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Meet 42 Grams' Jake Bickelhaupt, Chicago's Newest Two-Michelin Starred Chef

From opening to two stars in 10 months flat.

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Jack C. Newell/Courtesy 42 Grams

Chicago chef Jake Bickelhaupt thought he may have heard something wrong. "Wait a minute, you said two. Two stars, right? One, two," Bickelhaupt laughs, recounting last week's phone call that confirmed his restaurant 42 Grams was a newly minted two-Michelin-starred restaurant. "And I hung up and I went wild." The 1,375-square-foot restaurant opened in January 2014 with just 18 seats, a brick-and-mortar version of Bickelhaupt and his wife/co-owner Alexa Welsh's "guestaurant" dinner parties that invited diners into their own home. At just 10 months old, it joins the brief list of restaurants that skipped the one-star mark entirely in favor of a two-star accolade; it's just the third Chicago restaurant to earn that honor in the 2015 guide, joining Sixteen and L20 (which will shutter later this year). "It was just a true affirmation of what Alexa and I are doing," Bickelhaupt says.

"It was just a true affirmation of what Alexa and I are doing."

America's newest two-Michelin-starred chef isn't exactly a household name, despite his impressive resume: Before launching his own concepts, Bickelhaupt worked at some of Chicago's buzziest kitchens, including Charlie Trotter's, Alinea, and Schwa. But it was a break from the kitchen that allowed Bickelhaupt to acknowledge his love of cooking and discover his preferred style of hospitality. "At one point, I went back to school to become a physical therapist," he says. "During school, I started missing [cooking], because that's where my passion is. That's where my heart is. So I started making elaborate dinners at home just for Alexa and friends, and then during that time, I was playing with the idea to get back into the business."

Photo: Drew Kent Wittler/42 Grams

While researching the possibility of doing a late-night concept, Bickelhaupt stumbled upon London chef Nuno Mendes' Loft Project, during which Mendes would invite diners and guest chefs into his own home for sophisticated and experimental dinner parties. "I went down that rabbit hole, and I saw that other chefs here in the city of Chicago were doing the same thing, and they're doing it in each other's homes," Bickelhaupt says. "I said, 'Hey, Alexa, what about this?' She's like, 'What? No, nobody's going to come to our house. You're a great cook, but nobody's going to come to our house and want to pay money to eat your food.'" He laughs. "But then I kind of talked her into it." In 2011, Bickelhaupt and Welsh launched their hybrid restaurant/dinner party concept Sous Rising, which they described as a "guestaurant" as opposed to a "pop-up" or supper club. Each underground event hosted eight to 10 guests at the couple's Uptown Chicago home, with diners invited to BYOB based on a menu emailed to them the night before the event. "We did one for friends and family, then we did another for strangers... then it just grew from there."

"I tell my guests this a lot: After they've eaten our meal, they might know me better than my parents do."

Sous Rising displayed Bickelhaupt's unique approach to cooking, which is fueled less by technique or cuisine, and more by the "express[ing] emotion through food." The same multi-course menu at Sous Rising might feature dishes with names like "BLiS Roe" (featuring smoked char roe, plum cot, chicharron, celery, leek, and fenugreek) and sections devoted to "Malaysian Street Food" (umeboshi soda; fried bamboo rice). A dish might be inspired by a specific memory, an overarching mood, or a favorite take-out joint where the couple spent many late nights. "I tell my guests this a lot: I think that after they have eaten our meal, they might know me better than my parents do," Bickelhaupt says.

At each event, Welsh would work the front of house, providing what Bickelhaupt affectionately calls an effective "translation" of each plate. "We say that Alexa's my interpreter who explains to the guests the story of why I did this course, or why I'm doing certain things," Bickelhaupt says. "I'm explaining it through my food — that's how I articulate how I feel — and then she puts it into words. I think that balance and that connection really gets to people."

Photo: Drew Kent Wittler/42 Grams

And it was Welsh who encouraged Bickelhaupt to make the jump to a brick-and-mortar restaurant. "Alexa was like, 'You need to get out of the house. I want my house back,'" Bickelhaupt says. "I'm not kidding." But the goal was to maintain the same intimacy between diner and proprietor that was attainable inside their private home. In October 2012, Bickelhaupt launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for a 36-seat restaurant called Dyne (unfortunately, the fundraiser raised just $7,815 of the $125,000 goal). When the Kickstarter project ended, Bickelhaupt started moving forward with a business plan for 42 Grams, named for the collaborative process between himself and Welsh. "42 Grams is 21 plus 21, you know, the weight of two souls, supposedly," Bickelhaupt says. "I don't know if I could ever do it without her."

By fall 2013, Bickelhaupt and Welsh lucked out by finding a space inside their own building — a fried chicken restaurant had closed after fewer than six months in business — and the duo jumped on the opportunity. "I've never really had this happen in my life where things just worked out in such a flawless and humorous way," Bickelhaupt says of the build-out. "It's such a bizarre thing to say, hey, yeah, we can open up a restaurant in three months. Everything has to work out perfectly. And we didn't force anything. It just naturally happened that way, and we don't have any investors... We had a lot of amazing support of good people in the beginning to help us with the process. They really just truly believed in our passion and our goal, and they wanted just to help."

"It makes sense for Alexa and I, and how we like to take care of people."

Like at the Sous Rising dinner parties, diners at 42 Grams pre-purchase tickets to the multi-course meal in advance (they're currently $243 per person, including tax and tip). It's still BYOB. Seats are only available at an eight-seat chef's counter or a 10-seat communal table, and aside from Bickethaupt and Welsh, there are just two other employees, a chef and dishwasher. "It's not for everybody," Bickelhaupt admits of the intimate set-up. "Some people really love the nice French, tablecloth kind of restaurants. We are very homey, but we also take our food and our service very seriously, obviously. We also want to be approachable and in a comforting atmosphere, so [guests] can just truly lay back and not worry about it… It makes sense for Alexa and I, and how we like to take care of people."

Photo: Drew Kent Wittler/42 Grams

Doors opened in January to near-instant acclaim. Less than a month after opening, Time Out Chicago's Amy Cavanaugh gave the restaurant a five-star review; Chicago Tribune's Phil Vettel followed it up that spring with a three-star review, calling 42 Grams an "enchanted union." By the time Michelin made its announcement last week, Bickelhaupt's inventive food was known for its narrative qualities. "He was able to come up with not only a concept but also an execution that is unique," Michelin director Michael Ellis told Eater Chicago after the two-star announcement. "He's able to tell a story with what he's doing, the concentration of flavors that he's doing, the ingredients he gets are also unique, and he's got a real inventiveness, a creativity, an audacity with what he's doing that really impressed all the inspectors that visited."

Michelin inspectors praised, among other things, Bickelhaupt's audacity in the kitchen.

Bickelhaupt's storytelling ability is obvious as he talks through how he develops a 42 Grams dish. "For a lot of chefs, it starts with the wonderful ingredients," he says. "But really how it works for me is I start with a feeling. This time of year — fall, autumn — I may think about a memory when I was a kid and lived in Wisconsin, out in the country." Bickelhaupt describes how scent memories from the Wisconsin forest subtly emerge on the plate: Instead of straightforwardly smoking salmon, he brines the fish with a Lapsang Souchong tea that's been smoked with fallen pine needles. Because Wisconsin also makes Bickelhaupt think of beer, he uses spent grain supplied by a local home brewer to make bread, grilling slices of it over coals. The entire dish comes together in a wooden bowl with pine, matsutake mushrooms, and nasturtiums. "It's just smoke and fire," Bickelhaupt says. "To me, that's what autumn is. The smell and this very earthy course: To me, that takes me home." (The dish, along with 42 Grams' autumn menu, appears in the video below:)

Video: Autumn tasting menu @ 42 Grams

"I don't even know where it's going to go," Bickelhaupt says of his dish-creation process, noting that a single course could be two years in the making. "I let it simmer and I just let it naturally come to me." But he believes that by not forcing anything, the emotion comes through — and that's what organically helps fuel interactions with guests, who often share their own memories and experiences over the chef's counter. "They really understand how I feel this time of year, then it leads to other questions from the guests, like, "Where are you from?" and it goes on from there," Bickelhaupt says. "You get into these conversations... the diners understand who we are as people."

"The diners understand who we are as people."

According to Bickelhaupt, regulars of his at-home "guestaurant" confirm the transition has worked: Even with two Michelin stars, guests are still invited to prop their feet up and get comfortable (last week, a guest with a broken leg did just that). "We have our guests that have been to Sous Rising and been to the restaurant, and they say, 'You did an amazing job taking what you did in your home and bringing it here,' and that's what they really enjoy," Bickelhaupt says. "They feel like they're coming into our house, that they're going to meet me and Alexa. We're going to be there every single night. That's who we are, and it just feels right."

Michelin's recognition won't change the restaurant's day-to-day: It'll still only contain 18 seats, four staffers, and one open kitchen. "What changes is that more people are going to know about us," Bickelhaupt says. "We're not a little restaurant in Uptown anymore. A lot of people are going to be like, 'Okay, who are these guys?' It's going to be shared with a wider audience, but we're still the same people, we're still the same restaurant." And with the increased spotlight, Bickelhaupt says consistency is key. When asked if a third Michelin star would be in the back of his mind, Bickelhaupt says the only goal is to continue their current philosophies toward food and service. "My goal to move forward is not like, 'All right, let's do what we can to get three,'" he says. "But the only way that's ever going to happen is if we focus on what we do. Focus on our guests, focus on the food, the atmosphere, and I think good things will come from that. Let it be."

42 grams

4662 N Broadway St, Chicago, IL 60640 Visit Website

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