“Food is just a medium,” Chef Jake Bickelhaupt opines toward the end 42 Grams. “It’s really a connection between random people.” That upscale dining is really about forging intimate connections is an ethos reflected by the design of the titular restaurant, as well as the illegal, “underground dining” service he ran out of his apartment beforehand. A single, moderately sized dining table is the extent of the restaurant’s seating, from which they can see—and interact with—the chef preparing their food behind the restaurant’s small bar. The setting is one that evokes an elegant, if modest, home, more than a restaurant. It is an atmosphere of intimacy that seems far more effortless than the film reveals it to be.
In fact, the moral that food is only the medium for relationships between people is not wholly supported by what Jack C. Newell’s documentary shows us. Rather, 42 Grams is a portrait of an artist driven to create perfect dishes more by his own inarticulable passions than by a deeply held belief in the communal nature of dining. Bickelhaupt and his wife Alexa opened their restaurant in Uptown Chicago to, as they say, “give Jake an outlet,” not necessarily to create a forum for interaction. This passion is the driving force of the film, an engrossing look at Jake and Alexa as they work together to make Jake’s dreams a reality.
The filmmaking reflects this passion that drives Jake’s work. The camerawork by Newell and cinematographer Patrick Warren brings us close to the variegated dishes that Jake prepares, showing us the layers, the textures, the artful arrangements in great detail. These details, though, reflect more on Jake than they do on a broader picture of upscale dining. While we see an extended “R&D” scene, in which Jake meticulously selects ingredients to be used in the week’s menu, and while we follow his and Alexa’s restaurant from its inception to its closing, this is not a film from which you will gain an abundance of information regarding chefs and restaurateurs in the United States, or even in Chicago. Somewhat ironically, 42 Grams the movie is intimate—is a “medium for connecting random people”—in a way the restaurant it portrays never really seems to be.
All of this is not to say that the restaurant seems uninviting, or that Jake’s story is not sympathetic. Indeed, as a viewer I was surprised to find how adamantly I was rooting for Jake and Alexa. As one might expect of a perfectionist chef, Jake’s personality can bristle at times: the way he treats his sous chef and other underlings at the restaurant, for example, seems to often be unfair, even borderline cruel. He becomes impatient quickly when things don’t go his way, which clearly leads to (mostly off-camera) problems with his wife and business partner Alexa. And yet, the scene in which Alexa and Jake wait for word about their restaurant’s initial Michelin rating is a thrilling piece of film because you have come to identify so thoroughly with Jake’s overwhelming passion.
This effect on the viewer is, of course, aided by the excellent narrative sense of Newell and editor David Burkart. From the collected chaos of the first year of an upstart restaurant, they compose something very akin to a classical narrative, a straightforward but very effective structure that leads us from the modest beginnings of illicit dinner gatherings in the couple’s living room through their multiple struggles (not the least of which being Jake’s personality) as they struggle to realize their goals, and to a cathartic conclusion. The timeline of events is clearly subordinated to this narrative—we learn about ongoing family health crises in the film’s “second act,” rather than as they happen—but the effect is to draw us closer to the subjects, to help us feel their very real struggles and triumphs. I must confess that my eyes got a little bit misty at the climax of this 80-minute movie, when the call from the Michelin Guide finally comes in.
Chicago, the film informs us in its sole use of infographics, has only 102 one-star Michelin restaurants, 18 two-star restaurants, and just 12 three-star restaurants. Knowing virtually nothing about fine cuisine, I was surprised by these numbers, and they also reminded me what a rarefied area of culture the film is talking about. It gave me pause to think about what is left out of this narrowly focused, tightly structured documentary.
42 Grams is a Chicago film, no doubt: periodic drone shots give us beautiful vistas of the Chicago skyline; Jake, originally from Wisconsin like so many Chicago transplants, speaks with those identifiable, North-midwestern short “a” sounds; Uptown landmarks like the Lawrence and Wilson “L” stops, the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge, the Aragon Theater, the Riviera, and that diner next to the Riviera are featured throughout the film. Anyone who lives in Uptown (like this reviewer, for instance) can figure out exactly where this restaurant used to be, given the information provided.
And yet, for all the recognizable Chicago landmarks in the film, the film doesn’t really have much to say about the relevance of Jake’s restaurant being in Chicago. Part of what the film sacrifices in focusing so intently on Jake-the-driven-artist is the context into which he is bringing his art. That 42 Grams is not intended to give us an introduction or overview, a glimpse into the world of fine dining in microcosm, is clear, but nevertheless the film leaves one curious about Jake’s place in his chosen profession, his city, his neighborhood. The shots of city streets and skylines end up adding flavor, but not very much depth, to the film’s dish.
Despite feeling somewhat alienated from the world outside Jake and Alexa’s restaurant and upstairs apartment, 42 Grams is an excellent documentary, a compelling story about the struggle to create. At a brisk 80 minutes, it offers something analogous to the plates we see Jake complete dozens of times in the film: a deceptively small, expertly crafted work of art. It will be playing at the Gene Siskel Film Center here in Chicago starting Saturday, January 27th, with a nationwide premiere coming on Netflix soon thereafter.