Jake Bickelhaupt, the Chicago-based chef who’s the subject of the new documentary 42 Grams, has a life story that ought to be inspiring. He first discovered his passion for cooking while growing up with his divorced mother in a Wisconsin trailer home. Afterwards, he spent several years working for some of Chicago’s best chefs (including Charlie Trotter, Michael Carlson and Grant Achatz). But he eventually quit those jobs so he could start an “underground” restaurant in his own apartment.
In 2014, he and his then-wife (Alexa Welsh) decided to open an actual restaurant, 42 Grams, in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood—and in a feat few restaurants have ever matched, it earned two Michelin stars a mere 10 months after its inauguration.
Unfortunately, in the hands of director Jack C. Newell, the remarkable story of Bickelhaupt’s rise proves distinctly underwhelming. Newell, to be sure, claimed that he wanted to make a film in which “we suffer when they [Bickelhaupt and Welsh] suffer…and celebrate when the[ir] goal is achieved.” But 42 Grams largely consists of pedestrian shots of Bickelhaupt making food, serving customers, and being praised as “gifted.” Watching these moments, you rarely get the sense that Bickelhaupt encountered any significant economic, personal or social obstacles on his journey to success. True, we eventually do get the occasional footage of Bickelhaupt and Welsh having a fight, and after Bickelhaupt gets his two stars, we also get to hear them talk about the “sacrifices” they made along the way. Yet in the moment, these scenes often play like hasty, CYA afterthoughts, as though Newell realized at the very last minute that the film lacked nuance.
Then there are all the questions the film raises but never answers. For example, it intersperses footage of Bickelhaupt at work with shots of the neighborhood around 42 Grams, but it never bothers exploring 42 Grams’ impact on the local community. It states, furthermore, that Bickelhaupt quit working at Alinea and Schwa because he was “disillusioned with the culinary world.” But aside from giving us some footage of Bickelhaupt dishing out vague generalities (“some chefs don’t even prepare the food themselves,” “they don’t care about the customers”), Newell never really delves into what Bickelhaupt’s form of “disillusionment” entailed—and he certainly never tries to find out for himself whether Bickelhaupt’s exasperation was justified.
The most frustrating moment in 42 Grams, however, comes at the very end. There, a few lines of on-screen text indicate that two important things happened in 2017: Bickelhaupt and Welsh divorced, and 42 Grams abruptly closed up shop. Never mind that Newell has consistently suggested up till this point that 42 Grams was a wildly successful restaurant – and that Bickelhaupt and Welsh, despite their occasional disagreements, together made a happy, effective team. With its closing text, the movie drops two bombshells, scurries off into the credits, and leaves it up to us to resolve the gaping inconsistencies it leaves in its wake. In his defense, Newell likely faced tight budgetary constraints when making the film, and Bickelhaupt apparently has yet to tell anyone why he decided to close down his business. But on this and many other points, overall the movie seems peculiarly uninterested in digging deeper into its material.
In the end, of course, the one thing food documentaries always have going for them is the fact that they’re about, well, food. Newell is aware of this, and he regularly exploits this fact to his advantage. Many shots in the movie are nothing more than extreme close-ups of dishes made by Bickelhaupt; if, like me, you end up watching this movie in between meals, the effect will be maddening. Yet even though all these shots are undeniably alluring, it’d be a stretch to say that they make up for the deficiencies in everything around them. Bickelhaupt—and, for that matter, the Chicago food scene in general—is the kind of intriguing subject matter that documentaries are made for. But he’ll have to wait for someone besides Newell if he wants to get the treatment he deserves.
42 Grams will be playing at the Gene Siskel Film Center on January 27 (8pm), 28 (5pm), 31 (8pm), and February 1 (6pm); Newell will be present at each screening. Additionally, the film will be available on Netflix starting February 1.