Interview: Director Jack C. Newell Weighs in on ‘42 Grams’

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CHICAGO – At this point in our civilization, the food culture is at its peak. “Foodies” devote themselves to TV networks, celebrity chefs and the latest taste sensations. Director Jack C. Newell explores a portion of this culture in his new documentary profile of Chef Jake Bickelhaupt, as he attempts to build the Chicago eatery ’42 Grams.’

The film is a document of pursuits… Chef Jake and his wife Alexa Walsh pursue the right venue for his culinary talents, the chef himself channels his ultra-obsessive personal traits toward food masterpieces, and his customers long for the ultimate taste. These elements come together like a treasured recipe, as Jake and Alexa founded their restaurant “42 Grams” in Chicago, and director Newell creates a sympathetic and visceral portrayal of a food slinger on the verge of destiny. The film is an absorbing treat, as Jake’s sheer will results in both in miracles and tribulation.

Chef Jake Bickelhaupt in ’42 Grams,’ Directed by Jack C. Newell
Photo credit: Gunpowder and Sky has portrayed Jack C. Newell through his filmmaker journey. From his beginnings at the 2010 Chicago International Film Festival with ”Typing” through his feature films ”Close Quarters” and ”Open Tables,” the director continues to evolve. Currently, he is completing the documentary “How to Build a School in Haiti” and continues to influence Chicago culture as Programming Director at The Second City film school, in addition to facilitating art events like the Wabash Lights and ”Destroy Your Art,” with wife Rebecca Fons. The chef culture is at its peak right now, with personality being as important as culinary skills. How is this a game changer in the context of your documentary?

Jack C. Newell: This kind of came up when I did ‘Open Tables,’ and it extends to this film, it isn’t about the location or who goes there, it’s the food. The quality of that experience, and that’s what it should be about. It’s tricky, because part of the reason the documentary works is that Jake and Alexa are such fascinating characters.

If you want to talk brass tacks, it’s great for the film, because it is able to find an audience. When we started the film in 2013, the food documentary wasn’t a genre, but now it’s a thing. And who knows? Is it at the peak or the bottom? I hope it’s not the bottom. [laughs] I’ve made a film that will be seen by a lot of people, and that’s amazing. And how would you characterize that audience?

Newell: I like to call it the ‘anti-food’ movie, the anti-foodie food movie. [laughs] It will give you everything you want in the food doc genre, but it will present it in a different way. And you don’t have to be a foodie to enjoy the film, because it has this humanity to it and something else is going on in it. So that’s exciting.

Jake Bickelhaupt and Alexa Walsh at Home in ’42 Grams’
Photo credit: Gunpowder and Sky Jake Bickelhaupt is indicative of backgrounds for chefs, in the sense that he was an outsider economically and rose up on his own training, skill and creativity. How do you think that background makes his food creation better?

Newell: As he says, he’s not constrained to any school of thought, because he wasn’t trained in a specific style, and that is liberating for him. But here’s an example of the type of chef that Jake is… I was recently in Africa, and I love coffee. When we were in Cairo, I found that the coffee had cardamon in it, which I found out is a common Middle Eastern preparation. Jake had on his menu, in the last course, an expresso coffee with a foam, and that was favored with cardamon.

Of course I told him about this, asked him if he knew this was something they did in the Middle East. His reaction was, ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about.’ He had independently got to the idea that coffee and cardamon taste good together. I think Jake works with an outsider perspective, without any kind of formal schooling or thinking about traditional preparation. He’s truly an artist. And how did you encounter him, and then consider him for a subject?

Newell: I went to eat at their pop-up apartment restaurant, Sous Rising, and it was the best meal I’d ever had in my life… out of some guy’s apartment. So I asked if I could follow him. I was at a spot in my career when ‘Open Tables’ was done, the Haiti documentary was nowhere near finished, and so I had an opening.

That’s what got me through the door, but the reason I kept going is because I knew he had something. Maybe the story was going to be ‘this guy is underground, but a genius.’ It’s part of it, but of course more ended up happening, and we just developed a good rapport.

In the audio portion of the interview, the ‘foodie’ question comes up, and Jack C. Newell offers his observations, plus more behind-the-scenes background on the making of “42 Grams.”

“42 Grams” runs January 27th-February 1st, 2017, at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 North State Street in Chicago. Click here for complete details and times. Written and directed by Jack C. Newell. Not Rated. senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Writer, Editorial Coordinator

© 2018 Patrick McDonald,

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