Jake Bickelhaupt and Alexa Welsh

42 grams

02/12/2015

Jake Bickelhaupt is the chef of 42 grams. He and his wife, Alexa Welsh, own and operate the eighteen-seat restaurant in Uptown.

How did you decide on the format of the restaurant?

AW: 42 grams--- and I say this to our guests twice a night, every night--- is an evolution of an underground dining experience that Jake and I used to run out of our apartment called Sous Rising. The buildout of the restaurant follows the footprint of our home, we have open concept dining for eight in the kitchen, and a communal table of ten.

This experience is based on a year and a half worth of feedback from our guests about what was resonating for them, what they found special about the evening, the meal with us. What it boils down to is experience. It was the camaraderie of strangers coming together over an unknown, shared food experience. I like to joke that wine plays a big part in the magic of the evening. It’s a fantastic social joiner, and for the most part the people that make reservations here and at the counter are very social and outgoing people, they don’t mind talking to strangers.

We frosted the windows because we’re not a walk by, look in the window, you’re gonna come in off the street type of place. You made a reservation to dine here well in advance, and it’s really as simple as that. We didn’t need to be on restaurant row.

There’s two seatings per night, it’s pretty easy. You pick 5:45pm or 8:30pm. That’s it, there’s no complex table system, no multiple tables, multiple times, turnover, we don’t have any of that. So we were able to build a website ourselves, develop a very simple, e-commerce type site, it’s not like we needed something sophisticated.
 

What motivated the jump from underground dinners to opening 42 grams?

AW: I wanted Jake out of the house. [laughs] It’s very simple. The apartment was always, “There’s people coming this weekend,” so we didn’t live in half the apartment. We lived in our bedroom and our bathroom, the guest bathroom was for guests, the guest bedroom became his pantry, and the living dining and kitchen was all set for service.

That was every week, for a year and a half. Jake was getting a lot of praise and positive feedback from our guests, but it needed to be on a larger stage, it needed to be something that could sustain him as a viable career. Underground is not a career, nobody really knows about you other than your guests.

Why do you think 42 grams is successful?

JB: The only time people accomplish something interesting, or go somewhere interesting, is when they get lost. Go off the beaten path. We’re very different, we’re genuine, we’re authentic. Michelin or whatever will say we have a signature, a personality. And the reason why is the intention we put into it. It’s not the attention, of which there’s a lot, but the intention.

AW: We keep being asked the same question about trends,  “Are we the trend of fine dining?” And I think it’s an uninformed question, because to think what we’re doing can be replicated on a mass scale means you don’t understand what we’re doing. We’re certainly not the end of the conversation; we hope that other chefs have the freedom to do their own thing. But we are the product of a very specific set of circumstances. And not a lot of chefs have those sort of circumstances available to them.

So I don’t think we’re a trend in fine dining. Chicago is a town with a lot of food options, and I just think that we’re one among many. People come from all over the world to eat in Chicago, and I think we add to the fabric, the tapestry, the landscape of food.

Why is the pop-up, underground dinner format valuable?

JB: It’s not like people are handing money over to great chefs, talented chefs, “Yeah, I want to invest in you.” Not even close, and that’s why you’ve seen a lot more of these pop-ups and underground things. That’s been going on for a long time, especially in Europe and South America, but in the United States and in Chicago you’re seeing a lot more of it. I think young chefs are really seeing the positives about it. It’s still kind of a stigma because it’s in a gray area, we get that.

I think what we’re doing here is exciting, I hope that empowers other chefs. I would love to see more chef driven restaurants. Some people call them garage-band restaurants or chefs. I’m not an economist but it makes sense, it costs a lot less to build something like 42 grams, and I actually think it’s better. Because it’s more intimate, it’s more personal, it’s more real, it’s more authentic.

Are there any drawbacks to the format?

AW: If you’re trying to have a restaurant where you’re not involved, and it’s really just making money, then this is obviously a massive con. Because this is extremely time intensive, Jake and I are seven days a week…

JB: Small covers, low covers.

AW: Yes.

JB: They sound bad but they’re good.

AW: Everything we’ve built here is the antithesis of what most restaurateurs would do when it comes to a restaurant. We have a lot of guests, people in finance, in backgrounds where their job is to analyze businesses and they run the numbers. I’ve literally had guys with their calculators out trying to figure out what we would make in a year, and then they ask us, “How are you guys gonna grow?”

Growth is usually the number one question. How do you get bigger, how do you keep getting positive numbers? We’re not gonna blow out the wall and double our size. That’s not what we’re doing here, and that’s not the five, ten year plan. This would be a con for most restaurateurs. We’ve had a lot of repeat guests from when we were in our home. And they’ve said we did a good job of maintaining the kind of atmosphere and the ambience of coming into somebody’s home and having this very small, intimate format dining experience.

Can we do it forever? No, absolutely not. It is extremely physically, emotionally, mentally, time intensive. But as long as we continue to enjoy what we’re doing, it’s very easy.

For a restaurant at your level, are you taking a risk not having a wine program?

JB: Who started the expectation? Are we limited by our parents and our grandparents? No. Change is inevitable. Expectations are meant to be changed, because life changes. Every single second, every single day, that’s number one. So try not to expect, so you can be open for a new experience, number one.

BYO, we did that because first, just like the restaurant itself, it keeps everything simple. If you keep it simple you’re able to succeed, there’s not so many moving parts. You focus on a couple of steps at a time, you can focus on guests--- being BYO does that because we don’t need to have this expectation. We don’t have to bring in a sommelier, somebody outside of our knowledge--- we’re not wine experts. We looked into it, we thought about it, and we decided to forgo it in the beginning.

So a risk, yes. But at the same time I think it helps support the experience we’re trying to do here. We give wine recommendations, based on what we know we like, and people have been very happy. So it’s BYO, they bring their own wines, it’s fun, it helps with the experience, with talking to guests, sometimes--- a lot of the time they share wine, “Hey, we have a lot of this, you want to try this.”

AW: I think it adds to the community experience.

JB: Yes. Some people are really into it.

AW: A lot of people bring more wine than they can possibly drink, and they even say, “We brought this whole bottle because we thought we could share it with people.” That happens a lot. We’ve often have guests that dine solo, that don’t bring anything to drink, and the table is literally hounding them the entire time, “Are you sure you don’t want a glass?” They end up sharing and that breaks the ice too.

People love talking about their wines. A lot of people that dine with us typically have wine cellars, they have a wine passion, they want to talk to other people that are also into wines. They start sharing their Napa stories, their world travel stories, about wine. How they brought it back from Italy, or France, or cases flown in--- whatever it may be, it’s a point of connection between our guests.

JB: They share their wine knowledge with us, and we share our food knowledge and experience. So it’s a give and take. It’s a relationship. Don’t think of it as a bad thing, it’s actually a good thing for certain experiences.

How about the risk you take when you cede control of that element of the meal?

AW: I give really specific recommendations, but ultimately we say bring what you enjoy to drink. There’s a lot of people that don’t like white wine. And they don’t bring white wine, and that’s fine: bring what you would like, and prefer to drink for the evening.

JB: We don’t have egos here. Everybody does everything, as far as staff, the experience from chef, front of house, wherever it may be--- there’s only five people that work here. So everybody that comes in here, we try to make them feel at home, we actually want them to feel like they’re our friends. And some people are. I mean, long-time relationships because they come so often. We want you to feel comfortable, the food’s gonna go with it, don’t worry about it. A six-pack of Miller Light, bring it, who cares? If it’s a ‘96 Krug, bring that.

Choosing a space in Uptown must’ve raised some eyebrows.

AW: Part of the food experience is the destination, it’s getting there, the adventure. It was really eye-opening for me, not being in the industry, to see the lengths that people go to--- we meet so many people that travel the world, their hobby is to travel to eat. So what is the Red Line, or a taxi, or whatever, to Uptown, to people who will travel to middle of nowhere Sweden to go eat at a restaurant?

JB: Your neighborhood reflects your personality, and I think Uptown personally reflects us and the restaurant. Uptown doesn’t follow trends. Uptown is very unique, it’s very Chicago, it’s very genuine, it’s authentic, it doesn’t follow any rules but it’s own. That’s 42 grams, that’s Uptown.

AW: Chicago is a city of neighborhoods, and everybody has pride in their neighborhood, if they’ve lived in it for any amount of time. And that exists in Uptown, I just think it had a bad reputation for a number of years.

When we started looking for spaces, we were looking in all parts north and west, and then one day Jake was like, “Why aren’t we looking in Uptown?” So we did, and learned a lot more about what was happening in this part of the city. It was the last little pocket of real estate on the north shore that was affordable to live in, the rents were shockingly cheaper than places that were further west, south and north. It made sense.

And then this space became available, which was really just another product of the stars aligning, and we ended up living above the restaurant we own and operate. We hope we’re bringing a little bit of a good thing to the neighborhood.

42 grams being in Uptown is another way you challenge to all these conventions and expectations.

AW: This is just very much our aesthetic, it comes naturally to us, and what we’re doing is… welcoming people into our aesthetic. And this is 100% not for everyone. This is not a 200-seat restaurant. We did not build for the masses. We built for people that dining really is a hobby, a passion, and so they appreciate this. We’re not all things to all people, and we didn’t build this to be all things to all people. It’s a very specific experience.

It’s fun because we have people who eat all over the world, and say they feel lucky that some of the most exciting food that’s happening is happening in Chicago. Jake and I haven’t travelled the world to eat but we have guests, that’s literally what they do. They travel the world to eat, and they have found, in their opinion, that Chicago stands up with any other city in the world.

What makes Chicago unique among the great dining cities?

JB: In Chicago we have such a challenging task in front of us, about availability of products, beautiful ingredients, that kind of stuff, that pushes creativity. You obviously see the dramatic results of that in Scandinavia, obviously Noma, these kinds of restaurants, Fäviken, these Nordic restaurants that are so far north that they have an extreme identity.

You can pick multiple countries in Scandinavia and wrap it all in one kind of cuisine style. Here in Chicago, the Midwest, you can’t. It’s such a melting pot, and our ingredients are very different, or very limited. There’s a lot of creative chefs out there, you really have to bang your head against the wall sometimes, trying to figure out what you’re gonna do, and not everybody wants fucking beets everywhere. [laughs] I like beets, but you know, people are sick of beets.

But at the same time, what else are you gonna do? In the middle of winter, in a polar vortex? So you have to push, to be a little more creative, at the higher end. I can’t just give you a beet salad. Especially in winter. How can I give you traditional--- or what you expect from winter flavors, ingredients, fermented foods or grains, right? But how can I do it in a way that seems light, refreshing, like spring’s right around the corner?

It also pushes farmers to try and be creative as well, and I’m excited to see where farming goes in the Chicago area, see if there’s more biodynamic farms, or hydroponics, these kind of things. People are building farms in warehouses, I think that’s really cool. And I’m excited for the possibilities of what they can do, and maybe we can collaborate with them, “Grow this, grow that.”

There’s a lot of new farmers, people trying to do these things, like craft brewing, this little bubble that’s exploding upward a little bit. I think it’s just in the infant stage of what it can be. The more we work with them, and the more they work with us, we can collaborate so that they can still make a living selling the obvious things, but also, “Let’s do something really cool,” maybe some heirloom varieties--- you know, there’s like two hundred different varieties of cucumbers. But people only do like, four. Come on, lets start thinking about other things we can do. So I look forward to seeing a… a craft farmer. Farming beyond the norm.

And I think we’re seeing a lot of that too: how we can use what the Midwest has to offer, to our advantage? Try and find an identity. And I think our identity is eventually gonna be that creativity comes from necessity sometimes.

AW: What is it? Necessity is the mother of all invention.

How do you build your menu?

JB: I’ve been asked that dozens of times.

AW: Almost every interview.

JB: I wish I could bottle it up and sell it. Nobody can. Bottom line, it’s fuckin’ hard work. Creativity, trying to figure out what you’re gonna do next. It’s just hard work. Sometimes it’s dumb luck, sometimes you can catch lightning in a bottle, it’s a mix of all these things but ultimately it’s hard work. It does start with ingredients, but for me it’s really a feeling. It’s a time and place, of who I am today, and I try and capture that. It’s very vague.

Weather really affects people, would you agree? How do you feel when it’s March, and we get a 60° day? People are excited, happy, running down the streets in shorts, and tank tops, and all these things, woo-hoo right? And I try to take that to my advantage. Chicago has extreme weather. How I feel in a certain time--- I use that to try to create a menu of my feelings.

And Alexa, when it’s completed, when I feel good about it, she’s really my interpreter. She composes it for service. I’m trying to explain to people who I am right now as a person, with my food, and she articulates it with words. It’s this partnership, and that’s really what creativity is for me, it’s this whole process of trying to create something with food that explains how I feel at a certain time of my life, you know? The winter of 2015. Winter in Chicago. Some people write poems, I cook food. I do this through tasting menus, I try to choreograph it that way.

Is “go with your gut” a fair summation?

AW: I’m a very pragmatic person. Between Jake and I we fully funded the restaurant, and as an investor I didn’t need convincing because for a year and a half, front row, I got to see people’s reactions to Jake’s food. The only leap we’re taking was, does this translate into a public restaurant, above-ground? If we can make that transition, if what we’re doing translates on a larger scale, and by larger I mean eight more people a night, then we’re gonna be successful.

JB: What did I say? As far as gut intuition or gut feeling?

AW: Jake was like, “No brainer, this is gonna work.”

JB: I said as long as we get the doors open. That’s it.

AW: So was it gut? For Jake, yes, for me, no. Because we’re very different in how we approach things, and our personalities in general.

JB: But it seemed obvious.

AW: To you! I don’t come from that background, I had a professional career for fourteen years, I liked eating in restaurants, but…

JB: I think people are very smart, in general. [laughs] If you give people something worth a damn, they’re gonna support you. And I think oversimplification is sometimes the best way to go. Otherwise you think yourself out of everything. Just stop, and don’t worry about it.

AW: Between me, who’s hyper-analytical, and evaluates, and him, he’s like, “don’t even think about it, let’s just move forward.” [laughs] We really are the yin and the yang.

JB: We both are driven people, we both want to get to a certain point in our lives, have common ground. The ways we get to that point are opposite, but both want to get to the same point. So we balance each other out.

Going back to your very first dinner as Sous Rising: did you get that gut feeling immediately, or did you have to work at it?

JB: It was very exciting to have strangers willing to take a leap of faith and let me cook for them. The first one, that was truly an amazing experience for me. People are awesome, people got excited. It was obviously the first, which is never the best, but I still pretty much feel the same way now, every single day you get like little butterflies, excited.

I really never lost that, and that’s a good thing, where I feel very similar now as I did back then. It’s that I’m just trying to do the best I can every day, I’m excited for the moment, I’m excited for the future.

AW: What we were doing was an outlet for Jake’s creativity.

JB: It was really exciting that there was an opportunity.

AW: He got burned out, started going to school, he was two semesters in, he was gonna go become a physical therapist. But he still had that passion and creativity, and the ideas wouldn’t leave him alone. It was a way for him to go to school, do this on the weekends, and still have an outlet for his creativity.

That’s why we approached doing an underground. We didn’t say, “This is gonna be a vehicle for us to have a restaurant one day.” That wasn’t the approach, I certainly didn’t think--- I mean if you had told me when I met Jake that he and I were gonna own a restaurant one day I would’ve said, “What the hell do I know about restaurants? I’ve been in advertising for fourteen years.” Sous Rising was a side project, a passion project for him.

It started off very slow, the first six months or so, and then we really got traction and it was a year’s worth of just rockin’ and rollin’. In hindsight, looking back at it, how the hell did we manage? [laughs] You adjust everything that you’re doing, how you eat, how you shop, how you take care of yourself.

We say sacrifice, and sacrifice is a very large term that kind of buckets and holds all the things that we changed about how we lived and how we operated, while we were doing that. And it just got to a point where I was like, “Okay, can you please go get a space? I need you to stop complaining about our refrigerator because it’s not a cooler, it’s our refrigerator. I don’t want to hear about the fact you don’t have a giant freezer where you can do experiments, and that the stove doesn’t do XYZ thing, it’s a residential stove!”

We had enough momentum going in the right direction, and from the beginning it was something I wanted to support him in because I saw how frustrated he was by not having an outlet for this. And really what we put into it is what we’re gonna get out of it, and I don’t think most people have investment opportunities where they’re that closely tied to their returns. So let’s put all the chips in, roll the dice.

I don’t think it was a lose sleep type of proposition. It was hold hands and jump in, both feet.

42 grams