.
Ceramic dishes from Gjusta Goods area made by hand in in California, Japan, and Oaxaca. I love that each one is unique and irregular, adding to its charm and beautiful weight.
What’s the secret to a great party?
PREP! I love to early morning food prep with coffee, sunrise and a podcast. I find it really peaceful. By the time the boys get up and the day begins, I have the bulk of the work done, so it’s easy to be present when guests arrive.
Also – a great playlist. I love vinyl, but I find if I am the host, it’s too distracting to keep switching the records.
Pink linen napkins from Gjusta Goods.
What are your 5 essential items for hosting?
- Sunshine – my house is too small to fit everyone in, so we need sunshine for outdoor meals.
- A mix of interesting serving platters
- Fabric napkins, in a combination of linen and vintage
- A pot that you can cook in and serve directly out of, it makes it easier on time and washing up – mine are a combination of Oaxacan, cast iron, glass and Columbian.
- Blankets when the sun goes down
Shelley prefers cast-iron pots, like these from Staub, since they don’t get damaged in the fire, work equally well stove top or fire, last forever… and the best part is you can serve directly out of them.
Do you reference any family traditions when you cook or entertain?
Cooking on fire by the ocean or a river is a long standing family tradition, my greatest memories are cooking in cast iron on fire from scrambled eggs, whole fish to a beer, saltwater bread that my dad makes. Even though we are spread-out as a family around the world, we all happen to live by the ocean and we all fire cook. A tradition I hope my kids will continue.
What would we never find at one of your gatherings?
Anything low-fat. I believe in healthy, but I don’t believe in modifying a food at cost of its flavor or healthy fat. I use a lot of olive oil. I also love avocado oil, butter, ghee and coconut fat.
Any tips for at-home cooks for making their food look beautiful?
Fresh herbs make any dish look beautiful, and in my case, can hide a multitude of mishaps. I always say the consideration for the plate or bowl that it is served in is as important as the dish.
Click here to get the recipe for Shelley’s Chicken Fire Stew made with winter squash, fennel and tons of fresh herbs.
What was one the best meals of your life that you will never forget, and what made it special?
The boy’s dad, Matthew, made a long table of salted quails for my 30th birthday that we ate with our hands off a table covered in brown paper. Ironically my 21st was the same, but as college students, with a long table covered with brown paper, filled only with giant bowls of hand-made carbonara pasta by one of my dearest friends Chris. The singularity, simplicity and communal-ness of the experience is incredibly sexy to me.
Who are your dream dinner party guests?
Idealistically, I would love to have one more meal with Rose Gray, and invite all of her family and humans that love her to listen to her stories. But truly it is my family. My two boys, my parents (all 4 of them), my brother, sister-in-law, my niece, my boy’s father, his wife and their daughters. Having a family that is spread out all over the world means that our time together is too short.
Name 5 items we’d always find in your fridge or pantry.
- Sauerkraut – I eat it everyday
- Dates – I love them cold
- Bone broth – I batch cook it once a week
- Preserved lemon
- Maldon sea salt
Lately I’ve been getting excited about inviting people who have never met each other, and sitting back and watching, and enjoying myself. I love introducing people to each other, but it’s a new space for me not to be anxious that everyone is going to get on.
John, Daniela, Jack, and I join Shelley on the sand to watch the sunset.
Share 5 of your favorite spots in Malibu:
- Breakfast Burritos at County Kitchen at Las Flores (been there since 1972)
- Hike the Ray Miller Trail at County Line.
- Farm stand for produce
- Little Beach House for a Negroni at sunset
- SunLife Organics for the Green Man smoothie
What would your last meal be?
Hopefully its end of May/ beginning of June, so I can have a big bowl of the juiciest cherries and Honey Mama’s chocolate. If its winter I will substitute cherries for ripe pear. If neither fruit are available, very hot grilled fresh bread with a slab of salted butter and Spanish white anchovies.
The Camille Styles tagline is, “Live Life Like You Mean It.” How do you live life like YOU mean it every day?
Oh boy – I am IN it, all of it. My curiosity is my greatest strength, and so my appetite for experiencing LIFE is huge. No day is the same, I move between all 4 restaurants and lifestyle store daily. The combination of 400 employees and doing what I love every day, means that I embrace it all. The rest of my moments are filled with my boys, conversation with loved ones, and moments of dance with my girlfriends.