FOODIE FLICKS: 42 Grams (2017)
Updated: May 29, 2021
42 Grams is the entralling, culinary documentary that follows the evolution of temperamental chef Jake Bickelhaupt, his devoted wife Alexa Welsh, and the journey it took to achieve two Michelin stars; a feat rarely achieved for any restaurant in its first year. Directed by Jack C. Newell, the filmmaker follows the life of the former sous chef who once worked at Charlie Trotter's, Schwa, and the celebrated, molecular-gastronomy restaurant, Alinea.
Bikelhaupt started Sous Rising in the living room of his uptown, Chicago flat that he shares with wife Alexa. The concept for Sous Rising is an unlicensed restaurant, wherein ten invited guests partake in a 15 course tasting menu for a flat fee. Like many big-city apartments, the space is limited, as visually noted by the several dozens of labeled plastic jars filled with various ingredients, such as spices, sauces and fresh herbs. These jars occupy every counter, and closet space that serve as a makeshift pantry.
We see Bickelhaupt and his sous chef preparing ten dishes simultaneously for each of the 15 courses. With limited counter space, and barely ten feet from their paying guests, each dish is executed meticulously. The end result is a culinary work of art. Bickelhaupt's wife, Alexa, is the host, server, and sommelier for every evening Sous Rising is in motion. Wife Alexa is better than Amazon's AI version, as she can answer any question pertaining to food, wine, and cooking techniques used throughout the evening. She is that good. Alexa is just as invested in the success of Sous Rising as her husband is, perhaps more.
Viewing one night of this intimate, innovative setting, obvious questions arise from the filmmaker that we are dying to know: "Why are you doing this? How did this concept come to be?" We learn that Bickelhaupt (like many rising chefs) was burnt-out and disillusioned from working long, exhaustive hours. His passion was floundering. Instead of working for the master chefs, he wanted to be the master chef. After consulting with his wife, he left the culinary world to return to school full-time. He chose, of all things, to study physical therapy; a complete 180 from his previous position.
On weekends Bickelhaupt would prepare several dinners for family and friends. It was through these weekend dinners where he regained his culinary passion, and thus the concept of Sous Rising was born. There is no doubt Jake Bickelhaupt is an extremely, talented culinary artisan. Sous Rising would be the impassioned, platform to express who he is as a chef. In the beginning, it started out as a monthly occurrence which quickly snow-balled into a weekly venture. Within 18 months, the couple would lease a small commercial space.
The pair would name the compact space 42 Grams. The name is derived from the 21 grams experiment. A physician, by the name of Duncan MacDougall, hypothesized that a soul has an actual weight equal to 21 grams; in essence the total of 42 grams for the husband and wife duo, and what they each contribute to this fine dining establishment.
"We want you to feel very comfortable, like your in our house," states Bickelhaupt. The problem with the concept of a compact space, is that like home, when tensions rise, the design of the open kitchen makes it difficult to ignore Bickelhaupt's constant tantrums that are in full view for all to see and hear. In one telling scene during the week of research and development, Tom Lynch, a friend and former co-worker from Charlie Trotters had opinions, and ideas that were valued. This, we are led to believe, is his equal comrade. Once the pressure is on and doors are open to the public, Lynch is treated like liquid diarrhea by Bickelhaupt. The incessant berating of Lynch, the line cooks and even his wife Alexa, made me wonder why someone didn't knock his pompous head off.
Edited brilliantly by David Burkart with the vibrant music of Takenobu, my favorite scene is where you hear the sound of a ticking time bomb while viewing a barrage of scenes over the repellent behavior of Bickelhaupt, who foolishly wonders why his employees keep quitting.
The star of 42 Grams is the food, but the hero is Alexa Welsh, Bickelhaupt's loyal and dedicated wife. For a varied time Welsh worked a full-time job in advertising, all the while working nights at Sous Rising. For the first four months of 42 Grams she would do both. Eventually, she would concede her position in advertising to work strictly at the restaurant. At one point the director senses her frustration and asks her pointedly: "Are there times you wished you hadn't done the concept the way you did it?" Alexa, exhaustedly replies" . . . When he's having a meltdown." Which is often.
It is Jake Bickelhaupt's ambition to receive the coveted Michelin star. To have your restaurant featured in the yearly Michelin Guide is an honor. It means your restaurant is worth the reservation, as well as the travel time it may take to get there. The highest accolade an establishment can receive is tree stars. The day finally approaches where he will find out if its yay or nay. Hours pass as the couple pass time by playing cards and listening to country music. Finally, the call is in. Chef Bickelhaupt is informed that 42 Grams received not only one, but two Michelin stars in the new edition of the guide. Upon ending the phone call, he breaks down sobbing in tears. He speaks directly to the camera and states how happy he is to feel validated. Not once during this exchange does he bother to thank his wife and business partner.
The final image that we are left with is that Chef Jake Bickelhaupt is an asshole. A talented asshole, but an asshole nonetheless. 42 Grams closed in June of 2017, within three and a half years of its debut. That same year, not surprisingly, would also be the demise of their marriage. The couple divorced soon after.
What the documentary fails to mention, is that the sudden closure, according to an article in EATER-Chicago and the Cook County states attorneys office, is that Jake Bickelhaupt struck his wife in the head with a bottle that required two staples. The attack took place in the restaurant by the rear door. Police were called by a guest dining that evening. As I write this last paragraph and mentioned previously, the film made no reference to this incident. When I wrote this article my judgement of this film was based solely on what I viewed. It wasn't until after the article was completed that I researched the couple, curious as to what each one was up to in 2021. I had no previous knowledge of the crime that took place in 2017 or its aftermath.