42 grams

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When flying, it is difficult for me to pass the time. I plow through my reading, then do crossword puzzles until it is time to nap (that means leaning forward and drooling for about 15 minutes, hoping to not snore).
I broke this pattern on a recent flight. Awake and out of reading material, I decided to watch an inflight movie. I chose the shortest film, “42 Grams,” billed as the documentary of a chef who began with pop-up dinners in his apartment, and parlayed that into a successful restaurant. Sounded like a sound post-legal career plan for me, so I was interested in the how-to.

Or as it turned out, the how-not-to. This was not a fun food flick, but a horror movie. Warning: spoilers follow.

The title is based on the dubious notion that a human soul weighs 21 grams, from a 1907 experiment that weighed people both before and after they passed, and finding they weighed 21 grams less after death. (No explanation on how researchers knew death was imminent.) Thus “42 Grams” refers to the souls of Chef Jake Bickelhaupt and his patient, saintly wife Alexa Welsh, who has to put up with the person the movie’s tagline calls “a complicated chef.” — Turns out that was code for “a-hole.” 

The documentary begins in Jake and Alexa’s Chicago apartment. There is an impeccably decorated table for eight, and Jake is putting the finishing touches on dinner as guests arrive. They are apparently strangers not only to each other, but Jake and Alexa. No explanation on how they were recruited, or why this regular gig evaded attention of the police and health department. Dinner was a multicourse meal of small plates, in the style of Charlie Trotter’s, the famous Chicago eatery where Jake used to work. (I once ate at Trotter’s, and was so hungry afterwards I bought a bag of potato chips and a microwaved Hot Pocket back at the hotel.)

More frustrating, the movie rarely described the dishes. A frequent technique was a fast-motion assemblage of mystery ingredients (blobs, foams, dust) followed by an equally fast-motion fork devouring them. Where I wanted to learn something about cooking, I instead got Charlie-Chaplin cinema, or those fast-motion recipes you find on Facebook.

In any event, Jake and Alexa went from pop-ups to a stand-alone restaurant across the street, which they named “42 Grams.” Opening this business accelerated the unraveling of Jake Bickelhaupt. He screamed and belittled apprentices, who disappeared by the next scene. He defended himself by claiming that at least he never assaulted anyone, like Charlie Trotter (who was also famously totalitarian). The only ones who stuck around were Jake’s wife, and a mellow old dishwasher. At one point, Jake blamed alcohol, and stopped drinking. But his behavior did not change.

Here I pondered the alleged connection between a-holishness and success. It is almost a cliché for famous chefs. It is also a hallmark of other professions; think Steve Jobs and Bobby Knight. Some research shows that it goes back to middle school, where making friends with a-holes was seen as a much better reputational enhancer than, say, hanging out with friendly people. [http://bit.ly/2G2Eswn]

I also thought about poor Alexa, Jake’s wife, who in one memorable scene was gauging the distance of placemats from each other with a tape measure. I thought, “They’ll be divorced before they’re 40.”

I was wrong, as it turned out. The climax of the movie was that 42 Grams achieved an unheard-of distinction for a new restaurant: earning two Michelin stars in its first year. After the supposedly non-drinking Jake celebrated with champagne, and congratulated himself while weeping as his wife looked on, the movie soon blacked out. On the screen flashed two sentences: “42 Grams closed in June, 2017.” Then: “Alexa and Jake divorced soon after.”

Here I will quote Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times: “I don’t want to be too hard on Jake, who has a certain rough charisma and would no doubt be interesting as hell if you met him at a party or were seated next to him on a flight. But throughout this briskly paced (82 minutes) story, he often comes across as a near-parody of the self-absorbed, hot-tempered, obsessive-compulsive food genius who’s in love with the sound of his own voice.”

So as our plane touched down, I realized I didn’t learn much about cooking or opening restaurants. What I did come away with is that age doesn’t always bring wisdom, maturity or compassion, and in a lot of ways it’s just like being back in middle school. Bon Appétit, and pass the slam book.

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Nick Roumel is a principal with Nacht & Roumel, PC, a firm in Ann Arbor specializing in employment and civil right litigation. He also has many years of varied restaurant and catering experience. Follow him at @nickroumel.

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