Molina Restaurant: The Perfect Combination of Food, Art and Geography

Molina Restaurant

While walking up to Molina, I was captivated by the herb-filled, porcelain bathtubs sitting outside the entrance. After taking a minute to smell all of the wonderful herbs, I walked into what was one of the most warm and fulfilling dining experiences I’ve ever had. Molina Restaurant is the creation of Chef Todd Shoberg and features a fresh and local, California coastal cuisine. The restaurant is a reflection of Shoberg himself and magnificently displays the power of fresh food, art, music, and culture. I got to sit down with Chef Todd Shoberg and find out more about his restaurant and what inspires him.

What has your journey been like to get to where you are? When did you become interested in food?
For a period of time, Chef Todd Shoberg, raced mountain bikes at a professional level. As a young kid he was traveling on his own and had to learn how to cook for himself in a way that would support his physical makeup as an athlete. When he began working as an athlete and traveling, he waited tables to supplement his income. He worked in all types of restaurants, so saw it all. As he transitioned away from his life as an athlete, he began to apply for serving jobs. One of the jobs he applied for decided to take him in on the kitchen side. As he began to train under the chef “It was like the light bulb,” he says, “ it was like oh wow this is really amazing”.

“I grew up in West Michigan, I went to the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts and studied photography, worked as a photographer too. I had already done the school thing and studied photography and clearly that wasn’t the path I could take to become a cook or chef because I knew that environment wasn’t good for me, I found that out as a photographer, I just couldn’t learn in that environment. So when I got under this one chef (Jonathan Perno), I was in New Mexico at the time, I decided to just really dive into it on my own. I was like a library rat and did a lot of studying on my own and learning that way and practicing things at home and trying to learn, and study and evolve. And so then I started writing letters to chefs because I knew that experience I had with this one chef was such a life changing experience for my career. So I spent like a year in all of these different cities in the U.S. studying under different chefs and working my way up, and that was my training.”

When did you become interested in more local and seasonal food?

“That definitely blossomed when I got to California, because I came here and saw that. But I worked under this chef in New Mexico, his name was Jonathan Perno. He was probably my most influential teacher as a chef. The restaurant was on a lavender farm, so that was the basis of the culinary program there. So that’s kind of where I got introduced to the real farm to table and sustainable lifestyle.”

What is your relationship like with the farmers markets and local farmers?

“I would say it’s pretty tight. We are 80 plus percent farmers market produce. We are going most days; we do 4 to 5 days at the market. And then, even all of our fish is sustainable and local fish that we get from a really great company in San Francisco called Water to Table. So our fish is coming off the boats at the docks and brought to our restaurant that morning. Our salmon is from Point Reyes, our black cod we are using is from Fort Bragg, our lingcod and halibut is Marin coast. Our oysters are Drakes Bay. Our cuisine we describe as California Coastal so obviously that’s the product we want to use and the product that makes the most sense to us.”

In Marin everything is so accessible and bountiful and we are so lucky to be able to get whatever we want locally, do you have any thoughts on bringing these values regarding food to different socioeconomic classes and different areas?

“Yeah, it’s our responsibility as a chef to not only feed the people who come in here, but to educate them a little bit on making the right choices and supporting the community, supporting the farmers who are most local. We don’t preach it, but it’s definitely a part of our voice. We want to be responsible and teach people the right ways to choose your food, and where and why. But we rarely get a chance to talk about it that way; we want it to be more of a natural thing. They see it; it translates through their dining experience. They see that the menu is always changing and always different, it’s reflecting the things we are buying at the market.”

I read on your website how you desire to drive the culture of your restaurant and touch each dish. So I read that and then noticed while eating here, that you’re tangibly changing music and there’s this all-encompassing experience. How important is it to you to create a dining experience where all senses are being touched?
Music is provided via a turntable. Chef Todd Shoberg switches records throughout the night while cooking. The back of each diner’s menu features a daily playlist.

“That is the most important piece of it. I wanted this restaurant to be extremely personal and sincere and thoughtful and honest. We wanted everything to be tangible; we wanted people to feel like they were in our kitchen or in the dining room of our home. So more like a dinner party at the house, rather than a typical restaurant experience which is everywhere. That was definitely the early vision of creating this restaurant, having everything be as personal and inviting and tangible as possible. It is authentically chef-driven. You see that word a lot in the industry, but that’s what it is. I hired chefs here to support me and my vision of this restaurant, rather than hiring a manager to globally see the restaurant or to manage the front of the house. The entire culture of the restaurant is being driven by the 3 chefs here. We collaborate on the menu we write every day, we collaborate on the daily management of the restaurant, we collaborate on the continuing vision and evolution of the restaurant.”

I read about the Alan Scott Ovens and what he was doing in creating community connectivity, so was it a conscious choice to keep the oven and perpetuate those ideas?

“For sure, and the oven kind of chose me. I knew about the oven and Alan Scott’s philosophy as an oven builder and as a bread maker. His philosophy that his oven and the community kitchen brought the neighborhood together, yeah it was definitely an extension of that. Also, it is so unique. It is one piece that really sets the restaurant apart. We have a 2-foot little, square opening there; we feed a hundred people a night out of that. It’s all the other elements also; we are burning the wood and feeding the oven. We are giving life to the oven that is giving life to our food.”

Tell me about the mural…
At the back of the restaurant, above the open kitchen, is a black and white, ink mural created by Freya Prowe.

“The mural is a representation of another thing that is really sincere to my heart and that’s being on this mountain. It’s a really magical and spiritual piece for me. The restaurant is literally on the mountain, the slope that we are on here, on the street, is the lower slope of Mt. Tam. I discovered Mt. Tam when I lived here years ago in the early 2000s and it is what has kind of grounded me in my life and grounded me to this area of California. When I met the artist in her studio, we started talking about what inspired me to create and what inspired me daily and we started talking about Mt. Tamalpais and the significance and meaning of the animals that prey on the mountain and the flora and fauna. So that mural represents the earth that this restaurant sits on, which is the lower slope of Mt. Tam.”

What type of relationship do you feel you have with animals and plants as a chef? Is there a spiritual element, prey vs. predator?

“It’s maybe more symbolic. I have the red tail hawk tattoo on my arm here, which is a very symbolic animal to me. Without being new-agey about it, I’m not any type of New Ager by any means, but I lived in the desert in New Mexico for years and was introduced to a lot of the Native American culture and how the animals are very symbolic. For example, the hawks are messengers and protectors. So once I learned that piece of the culture, I’ve always been in tuned to it. Right before this restaurant opened I was hiking on Mt. Tam and came across this huge owl in a tree, mid-afternoon, a rare time to see one, it was huge and powerful, those things really resonate with me. Those are the very important pieces to me, those experiences and those interactions with animals and the mountain.”

Any advice you would give to young people who are passionate about things that might not fall within a structured and predictable job path?

“I kind of just learned this myself recently and it’s, I think the big one, staying completely true to your vision and not compromising or sacrificing any integrity around that. Through the whole process I stayed true to what my vision was and trusted it and we’ve been blessed to have this really great press and success. If I would have compromised my integrity and vision to move a little closer to everyone else’s criticism, what they thought would work better than what I was constructing, then it wouldn’t be what it is right now. So, I think it is just trusting your vision and being honest with it. Working with it, because it is this living organism as well and it’s going to change and move and you just need to stay with it and trust it.”

Visit Molina at :
17 Madrona St.
Mill Valley, CA 94941


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