The story of 42 Grams is a somewhat unlikely one. Chef Jake Bickelhaupt had experience in top-notch kitchens (Alinea, Charlie Trotter's, Schwa) but had never run his own before, aside from the underground dinners he and his wife, Alexa Welsh, had been hosting in their apartment. The elaborate 15-course meals Bickelhaupt was producing at that "guestaurant," which he called Sous Rising, intrigued filmmaker Jack C. Newell. After attending one, he started filming Bickelhaupt's food prep and presentation, not entirely sure at the time if anything would come of it. Over the course of two years, Newell continued filming the couple as they developed a plan for and then opened 42 Grams, a tiny fine-dining BYOB restaurant, in a former fried-chicken joint in Uptown in January 2014. The result is a feature-length documentary, 42 Grams, which will be playing at the Gene Siskel Film Center from January 27 to February 1.
"Logically, the whole restaurant wasn't realistic," Bickelhaupt says now. "I was an unknown chef. Even though I worked at good restaurants, I never ran a kitchen at that level before." And yet, somehow, it worked. Bickelhaupt doesn't lack for confidence; as he explains in the documentary, he wants 42 Grams to get two Michelin stars right away. Welsh, who's more pragmatic, doesn't think it'll happen immediately, but Bickelhaupt is determined. He's also tightly wound; as he works on developing new dishes for the menu, several scenes show him snapping at his sous chefs or at Welsh. The film doesn't shy away from the hard realities of running a restaurant: in one scene Welsh uses a ruler to make sure the placemats are positioned just right while she explains that she and Bickelhaupt don't have time to travel, eat out, or see friends. Meanwhile, her mother has terminal cancer and will be moving in with the couple for hospice care. But we also get to see the couple's elation when Bickelhaupt gets the call that after being open for just ten months, 42 Grams has been awarded two Michelin stars.
That moment is the apex of the film, but not the end of the restaurant's story. Closing titles inform us that 42 Grams was awarded two stars again in 2016 and 2017; Welsh and Bickelhaupt divorced in January 2017 and closed the restaurant in June. "A documentary is a living thing," Welsh says. "The story line keeps on. There's a certain point where you just have to stop updating, and we all decided we don't need to continue."
As for closing the restaurant, Bickelhaupt says, it was a result of the divorce, not because business was bad. "We were trying to work together, and it's very difficult to do that, so the best decision was to close the restaurant and go our separate ways." He's convinced, though, that 42 Grams would've gotten three Michelin stars in 2018 if they'd kept the restaurant open. (Alinea is currently the only restaurant in Chicago with three stars; there are four restaurants in the city that have two stars.) In the last few months that 42 Grams was open, Bickelhaupt was doing all the cooking himself. "It was literally just me, Alexa, and the dishwasher," he says. "I created a restaurant that's very hard for anyone else to work in. It was very unique, very specific to me, and no one else can be me. So I decided I might as well do it all myself. It was a weird decision but we were doing some awesome food."
Last September, Bickelhaupt launched a "wandering" supper club called Konro. The food is in the same vein as what he was doing before, but he's now focusing on collaborating with other chefs. "At 42 Grams I was pretty much in my own bubble . . . I didn't work well with others," he says. "This time I wanted to work with other people, to be more open and collaborative."
Welsh, meanwhile, is getting into commercial real estate. She doesn't regret the time she put into Sous Rising and 42 Grams—she'd do it again, she says. But when she watches the documentary, "I see the stress on my face, I think of all the shit we were going through when that was filmed. For so long I put my job before myself. I put the restaurant before myself. I put Jake before myself. In the absence of all that, I finally am putting myself first. It's been fantastic."
Eventually, Bickelhaupt hopes to open another restaurant, but he says he doesn't want to work alone anymore. "42 Grams was 100 percent built around what I'm going to do. So ultimately I ended up working by myself," he says. "Moving forward, I need to make a restaurant that I know other chefs are able to work in. I want them to thrive, feel comfortable, express their own creativity on the menu." v