The director of the upcoming foodie doc 42 Grams talks about the project’s origins and the serendipity and luck involved in documentary filmmaking.
42 Grams, the new documentary from Chicago filmmaker Jack C. Newell (Open Tables), is a fascinating look into the creative mindset of Michelin-star chef Jake Bickelhaupt and his then-wife Alexa Welsh, as they went from humble purveyors of an underground dining experience in their apartment to a two-Michelin-star restaurant called 42 Grams. (You can read my review here.)
Graciously coming to Alcohollywood Studios for an in-house interview, Newell talked to me about the origins of the project, Bickelhaput’s creative temperament, and the unpredictability of documentary filmmaking. Listen to the uncut interview here, or read the abridged transcript below!
How did you get involved with Jake and Alexa, and land in this story?
I actually kinda stumbled into it, which is probably a fairly common story among documentaries. I had made another film called Open Tables, which is fiction, and it took place in all these restaurants in Chicago, like, really great restaurants, like Longman & Eagle, that caliber of restaurant. We also shot in Paris, France, and used the food scene as a backdrop. Through the process of making that film, I had eaten at a lot of Chicago restaurants and understood the Chicago dining scene, and thought I knew everything that there was.
I was at a silent auction – the Red and White Ball that Steppenwolf does every year – with my girlfriend at the time (she’s my wife now). And we saw this thing called “Sous Rising: Underground Restaurant, Illegal Eating Experience.” And I was like “hold up, I thought I knew everything that was happening in Chicago with food.” So I bid on it, and no one really knew much about underground dining, so I won it for about half off. Cool, we were gonna have a good meal for half off – let’s see what happens.
So we go, and it’s in Uptown, it’s in a stranger’s apartment, and you’re eating with eight strangers. And it’s weird, like, what am I walking into here? But we sit down, and every course is better than the course before it. This isn’t the best food I’ve ever had in someone’s house, this is some of the best food I’ve ever had, it’s unbelievable.
[Jake] walks around from the kitchen, and I walk up to him. I’d just finished Open Tables and was looking for another project. I was interested in documentary, because I’d never done one before – this is my first – so I just said, “Would you mind if I just started following you?” He said yeah. A couple weeks later, I started showing up; we started when he was just doing the underground thing. They said, “We’re thinking about opening a real restaurant,” and I was like, “Okay, I’m gonna keep following you.” And kept following them.
Did you find the focus of the doc shifted and changed as the shoot progressed? Finding what the movie was about?
Oh yeah, I went in pretty consciously having no idea what the film was gonna be about. You know, just ‘this is interesting, basically this genius making amazing art, let’s say, out of his house – just like you, making great podcasts out of your home!
Aww, well, thanks.
But essentially, this guy’s got this passion, he’s just grinding it out. And I felt a kinship, because as an independent filmmaker you’re doing the same thing. Every day, you’re going to work and grinding it out, and it’s underground, no one really knows about it. But there’s passion that’s driving you there. For the first bit, I thought that was enough, but then they revealed themselves to be really interesting characters, and the story inherent to their journey emerged as they tried to open the restaurant and everything that goes into that. The first year, all the very high highs and very low lows.
This documentary fits into this larger context of food docs and foodie culture that’s been a thing for the last couple decades. What was your impression of how this doc would fit into that Jiro Dreams of Sushi/Somm atmosphere your audience would probably want?
I have a weird way of talking about this movie, which is that it’s the ultimate foodie anti-food movie. It’s gonna hit all the things you want to hit in a foodie movie, but it’s a little bit different than that, goes into areas that other ones maybe don’t. It’s funny, because the original title for this doc was going to be Chef’s Table.
Oh trust me, there were a dark couple of days when Netflix dropped that they were doing a show called Chef’s Table. And I was like, “Well, I’m giving up film et al. completely.”
But when we started the film, the acute craze that’s going on right now in the food world, that’s relatively new, just a couple of years old. When I say that Chef’s Table thing, it’s because it wasn’t a genre [yet]. So heading into it, it was really just about making a portrait of this artist. Now, obviously there is more of a thing, and I was like “oh, there’s an actual audience for this film.”
I actually didn’t pull for inspiration from any of the other chef movies, I tried to pull from other documentaries about architecture and art. Because it’s more about how an artist approaches a topic or subject, or their art.
One thing I appreciate about that is that you get into the creativity of the dishes, this desire and uncompromising passion for what Jake does, but there’s also that sense of the logistics of everything – not just numbers on paper, but the emotional/psychological toll it takes.
I find I’m fairly OCD in a lot of ways, and there’s something about Jake and Alexa specifically – about most chefs – that is very meticulous. They’re always knolling things, putting things at right angles. The movie’s really simple: you’re either cooking, eating or cleaning. If you watch the movie, that’s all they do.
True, and Jake in particular has this very intriguing temperament, that I suppose in a larger sense is true of a lot of chefs. There’s a whole hard-drinking, hard-living chef subculture out there, especially in the urban haute cuisine world, which is given a little bit of focus under the surface.
Yeah, we didn’t want to make that the focus. This isn’t a Lifetime or Hallmark movie, where he overcomes his demons because he gets validation. The reality is far more complicated than that, and alcoholism, for [Jake], is part of who he is. My interest was not to fix him, or give him some sort of character arc of redemption, but just to show you who this guy is.
The dynamic between Jake and Alexa is a really powerful component of the doc. At what point in the process did you decide to make that the focus?
One of the things, even from the Sous Rising days, was very clear: it was a husband and wife experience. We never found a way to put this in the doc, but Alexa always said she was the cipher for Jake, because he was never able to verbalize what he was trying to do, so she did that. So much of the experience in Sous Rising and 42 Grams was Alexa’s presentation of each dish. That’s really special, because if you’re eating at any restaurant, and someone puts a plate of food in front of you, it’s usually a waiter. They have no real connection [to the chef] – they may be friends in real life, but not their husband or wife. Here, you have a mom-and-pop operation, where the wife is setting the food down and saying, “My husband made this food for you, and here’s what it means.”
I think for anyone who ate at that restaurant, or the underground restaurant [Sous Rising], there’s a real sense of ownership over that experience. Because it felt like you were in that house with them, so it had that extra level. [Elsewhere], fine dining is often very cold and clinical, and it feels like you’re eating in a modern art museum.
Speaking to that, I really appreciated that corkboard as a wonderful symbol for their relationship and the progression of the restaurant. Why did you use that as a foundation or structure for the doc?
If in any of your interviews, the documentary filmmaker tells you they knew what they were doing from the beginning, they’re probably lying to you. So I won’t lie to you, and I’ll just say: part of the challenge of documentary is that you always need to be filming. You just don’t know. There’s days where you’ll go and film something, and you think “I know for a fact this is going to be the movie. This is solid doc gold.” And you get in the edit room, and it doesn’t fit. And there’s some days where you’re like “I don’t know why I’m shooting this, this is garbage, I’m never going to use this.” And it ends up being the most important thing you shot.
So the corkboard was really Alexa’s project. That’s part of the reason we wanted to include it, not only as a bit of a calendar or timestamp for the film, but to give Alexa a visual piece of art that she’s adding to the film.
Right, it’s her own sort of creativity.
Totally. And they always said the restaurant is divided by half – the kitchen was Jake’s, and the front of the house was Alexa’s. That was the balance they were going for, that yin and yang. So I would just be filming it, because when you show up you film whatever you get your hands on. But it was really late into the corkboard’s progression that I was like, “oh, wait, I should be filming this intentionally, because maybe I could use it for something.”
Going back to the emotional component, one of the major quests in the film is Jake’s quest to get a Michelin star – not just one, but two. What was it like filming the day he was supposed to get the call?
Pretty agonizing, and I think we did a fairly good job of capturing in the film.
Yeah, that boredom, the tedium of anticipation.
It’s funny, because part of the reason we put in the day before that [Alexa says], “They’re gonna call at 6am or 7am the next day” was for myself, because I showed up at 6am the next day. Calls didn’t start going out until 2 or 3pm, somewhere really late. What happened was the [Michelin] report got leaked the year before, so everyone knew by 8 or 9 am. So everyone was expecting them to make calls really early, but they didn’t.
So I was in a spot where I showed up at 6 or 7, started filming. But even though everyone talks about how it’s digital, and you can film forever – I did film forever that day. I shot for six hours, I was running out of media, my batteries are dying. I was at a spot where I thought I might have to tape over something. When you shot on film, you had to think about that more, but in digital we just forget about that. But you do end up running out of media eventually.
You imagine having this infinite hard drive, but it still runs out.
But you can only carry so much, and you never think to yourself, “I’m gonna shoot twelve hours of footage,” that’d be a lot of footage. I ended up having to be really deliberate with what I was shooting. It’s funny, because I just said, “let me film you opening the champagne and I’ll cut it in later” – not knowing that at that moment that the call was going to happen right there. That moment we captured was so serendipitous, because what would have happened was that the call would come, and I’d have to turn on my camera, get it all fired up, and probably miss the beginning of the call. But the way it happened, I just got terribly, terribly lucky.
Did you anticipate it going the other way, or not getting a call?
Well, they were fairly certain they were going to get at least one. Some behind the scenes stuff here: Michelin lets press know ahead of time, then they embargo that information, and there’d been some rumblings that someone was going to reach out to them. But you never know, you know? Someone might have misunderstood or read it wrong.
But 2 or 3 o’clock rolls around, and no one was tweeting – Schwa or Grace or Alinea – no one. Silence. I expected one, like the rest of the world.
Everyone except Jake.
In the film, we had to hedge it a little bit, because we couldn’t find the exact numbers. But in the history of Michelin from the beginning of the guide to now, only a handful have gone from zero to two stars. It’s unheard of. And there’s thousands and thousands of Michelin-star restaurants. Usually you go one to two, then two to three. But Jake just came out and it’s like, man.
And he was two stars for all three years 42 Grams was open. But then, tragically, 42 Grams closed halfway through last year. How did that change the context of the doc?
Well, the film was done by the time that they’d closed. Very done, like we’d already started screening the film at festivals. They’d gotten divorced in January of last year, and I initially thought, “I don’t know if that goes in the film.” And then I found out like everyone else did that the restaurant was closed – it was very sudden. Then we were at a moment where we said, “What do we want to do here?”
For me it was – I want to say ‘exciting’ without sounding like a monster – an exciting opportunity. Although it sucks that the restaurant closed, from a storytelling standpoint, there’s something I like about getting the opportunity to tell this story, and people who watch it get to see something from before it was even an idea, then you get to see the entire life of this restaurant, then see it end. Very rarely do you actually get to see things beginning, middle and end, to see the loop close. There’s something about that unity I really like.
42 Grams is currently available on iTunes, and premieres Friday, January 26th at the Gene Siskel Film Center as part of their Stranger Than Fiction series. Newell and subject Alexa Welsh will be in attendance all weekend.