Food, Art, Community: In a Changing SF, Can SOMA's Palette Serve Up All Three?
Tucked away on Folsom and 4th Street is a combination restaurant, art gallery and artist workshop with one caveat: it was created to be torn down a year later.
When asked about Palette, chef and owner Peter Hemsley admits, “We repurposed it in a way that I don't think any rational restaurateur would have done.” But when it comes to passion projects, that just seems to be how the chef/artist operates.
Food, Art and a dash of French
Hemsley was a history and political science major in college, but his interest in food and art started when he was just a child living in Minnesota. His mother was a very good, untrained cook who liked to, he says, “experiment with the new, trendy stuff, or stuff that other people were trying.” She always had an eye towards “older, practiced, classic recipes from her parents' heritage.”
When he had to fend for himself in college without mom’s cooking, Hemsley’s curiosity and interest in food culture grew; he also began working in restaurants during his summers. Working at a French eatery sparked his interest in French culture and the language. Eventually, he would spend four years in France, a lengthy sabbatical during which his enthusiasm for food and art became a joint passion.
To learn the language, Hemsley devoured French culinary cookbooks and books about food history. Fascinated by historic recipes, he began illustrating them just for fun. “I think I started doing it to have cool decorations in my apartment,” he says. “Even two, three years later, I still didn't know what I was doing with all this collected collateral stuff, until I started doing ink and watercolor drawings of recipes, and trying different mediums. That's where it really started to click, and say, ‘All right, well I'm doing all this art activity with the materials of the kitchen...’"
A temporary location goes all out
After years in the kitchen as a professional chef (including a period of time at the Michelin-starred Quince), Hemsley dreamed of having both his own studio space and a place to continue his private dining business. He met with artists to learn more about what a studio needed to make it attractive for other artists to work there. During this period, he says, “The notion of a kitchen within a restaurant within an art gallery came out of that. So I was looking for a space that could accommodate all those things.”
Finding the warehouse space that would be the perfect vessel for this dream took time. “They're rare, and they're not in the most desired areas of town,” Hemsley says. “But I did find one, and it seemed to accommodate exactly the kind of space that I had the vision to create.”
Said space was not the one where I met him in 2019 for this interview—in September 2017 he found a warehouse on 12th Street, let’s call it Palette 1.0.
In his grand dreams, Hemsley explains, “That'll be the fully formed Palette.” It will have a restaurant with an evolving salon wall of art, a gallery for exhibitions and arts, and on a mezzanine level, a residency workshop.
The Palette where we met for this interview was, in fact, a “swing space”—a test to see how the concept he dreamed of would work on an operational level. Hemsley was at the original warehouse for less than a year when he realized his ambitious construction vision would eliminate all the working space and displace his team. They toyed with different ideas (at one point a mobile Palette was on the table), and he was looking for a rented kitchen space when the Folsom Street location (Palette 2.0) caught his eye.
The former automotive building was sitting empty and would have remained empty for another year-and-a-half to two years until demolition and construction for a hotel space began. With a vague end date in mind, the realtor was offering it at a favorable below-market rate, and Hemsley jumped on the chance to “test” his ideas out for Palette.
For a test that might only last a year, his team has utterly transformed the empty space.
Customized and community-minded
Palette’s every surface is lovely, even the walls. A colorful floral mural by Velia De Luliis blooms next to the kitchen, hand-painted ceramic dishes draw the eye as much as the food, and the white walls of the gallery and boutique provide a nice contrast to the deep teal splashed around the dining room.
“It's important to me that people see in a lot of ways the level of thought, the level of production, the specialness of what we're doing is communicated not only by the objects that we have here but the nature of the space,” Hemsley explains. “There's more we could do here, but I think we did an outstanding job. People are impressed by the level that we have gone to it. I think they're more in shock that it's just a temporary spot.”
And what is Palette’s blueprint—the dream that Hemsley is working to build? Just like his own passions cover both food and art, he wants Palette to be a space where food, art and community can thrive.
“In a lot of ways, a restaurant is great to be interested in and want to be invested in from a business standpoint, but it could be so much more profoundly impactful for the community if those funds were being directed towards something that actually has a deeper impact on the community,” says Hemsley.
“A restaurant space is a great community asset. People can patronize it, love it, can use it as a place for social gathering.”
The chairs, the glasses, the menu—every aspect of Palette’s design is intentional, showcasing the talents of local artists and Hemsley’s creative culinary mind. A bonus to working with smaller, local artists is that they’re more interested in working on what Hemsley describes as “challenging projects that are typically not in the scope of what you might find commercially.”
As for the artists themselves, he thinks of it as “an opportunity for them to start scaling their business and realize a potential in themselves that this could go somewhere bigger than they ever imagined.”
Palette’s glassblower Sam Schumacher of Rocket Glass Works makes all of the custom glasses for the restaurant with just one assistant to help him. Yes, it costs more, but Hemsley believes it’s worth it, the unique objects become more meaningful for diners.
While each item is more expensive to produce, there’s a sustainability angle to partnering with local artisans like Schumacher and Palette’s ceramics artist, Andrew Kontrabecki. In restaurants where breakage is an issue (broken glass or dropped tray of plates), Palette’s team save all the broken pieces to melt or grind down and use the materials again in new tableware. “It's not necessarily the best financial model,” Hemsley admits, “but it's not a wasteful model.”
And with art as the medium, Hemsley has more freedom with his menu as well, explaining, “What we're trying to do here is influenced by many of the experiences I've had, but much more personal because bringing art into the vein of it, it helps give it a sense of purpose. What is Palette and the food culture here? It can really be anything. It's not tied to a national cuisine type, it's not tied to a certain true cultural or direction orientation.”
Palette in its current form has a limited lifespan—according to Joey Campanella, the Director of Operations, “the plans for the eventual development of the Folsom Street building are ever-changing so if and when this location will close is up in the air!”
But don’t cry over spilled milk just yet. Their 12th Street location is already undergoing construction, and, once it’s ready and the Folsom Street location has reached the end of its term, elements from the Palette 2.0 version will be implemented into the new and improved Palette Hemsley has dreamed of all this time.