IN HIS BOOK Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, Michael Pollan writes, “For is there any practice less selfish, any labor less alienated, any time less wasted, than preparing something delicious and nourishing for people you love?” To which we’d add this footnote: Especially during the holidays?
If food is love, then it was warmth all around on a rainy night last November when chef Todd Shoberg assembled a crowd of chefs, farmers, cattle ranchers and foodies to celebrate the winter harvest and the imminent opening of his Mill Valley restaurant, Molina. It was a small taste, if you’ll forgive the pun, of things to come. Molina, a 42-seat restaurant that opened in March, has since become known for its creative seasonal dishes, garnering raves from the San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco Magazine.
Last winter, though, Shoberg was simply cooking for a group of friends, many of whom arrived bearing gifts. Jesse Kuhn of Marin Roots Farm came with freshly picked greens. Emila Heller and her daughter brought pea shoots and onions from Green Gulch Farm. Loren and Lisa Poncia, of Stemple Creek Ranch, provided a mouthwatering cut of grass-fed beef.
They were joined by people like Ged Robertson, former owner of Small Shed Flatbreads (where Molina now stands), chef/restaurateur Gordon Drysdale, chef Chris Fernandez, who preceded Shoberg as culinary director at Moana Group, and Sebastian Lowrey, who took over for Shoberg at Piatti Ristorante and Bar Mill Valley. It was a veritable who’s who of the Marin foodie scene.
The group gathered in a modernist Kent- Woodlands home, the center of which was a long table adorned with gold chargers, white plates and simple silver holiday decorations from the newly opened West Elm in Strawberry Village. To complement the rustic feel, drinks were served in Lagunitas Brewing Company mason jars.
Nothing, however, shone more brightly than the food. Shoberg and fellow chefs — aforementioned Lowrey, Sebastian Miller and Jenna Pool — created a feast combining the best of Northern California’s harvest with the hearty sensibility of winter in Michigan, where Shoberg grew up. As guests arrived, they were offered a crostini of beef tartare topped with a raw quail-egg yolk. And when they sat down to dinner, it was to a salt-crusted standing rib roast, game hens stuffed with root vegetables, sweet potato gnocchi, and a risotto of butternut squash and pea shoots.
It’s typical of Shoberg — and now Molina — to create an entirely original meal from what’s been picked that day. “You won’t ever eat the same meal at Molina,” says Robertson, owner of Shoreline Coffee Shop. A typical dish at Molina, for example, might be Manila clams with English and snap peas, cream, bacon and chili oil. The flavors fairly pop off the taste buds.
If Shoberg’s cuisine is a refreshing departure from that of other restaurants, it may be because he took an unconventional route to the head chef spot. He started his career as a photographer and mountain bike racer and, to support himself, started working in restaurants at 13, washing dishes and waiting tables. While traveling around the country for races, he also learned to cook healthy meals for himself. But the travels themselves were also an education. “I went to every corner of the U.S. to race,” says Shoberg, “and was exposed to a lot of different cultures and growing seasons and foods.”
He only moved into professional cooking after an iconic Chicago chef, Michael Lachowicz, recognized his gifts and asked him to work in the kitchen instead of in the waiter’s job for which he’d applied. From there, it was a pretty meteoric rise, from Scalo in Albuquerque, where he tutored under chef Jonathan Perno, eventually to the Bay Area, where he became executive chef at Piatti Mill Valley. But it was Lachowicz and Perno, he says, who taught him “that you can be in love with this process and carry out your vision and create beautiful food that people like to eat and love your job and have a lot of fun with it.”
It was with this outlook that Molina was created. About a year-and-a-half ago, Robertson, who owned Small Shed Flatbreads in Mill Valley, was at a small dinner party and started talking to a restaurant executive who wanted to create a showcase for Shoberg’s talents. Robertson was tired of running three restaurants and so they discussed the idea of turning Small Shed — and its incredible wood burning oven — over to this young and talented chef.
“The vision for the restaurant,” says Shoberg, “was that we were going to do something that no one else was doing, and we were going to write a menu every day and cook from whatever was available at that time.” To do this, Shoberg and his fellow chefs go to the San Francisco and Marin farmers’ markets at least five days a week. “I see him at the farmers’ market all the time,” says Kuhn,” just checking out what’s seasonal, what’s come in that particular day.”
Robertson believes that ’s the key to Shoberg’s ingenuity: “If you limit yourself to only what’s available at the farmers’ market on that day, that’s where the creativity kicks in,” he says. “And that’s where Todd is amazing because he’s only working with what’s there. How do you make that great? You have to be a real artist.”
To do that with the winter harvest, however, is especially artful. “I love winter produce,” says Shoberg. “After growing up in Michigan, it was really exciting for me to come to California and see all the things that grow in winter. I love the heartiness of them, like root vegetables that are growing under the ground to stay warm.”
Warmth. That’s what the winter harvest — and the holidays — are all about: eating satisfying foods and getting together to make it through the longer, colder nights. When Shoberg talks about Molina, he says, “It’s as comfortable as having dinner in my home or your home.” For the holiday get-together on a rainy night last year, that description could not have rung more true.