CONTENT WARNING: This article contains descriptions of domestic violence and suicide.
BUCKTOWN — First made famous by the explosive success of a no-name restaurant and later made infamous by an attack on his ex-wife, former 42 Grams chef Jacob Bickelhaupt said he’s ready to start fresh with a new restaurant and a new outlook on life — but not everyone will be lining up to try his new spot.
Last week, Bickelhaupt opened Stone Flower, a 12-seat, counter-style restaurant inside a two-story cottage at 1952 N. Damen Ave. Seatings are reservation-only with a ticketing system similar to in-demand spots in town like Next and Alinea.
While some neighbors said they look forward to an upscale dining experience in Bucktown, others — including prominent local critics — are too troubled by Bickelhaupt’s past to give it a chance.
Instead of reviewing Stone Flower, Chicago food critic Michael Nagrant donated $50 to a domestic violence charity. He urged others to do the same.
And on May 2, when Stone Flower was expected to open, more than 70 restaurant owners participated in “Industry Night,” a fundraiser for Connections for Abused Women and their Children, Chicago’s oldest domestic violence charity.
The timing was not a coincidence.
On social media, strangers who read recent coverage of Stone Flower in Eater have messaged Bickelhaupt to call him a wife beater. Bickelhaupt said his car has been vandalized twice. During his opening weekend, he said someone left a bag of dog poop on Stone Flower’s front door step.
Bickelhaupt said he is a victim of a “mob mentality” that threatens his livelihood and leaves him feeling physically unsafe. Every time his name makes headlines, he said, his family calls him in tears.
“It’s been pure hell for me.”
In an interview with Block Club Chicago, Bickelhaupt said he bought the Damen Avenue building with help from a silent partner because Bucktown “feels like home” and he’s ready to get back to work.
“I just want to live life,” he said. “I deserve to move on with my life.
But will Bickelhaupt earn the trust of the neighborhood? Alexa Welsh, his ex-wife and co-owner of their former Michelin-starred restaurant, 42 Grams, said she doesn’t want to ruin his new business — but stressed her ex has a lot of work to do if he wants to earn the trust of the community and his employees.
“Opening a new restaurant isn’t a walk in the park,” Welsh said. “There is a lot of stress and worry involved. He’s got something to prove again and I’ve never seen him without a chip on his shoulder. All the triggers are there, waiting to be tripped.”
Success — Then The Downfall
Bickelhaupt, a mostly self-taught chef from rural Wisconsin, went from unknown to a star chef seemingly overnight due to the success of 42 Grams, an Uptown restaurant he opened with Welsh in 2014.
Within a year, 42 Grams nabbed a rare two-out-of-three Michelin star rating — but the restaurant suddenly closed after Bickelhaupt attacked Welsh with a bottle outside the restaurant in 2017.
Bickelhaupt ended up pleading guilty to simple battery and was released, Eater reported. He was required to take domestic violence classes and complete mandatory drug and alcohol tests.
Bickelhaupt and Welsh, who met through online dating in 2010, decided to open a restaurant together after hosting a wildly popular series of pop-up dinners. In January 2014, they opened 42 Grams inside an abandoned Chester’s Chicken in Uptown.
Bickelhaupt said the name was an ode to the popular myth the weight of the soul is 21 grams. The restaurant was powered by two souls, he said: his and his then-wife’s.
While he cooked, Welsh, who previously had an advertising career, took over everything else: front-of-house, management, accounting, vendor contracts and more.
Later that year, Michael Ellis of the Michelin guide awarded 42 Grams not one but two stars.
“That doesn’t happen frequently in the world of Michelin,” Ellis told the Tribune.
For Bickelhaupt and Welsh, the accolade came as a shock.
“He was a no-name chef,” Welsh said.
“Nobody knew who I was,” Bickelhaupt said. “To get a two- or a three-star [rating], the personality of the chef has to be there. [The judge] has to look at a plate and say, ‘That’s Jacob Bickelhaupt’s food.’”
After the Michelin guide came out, the success of 42 Grams skyrocketed.
The waitlist for reservations at the 12-seat restaurant stretched into months. The restaurant even became the subject of a Netflix documentary.
But in the background, Bickelhaupt and Welsh’s relationship was deteriorating.
Bickelhaupt eventually moved out of the apartment they shared. The couple began communicating with each other only at work.
In 2012, Welsh lost her father. In early 2016, within the same six-week period, Bickelhaupt and Welsh lost their mothers. The next year, the couple divorced.
‘There Was Blood Everywhere’
Bickelhaupt said the pressure of maintaining the successful image of 42 Grams weighed heavily on him and his ex-wife. He had wanted to quit for months — he knew his drinking was out of control, and that depression had taken over his life. In early 2017, he said he promised himself he’d close the restaurant by the year’s end.
On June 4, 2017, Bickelhaupt and Welsh prepared for dinner service.
Bickelhaupt was shredding coconut in the kitchen. About 10 minutes before guests were due to arrive, the couple got into an argument. Bickelhaupt took off his chef’s coat and told Welsh, “I quit.”
Welsh told him guests were due any minute.
“You can quit tomorrow night,” she said.
He ignored her and walked out the back door. He turned his phone off. Then he went to a nearby bar and started ordering drinks.
Guests who had made their reservations at 42 Grams months in advance began to show up. Welsh smiled and poured drinks. She informed the group it was unlikely the chef would return. But Welsh joked that, if the guests were game, she could attempt to cook and plate the 13-course Michelin-starred meal solo. The meals would be free, of course.
“I figured I’d might as well try,” she said.
Guests begged her to call Bickelhaupt, who had blocked her number. Because the company paid the bill for the chef’s phone, Welsh said, she decided to give his number out to guests.
At the bar, Bickelhaupt’s phone began buzzing with the selfies, videos and texts from strangers.
He walked back to the restaurant at about 8 p.m. with the intention of telling the guests he had quit. He said he was holding a 750-milliliter Smeraldina bottle in his hand, which Welsh said he picked up when he came into the restaurant.
“He dragged me out the back door of the restaurant by my hair, threw me to the ground not once but twice, and after the second time hit me on the back of the head [with the bottle] as I was in a fetal/defensive position on the ground,” Welsh said.
Bickelhaupt denies the account from Welsh and police, saying his wife’s head struck a bottle after he pulled her to the ground by her hair — which he claimed to have done “defensively.” When asked if he meant in “self defense,” he said no.
“I acted in defense. I never acted as an aggressor to harm somebody,” he said. “People think I’ve been a wife beater. I’ve never, ever physically abused anybody in my whole entire life.”
Bickelhaupt left 42 Grams as his ex-wife laid on the ground, blood pooling around her head.
He walked home and went up the 13th floor roof of his apartment building, where he said he remembers wanting to jump, but then he blacked out.
Back at the restaurant, a guest called 911. Another guest, an ICU nurse, held something for compression against Welsh’s head and asked Welsh to talk back to her.
Welsh gave her police report in front of the guests.
“My mind was racing because I couldn’t cover up or hide this unfortunate truth,” Welsh said. “There was blood everywhere. I kept apologizing to everyone. … I was mortified and embarrassed that I’d ruined their night.”
When Welsh got home from the hospital, her phone buzzed with emails from reporters and the public about the restaurant closing.
Confused, she checked the 42 Grams Twitter account. That’s when she realized Bickelhaupt had blocked her on all social media accounts.
“I remember thinking, ‘This isn’t happening. I’m not sitting here at 11 o’clock at night with blood-matted hair and the strong smell of iron permeating my nose while I try to triage this.’ But he’d done it. He announced we were closing,” she said.
Before Welsh even had time to shower or sleep, she disabled the restaurant’s Twitter account and began changing passwords to 42 Grams’ social media and bank accounts.
The next day, Bickelhaupt woke up on his rooftop. He said he turned himself into the police. He later pleaded guilty to battery.
“I was guilty,” he said. “I did something wrong. But I also needed help.”
Welsh disputes this account, saying Bickelhaupt came to the restaurant the following afternoon to scrub her blood off the back stoop and she ran into him. She said he left when she warned him he had a warrant out for his arrest.
After the attack, Welsh went downtown to meet a lawyer at an office dedicated to helping domestic violence victims. She took a number and sat in a packed waiting room of women and their children.
“I was just horrified listening to these women,” Welsh said. “I almost felt like I was a spectator versus a participant.”
A few months later, Welsh discovered Between Friends, a Chicago charity that provides counseling and assistance to survivors.
It was during three months of working with the group that Welsh said she realized her relationship with Bickelhaupt had been abusive long before it became physical.
Emotional, physical and psychological attacks were frequent, she said.
“I honestly didn’t realize that I was being abused until months after the restaurant closed,” she said. “I didn’t have a name for it.”
Stephanie Love-Patterson is the executive director at Connections for Abused Women and their Children. She has worked in fields related to violence against women for more than 30 years.
Abuse can be physical, economic, sexual, psychological or emotional, Love-Patterson said. It happens in any workplace, whether that’s a restaurant’s kitchen, in a doctor’s office or on a machinists assembly line.
It affects men and women from all educational, cultural, racial, religious and socio-economic backgrounds.
“It really is something that can happen to anyone,” she said.
For Bickelhaupt, recovery started in summer 2017 with a court-ordered, 26-week domestic violence and anger management program.
On Aug. 19, 2018, Bickelhaupt went to rehab and found his first sponsor. Since then, he has been sober.
In many of his Instagram posts, Bickelhaupt writes about his battle with alcoholism. He often adds the hashtag “#savethechefs.”
In addition to Stone Flower, Bickelhaupt launched One Flow Foundation, a nonprofit the chef created to help restaurant workers maintain healthy and sober lives.
“I just know I’m doing the right thing for once,” Bickelhaupt said. “In the weirdest way, these circumstances allowed me to be a better person. I wanted to be better, but I didn’t know how.”
Today, Welsh lives in Laguna Beach, Calif., where she runs her own restaurant. She has shared her story publicly and has taken time to speak with countless survivors with whom her story resonated.
While Welsh said she is not issuing a “dire warning” against Stone Flower, she’s disturbed by what she described as Bickelhaupt’s attempts to paint himself as healthy now that he is sober. Alcoholism does not cause abuse and abuse doesn’t cause alcoholism, she said.
“I didn’t expect him to crawl under a rock and die,” she said. “He is very talented. He’s a good freaking cook.”
Love-Patterson said perpetrators of abuse who also struggle with drug and alcohol addiction must seek “dual treatment.” If they only seek treatment for their addictions, they will fail to gain control of their abusive tendencies.
“At the end of that, you just have a sober batterer,” she said. “It’s a nice spin.”
Bickelhaupt insists he is not a domestic abuser. He describes himself as an alcoholic and calls what happened in June 2017 a “freak accident” that occurred while he was drunk.
“I’m not a violent person. I don’t like violence,” he said. “This is getting way out of control. I just really want to move on with my life.”
Some have already welcomed Bickelhaupt to the neighborhood.
Brent Norsman, a local architect, said the 12-seat tasting menu concept reminded him of Etta, a much-lauded new restaurant on North Avenue.
“Anything that brings attention and people to the the neighborhood is good for the neighborhood,” he said. “They’re bringing the Gold Coast crowd to our neighborhood.”
Other locals aren’t on board.
In March, Bickelhaupt’s foundation raised more than $2,000 for Between Friends — the same Chicago domestic violence charity Welsh sought in 2017 — during two charity dinners at Stone Flower.
Social media erupted after Eater covered the dinners, saying Bickelhaupt was using past abuse to get good PR.
Between Friends initially told Eater the organization did not have a record of the donation, and questioned the chef for hosting a fundraiser without notifying them. This week, however, Bickelhaupt said the group’s interim executive director Shailushi Ritchie accepted the donation. Ritchie told Block Club that Between Friends now has a policy not to disclose the identities of its donors.
The debacle made other restaurant owners in the area uncomfortable, including those who decided to host their own domestic violence fundraising event in its aftermath.
A West Town restaurant owner who participated in Industry Night, which saw restaurants raise nearly $20,000 for Connections for Abused Women and their Children, said she believed Bickelhaupt was “in it for himself” because he used the Between Friends name without the group’s consent.
“The lack of consideration for the issue is a kind of red flag indication for self-serving interests,” she said.
Bickelhaupt told Block Club he didn’t understand why Between Friends — or any other domestic violence group — would refuse his money.
“I was charged with battery,” he said. “Does that keep me from donating to charity? I’m supporting a good cause because I believe in their cause. … I’m not an abuser. I’m not a bad person. I did a bad thing. It is fixable.”
Welsh said she wanted to challenge local business leaders and business owners in Wicker Park and Bucktown to think critically about the economic impact Stone Flower could have on the community — especially if her ex-husband lapses into his old ways.
“It’s not uncommon for restaurant industry people to put up with a lot of abuse because they need the job, money or experience,” Welsh said. “That’s been my biggest concern. If he’s really healed and wants to promote awareness about abuse and mental health issues, he would find a different way to make money.”
Gabriela Perez, marketing director for the Wicker Park Bucktown Chamber of Commerce, said Bickelhaupt has yet to reach out about joining the chamber.
“We take the concerns of our neighborhood businesses and residents seriously,” she said. “Anyone who is concerned about safety related issues pertaining to any business should contact the local alderman or the Police Department.”
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, call CAWC’s 24-hour hotline at 773-278-4566, Between Friends’ 24-hour hotline at 800-603-4357, the Chicago Domestic Violence Helpline at 877-863-6338 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233. If you are experiencing an emergency, call 911.
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