Jack C. Newell's fly-on-the-wall doc about a Chicago chef on the rise effortlessly blends haute cuisine food porn with a tale of chef as temperamental artist.
Four years ago, Jake Bickelhaupt was just an up-and-coming chef running an illegal restaurant, Sous Rising, out of the Chicago apartment he shared with his wife, Alexa Welsh. A former disciple of famed Chicago chef Charlie Trotter, Bickelhaupt convinced his wife to commit the time, energy and capital to opening a Michelin-caliber haute cuisine restaurant out of the storefront just below their apartment. Dubbing the new location 42 Grams (after the symbolic weight of two souls -Jake’s and Alexa’s), the Uptown restaurant lasted for three years, and earned two Michelin stars each year. By mid-2017, Jake and Alexa had divorced, and 42 Grams had shut its doors.
42 Grams, the latest documentary from Jack C. Newell (Open Tables, Close Quarters), doesn’t offer the ultimate answer to why they closed, or what caused the dissolution of the relationship celebrated in its name. It does, however, provide an intimate glimpse into the ambition, hard work, and uncompromising vision that comes with a desire for greatness.
Cuisine and cinema have long been bedfellows, but in the burgeoning food-doc subgenre they’ve achieved new heights. In many ways, 42 Grams is part and parcel of the food-porn tradition of docs like Jiro Dreams of Sushi and Somm, with deep-focus, cover-quality time lapses of each of Jake’s meticulously developed and inventive dishes (set to composer Takenobu’s haunting cello-centric compositions). Every cut of $1400 wagyu beef, each delicate placement of micro chervil, is respected by Newell’s camera – 42 Grams doesn’t forget to give you the goods when it comes to showing you great food.
In other ways, it rebels against those norms by showing a warts-and-all depiction of its primary subject. Jake is practically the poster child for the rock-star chef culture that has proliferated in the culinary world for decades – he’s an ambitious, outside-the-box chef who isn’t beholden to culinary traditions or the niceties of compromise. Newell captures his genius and temper in equal measure; Jake is as delicate with a quenelle as he is harsh with his subordinates. (At one point, Alexa jokes that “Jake stops short of physical violence,” but all the shouting and death glares from the hulking chef when his vision of perfection isn’t achieved are startling just the same.) Where the eponymous chef in Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a master of Zen perfection, Jake is a powder keg of passionate emotion.
In fact, 42 Grams is just as concerned with the logistics of starting a business, and the emotional toll that can take, especially on romantic partners going into business together. Jake’s wife, Alexa, is the cooler head, the endlessly supportive foundation on which Jake gets to realize his vision. She’s as fussy and meticulous as he is, but over paper costs instead of how long one should sous-vide their barley porridge. While the restaurant starts to see some reassuring success (which Alexa charts through a growing mountain of wine corks glued to the wall of the restaurant), the prospect of failure is just around the corner. At times, 42 Grams can seem like a place of liberation for Jake’s culinary expression, or a stifling prison from which there is no escape.
More than anything, the doc does a wonderful job of showing the highs and lows of having a working/living relationship between such strong personalities. The tête-à-tête between Jake and Alexa is a perfect microcosm of the high drama that comes with any level of the restaurant business – the sky-high aspirations of perfection versus the dull thump of reality. However, Jake’s boundless desire to prove himself is captivating, and we root for him even as we silently wish for him to temper his expectations.
Even before you learn the ultimate fate of the restaurant (displayed in a few quick, tragic text cards at the very end of the film), 42 Grams is a beautiful distillation of the uncompromising nature of creativity, and the support system needed to achieve those dreams. While the restaurant itself may be gone, this doc is here to immortalize it, even as Jake moves on to new climes. All in all, this doc offers a sumptuous meal for lovers of fine food and the challenges of creativity.