From underground "guestaurant" in their own apartment to their two-Michelin-starred restaurant below, Jake Bickelhaupt and Alexa Welsh's 42 Grams was perhaps Chicago's most intriguing restaurant story of 2014. The husband-and-wife duo aren't taking much time to reflect on that story, however, and they're focusing on following the path their 18-seat restaurant is on.
On break from service to develop their next menu, Bickelhaupt and Welsh chatted about the first year of 42 Grams and what meant the most to them during that year.
After all you guys have been through, does it feel like a year? It must have been a whirlwind.
Jake Bickelhaupt: Yeah, it's been a whirlwind, and it does feel like a year. Lots has happened since then, and we're excited for where we are now, and we're excited where we're going in the future.
You say lots happened. What specifically has stuck out in your mind?
JB: What we're excited about in the past is that how the city has embraced us, as well as the country and the world because people are well-traveled, and we get many people from all over. So we're excited that what's going on in here is being supported in the culinary world, and we've continued every day to do the best we can for the guest experience.
Can you describe what you guys went through in order to get this open originally?
Alexa Welsh: Every night, I tell the guests that essentially the restaurant is an evolution of the standard dining experience, so I don't know that we went through any more or any less than anybody else does. It was putting a business plan together, finding a space, doing a buildout, and opening our doors.
I'm not sure how many people went through thinking about quitting being a chef, going back to school, having a "guestaurant," and then finding a chicken place that just closed right underneath your apartment.
JB: It's specific to us, yes, but I think everybody goes through their own natural progression of what it takes to start up any kind of business. And like I said, that was very specific to how we started, and it's an interesting story, and that's the way it went, but it's very natural for us to do what we've been doing and to continue doing what we're doing.
What we're doing with 42 Grams is very exciting because we get to interact with the guests one-on-one every single night. It's been a wonderful year to be able to interact and converse with wonderful guests and diners alike, and it has been a truly remarkable year, and we're very happy of the support of all of our guests and the culinary world, and it's been truly an amazing experience.
With all the accolades and Michelin stars, has the clientele changed?
JB: I think it's been the same because since the beginning, we've always strived to do at the absolute best we can. The best ingredients, best experience, that's everything without overshadowing what we think guests want. And don't forget, Lex and I also dine so we go, "what would we like as diners?" This is what 42 Grams is all about. It's about really good food, it's about really good connection with the chef, and the front of the house, which is the owner, Alexa, and it's small. We only have five employees, so everybody's connected that way.
With that in mind, we create an experience that is very different in Chicago, but at the same time, it's something a lot of diners expect and like as far as what we call luxury dining or fine dining, but we want to be fun as well as approachable and authentic, and something that has a signature or personality on it.
Do you remember your first service?
JB: It was cold, number one. It was 20 below and we had a lot of people that were repeat guests from the underground supper club, and one guy went from San Francisco just to dine here that night. He was a solo diner. So yeah, it was exciting to get off the ground, but really, there's nothing different than we we're normally used to.
We're really focused on who we are as people, who we are as restaurateurs, and what am I as a chef, and trying to focus on the guest experience every night, so it was exciting to finally get the doors open. It only took us about three months to get the doors open, so it was really quick turnaround. Everything was very natural and exciting, and really since that day, we took it day by day, but everything went fairly quick.
Then only a few weeks later, we got Time Out's only five-star review, and that was really exciting, and it just hit the ground running. But like I said, we focus on the diner's experience every single night, even after two Michelin stars.
Do you remember when each came review came in? Did you have any specific reactions to each one, or did you start getting used to it?
AW: Each one was spaced out so each one was a milestone for us and a reaffirmation of all the hard work and sacrifice that we've made. It's just all a bonus. Our guests' reactions every night, feedback that we get from our guests, and emails, and letters, and cards, and what people say here to our face, I think that's first and foremost what we do this for. Everything else is just, it's nice that critically it follows what our guests had to say, but I don't think it's by any means what drives us or why we do this.
Are there any specific cards or notes that really stick in your mind?
AW: I think all of them. All of the cards that our guests send us, I have a board above my desk that I put them up on the wall so it's something that we can look at every day. There was a guest who took all of the pictures that she had taken and she had created a photo collage that she made into a card and sent to us that I thought was really thoughtful and sweet, and obviously effort and time on her part. To me it says a lot that beyond just shooting an email, somebody takes the time now to write a letter, send a card, and tell us how much their experience meant to them, whether it's an anniversary or a birthday or a promotion or whatever it may be. We don't take them for granted, we don't take them lightly.
How has Uptown reacted to having this star restaurant?
AW: We have a lot of guests that dine with us that live here in the neighborhood, that walk over here to have dinner, whether it be now when it's really cold or obviously in the spring and summer and fall when it's really nice outside. Actual residents of Uptown almost unilaterally tell us how excited they are that we're in the neighborhood, that we're so happy that we're here, that we're really happy that we're doing this for Uptown, so on and so forth. I know the Alderman has said that he is excited that we're here. We know other small business owners come out, and they support us, and they're excited that we're here, and not just Uptown.
When we first opened (there were) nay-sayers that just dismissed us as like, "good luck in Uptown." Or, "talk to me in a year." Whatever, I think that happens to anybody that opens anywhere. Opinions abound. That's what this country is founded on, is opinions and the democratic process, so you're going to get that. But we're just doing what we do, and we're doing it in a neighborhood that we live in, and we live upstairs, so we're excited that we're able to do this format, this restaurant, this experience in the neighborhood we live in.
Do you feel like you hold a specific niche in the upscale dining scene in Chicago, or in the country or world?
AW: The larger you get, the bigger the niche, right? What I like to say is that Chicago is the type of city that supports; that there is a place for virtually everything. It's a city full of choices. We are just another choice in the tapestry of dining experiences in the city, so our guests have a very large frame of reference when it comes to dining out, and a large portion of our guests travel the world to dine out. They understand, they have a broader context or a broader reference point to place us within that context.
Whether we're in Chicago or San Francisco or New York or Madrid or wherever, people that dine as an experience versus just a way to fuel the body and get calories in yourself and sustain physical activity, they travel for it. It's a hobby. It's a passion. They seek it out. The world is a very large place. Chicago is no exception.
Has there been any change in your style of cooking as you've gone through the different menus in the first year?
AW: Frida Kahlo painted in her style, Warhol did his pop art thing. Warhol didn't try to do Picasso, and Frida Kahlo is not trying to do Warhol, so what we built is Jake's style, and he researches, and he reads, and he studies to get inspired. But it doesn't change the cooking style.
What have you guys learned about the restaurant business or yourselves in the first year?
AW: I can answer that specifically for myself. For me, the biggest difference I hope from last year to this year is that we need to find better balance in our lives, in terms of what we do and how we take care of ourselves. What we do professionally and how we take care of ourselves personally, because the restaurant is so dependent on Jake and I being intimately and integrally involved in it. If we're not taking care of ourselves, the restaurant can't move forward, it can't open, so if we get sick or if we're just not taking good care of ourselves, that shows in our energy and our passion.
For me, this year is a lot about Jake and I taking better care of ourselves physically and mentally, and I think that's going to hopefully be the biggest difference from last year, because we really cranked it our last year.