An Impressive Debut
After working in some of Chicago’s most prestigious kitchens—Charlie Trotter’s, Alinea and Schwa—chef Jake Bickelhaupt started an underground supper club, or “guestaurant,” called Sous Rising. With his wife Alexa Welsh, Bickelhaupt hosted Michelin-quality meals with a casual, dinner party feel in their Chicago apartment for nearly two years. In early 2014, Bickelhaupt and Welsh opened the brick-and-mortar BYOB 42 grams (based on the idea that the human soul weighs 21 grams—42 grams being what the couple give to their guests each night) in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. With two seatings per night and only 18 seats in the restaurant, Bickelhaupt maintains the intimate Sous Rising concept, while continuing to prepare inspiring tasting menus with a strong personal narrative. Within 10 months, he was awarded two Michelin stars. We talk with Bickelhaupt about how he got started, his idea of fine dining and chefs to look out for.
AndrewZimmern.com: You have a background working in some of Chicago’s best restaurants. You got your start at Charlie Trotter’s. What path led you to that opportunity?
Jake Bickelhaupt: I was about 18 or 19 when I first flipped through Charlie Trotter’s cookbook. I remember being in awe of what I saw on those pages. I didn’t know food could reach such an incredible level of perfection. I was inspired. I spent the next 4-5 years reading as many books as I could get my hands on, and working in kitchens in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. I, however, didn’t feel challenged or fulfilled, and was becoming increasingly restless. In May of 2008, I emailed a chef at Charlie Trotter’s requesting a stage, and to my surprise, I was invited in. I drove to Chicago the next day and crashed with family living in the suburbs (a 45-minute drive away) and began my stage the following day. Twenty-four hours in, the sous chef asked, “Do you want a job?” I must have looked like a deer caught in headlights! I didn’t expect to be offered a position; I was just excited to be there with such amazing chefs. The sous chef said, “It’s a Yes or No. Right now. This is your only chance.” I thought to myself, my life is never going to be the same, and that was the point. “Yes”, I said.
AZ.com: What inspired you and your wife Alexa to start Sous Rising, an underground supper club you hosted in your home?
JB: My inspiration for Sous Rising came in early 2012 when I read about Nuno Mendez’s The Loft Project in London. At the time, I’d given up being a chef. I wasn’t working in any kitchens in Chicago. I was attending school full time pursuing a Bachelor of Science to become a physical therapist. I wanted to get into sports medicine. Alexa’s career was in advertising, so she worked full time to support us. I was excited about my new career path, but creatively speaking, was still drawn to cooking. Then I came across The Loft Project. I showed it to Alexa and talked to her about doing something similar. She was skeptical that anyone would dine in an unknown chef’s home, but encouraged me to go for it. We had our first Sous Rising dinner for family and friends in April 2012.
AZ.com: Congratulations on 2 Michelin stars! Has the success and attention changed your focus at all?
JB: Thank you. The Michelin stars are a definite affirmation that our hard work and sacrifice over the past two-and-a-half years was well worth it. I’ve always put a lot of pressure on myself to give our guests the best food, and the best experience, that I can possibly deliver. The stars bestowed by Michelin don’t change the focus, the motivation, or the passion I have for what I do. They don’t change the pressure I put on myself. While Michelin is an incredible recognition and confirmation that we’re doing something right, it’s not what drives me. My focus has and always will be on delivering that special experience to each guest.
AZ.com: The idea behind Sous Rising, which has now morphed into 42 Grams, was to create a warm, inviting and unpretentious, dinner party atmosphere. Do you see this becoming harder to maintain after your Michelin debut?
JB: The limited nature of our seating capacity makes it easier to maintain the ambiance we’re trying to achieve at 42 grams. We don’t believe the atmosphere/experience at 42 grams will change because of our Michelin status (at least we certainly hope not!). What we’ve seen change are the expectations our guests arrive with. Now, our challenge is to deliver on exceedingly high expectations.
AZ.com: Your food has been said to be American with Asian influences, is this how you would you label your cuisine?
JB: My wife jokes that some of my courses are best described as ‘Midwest meets far East.’ But there are other influences in my food that both past and present courses reflect: Spanish, Eastern European, etc. My food reflects what my wife and I enjoy eating, which is influenced by our respective cultures, as well as the diverse food options here in Chicago.
AZ.com: Do you think that there will be more fine-dining restaurants like yours in the future?
JB: We certainly hope so. I don’t think the city will be overrun with intimate, chef-driven, fine-dining restaurants, but I also don’t think the story ends with us. Now and again we hear of chefs that admire what we’ve been able to achieve, and want to create their own small something (whatever that may be). I find it hard to believe that there aren’t other chefs out there with the desire to build a platform for themselves, who recognize what it will take to make it a reality (personally, professionally, and financially) and will eventually take the leap.
AZ.com: What types of restaurants do you enjoy when you’re not in the kitchen at 42 Grams?
JB: Approachable, authentic, casual, and above all else, the food has got to be tasty. We like to eat at places where you can tell the chef gives a damn.
AZ.com: What chefs in Chicago are really impressing you these days?
JB: I think Lee Wolen (BOKA) is really talented, as well as Curtis Duffy (Grace). Other chefs that are really impressing me outside of Chicago, include: Aaron Franklin (Franklin BBQ | Austin, TX) simple, but delicious execution of BBQ; Joshua Skenes (Saison | San Francisco, CA); and Magnus Nilsson (Faviken | Sweden) is changing the way I look at sustainable food.
AZ.com: What’s in your fridge?
JB: Eggs, La Croix sparkling water, jalapeno hummus, Siracha, Kewpie mayo, corn tortillas, Unsweetened Vanilla Almond Milk, 1% Milk, and Fage Greek yogurt.
VIDEO: The Autumn Tasting Menu at 42 Grams:
Autumn Tasting Menu @ 42 grams from Jack C. Newell on Vimeo.
About Jake Bickelhaupt
Jake Bickelhaupt was drawn to food and cooking at an early age. His grandmother’s passion for hosting large Sunday dinners with his family and cooking with fresh, seasonal ingredients plucked from her backyard instilled in him an appreciation not only for creating thoughtful food, but also for sharing that food with others.
Bickelhaupt grew up in Wisconsin, but moved to Chicago less than one day after being hired at Charlie Trotter’s restaurant—an experience he knew not to take for granted, and which he credits as kick-starting his career. Bickelhaupt went on to work in some of the most respected kitchens in Chicago, including Michelin-starred restaurants Alinea and Schwa. Still, Bickelhaupt knew that he was destined to achieve and accomplish more. Accordingly, in 2012, Bickelhaupt took a daring plunge that few young chefs are willing to take: he and his wife, Alexa Welsh, started Sous Rising, an underground supper club. Sous Rising was Bickelhaupt’s brainchild to serve Michelin-quality food in a relaxed, comfortable environment. He didn’t understand why elegant fine dining seemed to be juxtaposed against casual, laid-back settings. To Bickelhaupt, great food and company go hand-in-hand with a warm and approachable atmosphere; that, by definition, is hospitality. After two years of continued support and praise from loyal patrons, as well as local and national media, Bickelhaupt and Welsh decided that it was time to expand their popular underground concept.
In January 2014, 42 grams was warmly welcomed into Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood and immediately received widespread acclaim. The restaurant’s name is a riff on the premise that the human soul weighs 21 grams—42 grams being what Bickelhaupt and Welsh give to their guests each evening. With only two seatings per night: the chef’s counter for eight, and a ten-seat communal table, an evening at 42 grams is reminiscent of one at Sous Rising, and feels much like attending an intimate dinner party at a friend’s home. As with most dinner parties, the action centers around the kitchen, which is completely open to the dining room, allowing guests to interact with Bickelhaupt throughout the course of their meal.
Bickelhaupt’s food philosophy is to make the complex seem simple. His dishes are raw, natural, and genuine; layered with various textures and hyper-sensitive flavors that are meant to elevate the familiar and evoke fond memories of times past. At 42 grams, Bickelhaupt cooks with a distinct Asian influence and a concentrated emphasis on technique, serving a chef’s tasting menu that features his thoughtful interpretation of new American cuisine. In November 2014, 42 grams was awarded two coveted Michelin stars within just ten months of opening.
When Bickelhaupt isn’t behind the counter cooking at 42 grams, he enjoys catching up on movies and eating his way through the city with his wife.