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A year ago a young chef nobody had heard of—who had experience at some top restaurants (Alinea, Schwa, Charlie Trotter) but not that much experience overall—had an ambitious idea to launch a high-end restaurant via Kickstarter, which was often perceived as a source of free money. The chef, Jake Bickelhaupt, took some ribbing online for his presumption from the Reader.
Which was a little awkward when he turned up as a Key Ingredient chef a few months later—the episode shot in his modestly sized Uptown apartment where he and his wife, Alexa Welsh, hosted underground dinners under the name Sous Rising. But frankly, in the hour we were there, we were impressed by the level of fine dining, even avant-garde food he could pull off in the most standard of apartment kitchens.
And when I went to dine at Sous Rising with friends a couple of months after that, I became convinced that Bickelhaupt and Welsh should have a restaurant of their own and that like other spots that have evolved out of underground dining—Elizabeth, Fat Rice—it would be a rare and highly personal addition to our scene. Bickelhaupt is young (his flat midwestern accent and intense earnestness reminded me of John Cusack’s Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything), but like Iliana Regan of Elizabeth, he radiates certainty about his vision. And he delivered on it with complete facility regardless of the tiny, nonprofessional space in which he whipped up a professional, indeed downright beautiful, 15-course tasting menu, with only one other cook in the kitchen.
The meal was not only one of the better ones I had this year, but a completely charming experience, a reflection of the personalities of the two people behind it—Bickelhaupt in the kitchen and Welsh serving. It was probably good for them that they had another year of practice post-Kickstarter, but now their restaurant, 42 Grams, is opening in January at 4662 N. Broadway (reservations are available through their website). I spoke with both of them about the journey to 42 Grams.
Michael Gebert: So everyone's going to ask about the name first, explain that.
Welsh: The name comes from the idea that the soul weighs 21 grams. It's not rooted in fact, but 42 grams is what Jake and I bring to the experience.
Tell me about the space.
Welsh: It's just under 1,400 square feet, and it used to be a fast-food fried chicken establishment. The former owners were in operation all of three and a half months, so it's practically a brand-new space that just needed renovation, hence the very quick turnaround. The space itself, the layout is very open concept, where you walk in, you're in full view of the kitchen, there's a small, very intimate dining room where we'll have a total of about 18 seats when we first open. There's a chef's counter where you can sit at the counter, see what's happening, and interact with the chef, as well as a communal seating table. The kitchen is about equal in space to the dining room, so it's very much the focal point of all the action.
Now Jake, what you were doing, which was fairly amazing considering that you have a pretty standard apartment kitchen, was turning out what, 15 courses—
Bickelhaupt: 15, sometimes I'd get it up to about 20.
How did you make that work?
Bickelhaupt: Besides your standard Whirlpool stove, I got very creative with induction burners, an immersion circulator for sous vide, as well as a standard dehydrator—it was really pretty simple. That was the idea, that if I could keep the food simple, but plate it interestingly and beautifully and use high quality ingredients—I mean, the world is small now. I can get anything that anybody else can get, which is exciting.
So I'm looking forward to moving into a legitimate commercial kitchen. Number one, just the space, it'll quadruple my square footage. It's a restaurant, with specific stations, it's not just going to be one other guy. Well, it's not going to be a lot more—it'll be a total of three chefs, including me. But it's just a bigger stage, really. I hope it will be the same in terms of quality, and creativity, and challenging me as a cook.
Now there's a hood, and I'm not setting the fire alarm off every ten minutes. My cooking techniques [before] had to be careful, I couldn't grill anything, I couldn't sauté at very high temperatures, simple things like that. And one more thing—we washed everything by hand. So I'm excited to get a legit dishwasher.
There's nothing magic about it, I mean, a stove is still a stove. We've been underground for so long, now I want to be above ground.
Okay, let's talk about it philosophically. Why, as a couple, did you do underground dining in the first place?
Welsh: Sous Rising was really R&D for about a year and a half. And one of the biggest things that we got was, when we started thinking about the restaurant, it was all about Jake and the food. And listening to our guests' feedback, one of the main themes that kind of emerged for us was the experience. The food was spectacular and exceptional and delicious, but the reason people would say "that was the best meal of my life" was the experience, the whole package. It was being welcomed into our home, it was sitting at the communal table with either friends or strangers and being able to enjoy themselves, it was the hospitality and being hosted.
And so we kind of took a step back and we said, we're building an experience. It's not you eat what you want and then you walk away. It's experiential from start to finish. Originally people were saying, what kind of food is it? But it's really more about what Jake and I collectively bring to the experience. It's being greeted at the door by the chef's wife. It's being able to talk to the chefs, ask questions. There's no veil between the diner and the kitchen.
It's hard to put into words, you just know it when you experience it.
Alexa, how did you get involved in being part of a restaurant?
Welsh: Uh . . . guilt by association? I guess it started off as me supporting Jake, and it grew into, this isn't something that he's going to be able to do individually. When we tried to think about scenarios in which I got replaced or somebody was hired [as hostess and server], you lose some of that personalness and authenticity. Then it's trying to find someone who is going to support Jake in the way that I would support him, and obviously no one is going to be able to do that. I mean, I'm by no means a service professional. So we're just kind of making up the hostess part as we go along, and I just try my best to be the best hostess I can and learn as I go.
Winter seems like it would be kind of a hard time to launch, in terms of the foods that are available.
Bickelhaupt: Food right now is actually pretty great, because there's plenty of citrus. There's plenty of things across the globe. Actually the hardest month is March. But you know, it's not like I'm starting from scratch. I just did a series of dinners for the Chaine des Rotisseurs [a fine dining group], and that menu is kind of a launching pad for the restaurant.
I also started a course that I'm pretty happy about, but unfortunately I did it in honor of Charlie Trotter's death, and what he said his last meal was going to be, which was [many small courses of] raw fish.
So the menu is pretty much set. I mean, I've been working on the opening menu for a year and a half. How many restaurants that open can really say that? So it better be damn good, I hope!
Scaling up from a couple of underground dinners a week to restaurant service is a big jump. How are you going to find enough people for that?
Welsh: Well, that's the daunting task, right? It's trying to get enough awareness and press that people who are looking for that kind of different experience can find us. We've already starting selling online to our customers, and a lot of people are trying to work on buyouts, so hopefully that will keep us going until we reach critical mass.
We still get a lot of awareness just from Yelp, our Sous Rising listing on Yelp. Every day we're adding people who are looking for Sous Rising, even though it's closed—
Really? How do they find you on Yelp? Are many people really searching for "experiential dining" there?
Welsh: I can't tell you how many people find us via Yelp.
Bickelhaupt: They're looking for what's the best dinner in Uptown, what's Michelin-starred in Uptown, and there's nothing in Uptown.
Welsh: We're a five star [Yelp rating] in Uptown, so when they see what's five star in this area, they're like, what's this restaurant? What's this underground thing happening? So we get a lot of referrals from Yelp.
Bickelhaupt: We didn't even start it ourselves. A past guest started it, said, "Can I start a Yelp listing for you?," and we said sure, whatever. And people keep adding it to it. You can see for yourself what people compare us to. It's very humbling.
I think attracting customers is easier than Alexa says. It's white and black. If you suck, nobody will come. If you're good, they'll come. It's not going to happen overnight. But we built a strong, loyal fan base already with Sous Rising, and we already have support.
Everybody wants to eat. Everybody wants a good experience. They want memories, right? They want to do something fun. I mean, why do you go to football games, why do you go to concerts? People want to be entertained, and we can provide that for a couple of hours. If you do something right, people will give you the time of day.