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Chef Peter Hemsley Turns to the Ocean for Inspiration—and Seafood

Cover Image for Chef Peter Hemsley Turns to the Ocean for Inspiration—and Seafood
By Sophie Brochu

A dramatic dining room, a kitchen anchored by a hearth, and a seafood-centric menu. These are the core elements of Palette, the San Francisco restaurant helmed by chef Peter Hemsley. With the ocean as his muse, Hemsley strives to share thoughtful coastal cuisine while being a steward of the world at large.

You’re from the Midwest, you’ve worked in Paris, and you’re currently based in San Francisco. How does place influence your cooking?

I break restaurants down to two categories: restaurants whose menus are based on a national or ethnic food type and those that are not. I have tried really hard to define my cooking outside of a national or ethnic food category. This was a conscious choice, as I don’t have much of an ethnic or national cuisine heritage to point to. Though I am curious about almost everything, and I love the idea of a “sense of place”, I got the notion early on in my career that I would have to follow a more creative abstract path to find some semblance of identity. The culinary focus of the restaurant is seafood, which of course, is a broad category. With the “ocean” at large as the inspirational muse for my work, I find that I am unhinged and uncomplexed by some of the cultural noise that may otherwise influence chefs. As a restaurant, we focus instead on things like traceability of our products, relationships with good people, technology, and the constant and unquenchable desire to find new resources to play with and pay forward to our guests.

Photo by John Troxell.

How do you utilize 100% of the fish that enters your kitchen? 

We try our best to use 100% of the product, which is sometimes not possible, but always the challenge. One creative and old school solve was the reintroduction of the Roman-style fish sauce known as “garum.” It’s a salty, fishy condiment made from the scraps of fish and salt. We adopted the NOMA fermentation technique, which uses koji as a catalyst to add layers of flavor complexity. We use the garum liberally in our seasoning in lieu of salt. We also use fish bones in sauce production, and save trim from fish for sausage, charcuterie, and staff meals. We have some of the best fish-driven staff meals that I have seen in my career.

And what about the dry-aging techniques you’ve been experimenting with?

The dry-ager is a fantastic means of preserving fish, and this is also a method for the potential to use 100% of what we take in. We started with one machine and took it from there. Tuna can go up to two months in the dry-ager, developing a similar look to dry-aged beef ribeye, unlocking flavor development and a firmer texture. When roasted, dry-aged tuna can stand up to a heavy bodied red wine. For a seafood restaurant, usually the harbingers of a mostly white wine spectrum, we have entered into new territory here. As we progressed with the machine, I realized we needed more to handle the day-to-day volumes of large fish runs. We now have three full size dry-agers in the restaurant, and most of our fish spend time in the chamber to develop flavor. Next benchmarks will include fish offal or a vigorous fish charcuterie program. Exciting times.

Credit: Kelly Puleio Photography.

Your California coastal menu is centered around the dynamic relationship between sea and city. Can you elaborate on this?

I’ve tried to challenge the team to take cues from our urban context as a way to be more mindful of Earth’s most important resource. Picking up trash on the street, using less energy as a restaurant, switching from plastic vessels to all compostables are all small ways that we can be better stewards of the world in paying respect to the environment, of which the ocean is critical. I personally pick up and deliver much of the seafood that hits our restaurant, anything from sea urchins in San Diego to black cod from Bodega Bay. Much is brought in by me personally, and in that vein, we are talking about a chef who goes from the sea to the city in a quest to bring the best of what’s possible to his restaurant’s plate.

“We can be better stewards of the world in paying respect to the environment.”

How does your background in the arts translate to the kitchen?

Most chefs are artistic at some level. My vision of an artist is someone who suffers for his work. There is a lot of suffering in the kitchen in order to produce amazing dishes everyday, and as an artist, I believe that the suffering is worth the outcome.

What or who is your biggest inspiration?

I am inspired by the “makers” out there in our restaurant’s network, and by this I mean farmers, ocean harvesters (fancy way of referring to a commercial fisherman), and the wide array of artisans that we work with. I am consistently humbled by the enormous sacrifices they make on an everyday basis, their hard physical and mental work, and their focused passion to ensure excellence for what they put forward. As a chef, I seek only to work with like-minded people, who inspire me with their wealth of knowledge in domains that I have not the time or energy to pursue myself.

How often is your menu changing?

The menu changes with the turns of the season. This is on two fronts. Vegetables, for one. Secondly, for fish, which are seasonal too. Anchovies, for example, are a summer season thing here in the Bay Area. Tuna and swordfish run in SoCal from July to November. Dungeness crab is typically from November to February. Environmental changes in the world, such as warming oceans and protection of species, is rapidly changing the predictability of fish. Bluefin tuna have been caught recently in northern California, and Dungeness crab was closed for the season due to concerns over whale migration. A chef dedicated to using primarily local fish is challenged to find substitutional resources for these gaps in the menu, which aquaculture is increasingly responding to.

Miso-glazed cod. Kelly Puleio Photography.

Is there a signature dish that stays on the menu?

The miso-glazed black cod is one of our most popular dishes and will theoretically never leave the menu, black cod being extremely abundant in the Bay right now.

What are you reading, listening to, or watching right now?

I am reading The Dead Rabbits Drinks Manual to brush up on my knowledge of cocktails and cocktail culture. I listen to a lot of radio, as I frantically and impulsively flip through the channels in the bizarre quest to find a song that will appease my current mood (always satisfying to land on one—so rare). I watch the Australian kids series Bluey with my three young ones in the morning, which is hilarious and a great study on modern parenting.

What are you offering for the holiday season?

Caviar, box crab from SoCal, and dry-aged bluefin.

What’s next for Palette?

We are changing our name in the spring to something that more appropriately captures the essence of what we are as a restaurant. We have moved away from the original concept that was focused on art, though I would concede that there is a lot of art in what we do as a company.

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TaggedCalifornia CoastalChefs

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