“If you’re going to spend $185 on a meal, what do you want from that experience? Just food?”
42 Grams, the latest documentary from Jack C. Newell (Open Tables), gives us a candid, unguarded look at the process of rediscovering a passion, setting new goals, and the overwhelming emotion of committing fully to a plan. Cinematographer Patrick Warren and editor David Burkart put together enthralling cuts of the art of plating a world class dish. Better, they highlight its ephemeral nature by matching those sequences with similarly framed shots of the food as it’s devoured. All to an emotional cello score from Nick Takénobu Ogawa.
The film follows Jake Bickelhaupt through a tumultuous year in his life. He has worked in several of the world’s highest rated restaurants, which has no doubt made for an unbeatable education in what it means to produce. Yet, what if you were on the path to achieving your dream and realized you didn’t believe in the journey anymore? Pursuing perfection with total commitment will take you to the summit. With head down and work ethic set to unstoppable, it’s normal to not recognize the things around you when you finally take a beat and take in your view.
When Bickelhaupt finally looked up, he saw sous chefs breaking themselves for the glory of absentee chefs. He saw diners dropping hundreds of dollars on plates assembled by automatons who only knew how to follow an instruction manual. He saw soulless empires run on the backs of cooks who understood nothing. Disillusioned, he left that world behind.
By the time we meet him, Bickelhaupt has already quit his world class restaurant job and gone through a period of casting about for a purpose. He’s found his way back to his passion. He’s running an underground dining establishment called Sous Rising. Outlaw chef! Basically, every weekend he invites 10 strangers over to his apartment and cooks a 16 to 20 course extravaganza for them. His wife, Alexa, works as hostess and business manager. Oh. It’s also $185 per person.
As he prepares for that night’s event, he talks to us about his philosophy of cooking. He’s got a quote — taped to his fridge — from early 20th century chef Auguste Escoffier that’s always on his mind: “Cooking is a science and an art, and the man who puts all his heart into satisfying his fellow men deserves consideration.”
I prefer Bickelhaupt’s paraphrase: “Try. That’s all you need. Just fucking try, man. Do your best. That’s it. That makes a ‘chef’.”
What does “trying your best” look like for Bickelhaupt? His goal is to open his own restaurant, called 42 Grams, and within a year earn a two-star Michelin rating.
The Michelin Guide issues stars, one to three, based on their evaluation of a restaurant. In the United States in 2014, they issued 108 one star recommendations, 18 two star recommendations, and 12 three star recommendations.
Let’s emphasize that: only 18 restaurants in the U.S. were awarded two Michelin stars. In the entire country! Bickelhaupt has a strong ego and is very particular about what he considers “success.” While it isn’t exactly braggadocio when you’ve got the skills, his goal is borderline madness. It isn’t technically impossible, but it is clearly practically improbable.
42 Grams offers an unflinching look at what it actually costs a person to do their best. We toss around expressions about trying our best, but we don’t actually do that. Not really. We typically try as hard as we can, within our allotted time as portioned out by our comfort limits. And, if we miss? Well, that’s okay. We tried.
As Bickelhaupt transitions from Sous Rising to a full service restaurant, we see exactly what it means to him to simply expect your best effort. Construction and destruction are equally passionate efforts, full of desire and loathing and reward and price. Sleepless nights. Drinking problems. Marital struggles. Demands of perfection from a rotating staff of employees who can’t handle his ungarnished criticisms of their efforts. And, for all that, some of the most enticing, beautifully plated food I’ve seen on the big screen.
Why did they call their restaurant 42 Grams? Alexa explains that the name is just a riff on the idea that the soul weighs 21 grams: “42 Grams represents what both Jake and I bring to the space.” They put their souls on the table.
42 Grams offers a look at what it means to fully live your passion. This film should appeal to anyone who has meditated on how to define their success and what it truly costs to be an “overnight” sensation.
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