Jacob Bickelhaupt to open new West Palm Beach restaurant
A typical dinner in Jacob Bickelhaupt’s West Palm Beach kitchen flows like an interpretive dance. The stage is the chef’s counter, and the players: a ballet of Japanese A5 Wagyu, dry-ice smoke, wine, delicate bouquets of microgreens, and more wine. His audience? No more than 12 people, tops.
At his Konro pop-up restaurant inside the clubby Fern Street Wine Bar & Kitchen, all the ingredients have fancy names and dizzying combinations. On a recent Wednesday night, the piped-in house music pulses and the lights are dim and warm and glowing over eight guests seated on counter stools, arm to arm, as they watch Bickelhaupt tweeze black pearls of salmon roe on tempura squash blossoms filled with Maine sea urchin ice cream.
Ten minutes later — once the obligatory Instagram pics are snapped — the next dish arrives: drumstick-sized cones of crackling chicken skin, stuffed with foie gras and cloudberry jam, that are held by what looks like Pinocchio’s wooden hands. His wife, Nadia Bickelhaupt, sommelier and host, sashays to the chef counter, pouring Rieslings and Gamays from niche wine producers.
Konro is a biweekly dinner series, featuring a whirlwind of 12 to 14 dishes cooked, deep-fried or grilled on the fly by Bickelhaupt, who explains each course’s ingredients while his wife warmly gabs with diners, pairs wines and whisks plates away. “Inventive, omakase-style edible performance art” is what Bickelhaupt calls his cuisine, though its Asian — mostly Japanese — influences are obvious. The dinners cost $405 a pop, and reservations are currently sold out through mid-December.
Bickelhaupt moved to West Palm Beach in July with two equally ambitious goals: rebuilding his life in Palm Beach County and earning more Michelin stars. His acclaimed Chicago restaurant 42 Grams picked up two Michelin stars in 2014, 2015 and 2016. He won Food & Wine’s Best Chef in 2015 and received James Beard Award semifinalist nods in 2016 and 2017.
But then those laurels, along with his reputation, slipped away in an act of violence that touched off years of controversy and Internet backlash.
Now Bickelhaupt, 39, is working on his second act, a new brick-and-mortar Konro restaurant set to open this January in West Palm Beach. He says he partly based his decision to move here after Michelin announced plans this past spring to produce a guide for restaurants in Miami, Orlando and Tampa.
“We’re really happy here,” Bickelhaupt says. “We’ve had customers tell us … ‘Where’d you come from? What happened to you?’ People still say negative stuff, but Nadia and I just wanted everything out there, because there have to be ways to move forward. What else do you do? Disappear? We came here not to run away, but to move toward something.”
Five years ago, Bickelhaupt had climbed the pinnacle of the culinary world.
His quest for Michelin stars even spawned a 2017 documentary, “42 Grams,” which captures the eye candy and intimacy of his chef table but also witnesses the ego and volatility that eventually sabotaged the business. (The film is available on Apple TV+.)
A Wisconsin native and self-taught chef, Bickelhaupt never wanted to cook for a living. After moving to Chicago in 2008, he applied for — on a lark — and landed a job cooking at Michelin two-star Charlie Trotter’s, which opened doors to other plum gigs in prestigious Chicago kitchens such as Alinea and Schwa.
“It kind of just happened,” he recalls. “I guess I excelled as a good cook, and thought I should try my own thing.”
Bickelhaupt says he met his ex-wife, Alexa Welsh, through online dating and ran an illegal underground supper club, Sous Rising, out of their Chicago apartment in 2012. After wildly successful pop-up dinners, he turned an abandoned chicken shack into his first brick-and-mortar, 42 Grams, two years later. Its name saluted the myth that the soul weighs 21 grams, and that the combined souls of Bickelhaupt and Welsh fueled the restaurant. Welsh, who had an advertising career at the time, became 42 Gram’s all-in-one server, manager, accountant and interior decorator.
Bickelhaupt’s celebrity flipped overnight after the Michelin guide awarded 42 Grams two stars in its first year, repeating the feat again in 2015 and 2016. Maintaining 42 Grams’ success weighed on him, and Bickelhaupt drank, and his relationship deteriorated.
Then it all came crashing down.
Documents filed in Cook County Circuit Court describe a June 4, 2017, attack by Bickelhaupt against Welsh, in which he grabbed her “hair and threw (her) to ground, then struck victim in head with bottle, causing injury.” The attack resulted in lacerations requiring staples, according to Eater Chicago.
In “86ed,” a 2021 documentary he self-financed (also available on Apple TV+), Bickelhaupt reveals he and Welsh had divorced earlier that year but tried to hold the restaurant together. The night of the attack, the two started arguing. Bickelhaupt tossed off his apron, told Welsh, “I quit,” and beelined to a bar a few blocks away, where he “lined up [Miller] High Lifes and whiskey, shot after shot,” Bickelhaupt recounts in “86ed.” (The documentary does not interview Welsh nor include her side of the narrative.)
Later that evening, a drunk Bickelhaupt returned to 42 Grams, entering through the rear employee door, sipping from a glass bottle of sparkling water. Welsh found him in the kitchen, which sparked another argument.
“She stepped toward me, and I reacted,” he says in the documentary. “I don’t remember hitting her over the head with a bottle like that. I hurt her bad and I freaked out … I asked [an employee] to call 911 and left in a panic back to my apartment. I had a bunch of beer and whiskey at home and was going to kill myself …
“The only time I think alcoholism did something good for me was I blacked out. I woke up on the floor the next day, and then I called my dad. He told me to turn myself in. I pled guilty because I was wrong. And I continue to do my best to improve.”
42 Grams closed the next day. Police arrested Bickelhaupt on June 6 on a domestic battery charge, later downgraded to simple battery. A judge released Bickelhaupt in July after he pleaded guilty, but with certain conditions, including mandatory drug and alcohol testing, completion of a domestic violence program and a one-year restraining order barring him from contacting Welsh. Both also signed a settlement agreement and release contract that barred them from speaking disparagingly of, making derogatory statements about, ridiculing or defaming the other, according to documents obtained by the Chicago Tribune.
“What I did was a very situational, passionate, alcoholic long story,” he tells the South Florida Sun Sentinel, taking a deep sigh. “It was horrible, and it never should have happened, and what I did was 100 percent wrong. And that’s why I’m trying to make amends to all that stuff. I’m going to live with what I did forever. I punish myself more than anyone else can punish me, I promise you that.”
Bickelhaupt says he later apologized to Welsh and entered rehab that summer.
But in 2019, Bickelhaupt sued Welsh for $250,000 in damages for allegedly breaching their settlement agreement by sullying his name in social-media comments. He claimed he suffered actual damages of $150,000 in lost food sales and $100,000 in lost liquor sales at his new Chicago restaurant, Stone Flower. According to Eater Chicago, which broke news of the attack, court documents show Bickelhaupt dropped the lawsuit on Jan. 19, 2021.
Meanwhile, the Internet backlash was swift and relentless once media publications reported on the attack and Bickelhaupt’s subsequent lawsuit.
“Just go away and realize Michelin is never gonna give wife beater ANY MORE STARS,” one commenter wrote on social media. “Someone needs to beat the s— out of Jacob publicly,” another wrote.
When the Sun Sentinel reached Welsh, his ex-wife, for comment, she said she had no “desire to create new toxic drama.” Instead, she wanted to move on from the attack and for the “nastiness to stop,” describing the public blowback that followed Bickelhaupt as “the craziest thing.”
“After the blow-up in Denver, I started thinking that it’s not so much that people hate Jake, they hate what he represents,” Welsh wrote through LinkedIn. “Logically, no one was in my domestic relationship but me. So why has it kept going so far beyond 2017? All I can come up with is that we started to represent something else in the minds of others. And it’s really easy to hate (and troll) someone who embodies an idea or represents an individual’s projection of their own trauma …
“My hunch is that by sheer virtue of the nature of people from one market to the next, he’s going to do a lot better in Florida than he did in Chicago or Denver,” she says. “They say time heals all wounds.”
In late 2018, Bickelhaupt met his future wife, Nadia, a retail executive who ran an animal rescue. They married in 2020 pre-pandemic and quarantined together in Denver — and ran a supper club out of their home, serving 12- to 14-course meals to intimate groups of 12 or fewer. She studied online and became a certified sommelier, and started pairing rare wines with his dishes.
Bickelhaupt wanted to leave the past behind, but says the public and media — such as food writers, whom he blames specifically — wouldn’t let him. When hate speech flooded the comments section of a Denver publication’s feature about their pop-up, “it physically made us sick, we were so stressed,” he recalls. “It would just bring you down.”
For all the hate speech hurled at him, he says, the collateral damage hurts his wife more.
“I never asked for this,” Nadia Bickelhaupt says, wiping away tears. “The worst thing I did was fall in love. All it does is diminish what we do together. I’m not a self-aggrandizing person, but I wish I could do what [Bickelhaupt] does. He has a gift, and it’s obvious. It screams from the f—–g rooftops, this really big gift.”
Bickelhaupt says he created the “86ed” documentary, released in December, after growing tired of answering questions about the attack, dubbing the 2-hour film “the last word on the issue.” He’s not shy about sharing it: “86ed” is prominently featured on the Konro restaurant homepage, right beside the “Reservations” tab.
He hopes diners who book reservations at Konro watch the documentaries.
“If people say, ‘That’s just you sweeping it under a rug and hiding from it,’ well no, there’s a documentary now,” he says. “I don’t have to worry if they know about my past or ‘Do they accept me?’ It’s actually a relief when guests tell me they’ve seen both films.”
How should South Florida diners reconcile Bickelhaupt’s past struggle with the trust he hopes to regain?
Bickelhaupt has an answer for that. “A huge part of it is getting sober,” he says. “When you’re under the influence of alcohol or drugs, you’re beyond selfish, like your whole world revolves around you. I’ve been sober over four years now.
“But Konro is ours, not just mine. [Nadia’s] the only person who can pair wine with my food, and that’s how it’ll be forever,” he says. “And I have to keep cooking, because if I don’t, I’m going to feel worthless.”
The Bickelhaupts did not move to West Palm Beach to escape online ridicule, “because the Internet is everywhere,” his wife says. “This is us as a family, putting down our roots in a place that we want to call home forever.”
For now, Fern Street Wine Bar is the Bickelhaupts’ temporary home.
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Nick Scalisi, a co-owner of Fern Street who loaned out his kitchen for the Konro pop-up, thinks Bickelhaupt is “one of the best chefs in the world.”
“We have James Beard chefs in this town but not Michelin chefs,” Scalisi says. “We haven’t had a chef of his caliber since, like, ever.”
The plan is to open their brick-and-mortar Konro restaurant in early January at Flamingo Park Market at 424 Park Place, Suite 101, a stout warehouse off Dixie Highway. At 1,500 square feet, the centerpiece of Konro will be Bickelhaupt himself, whose chef counter sits in front of the entrance.
The dining room will be adorned in dark green walls and black walnut, with Japanese charred cedar shelves and Caesarstone countertops. Most dishes will be prepared on a Japanese konro charcoal grill, like A5 Wagyu grilled in a 12-year-old tare, a soy sauce marinade blended with sake.
Nadia Bickelhaupt admits that his dishes make for difficult wine pairings because the chef combines savory and sweet flavors by intuition rather than by training. At dinners, she uses winemakers “just like us: extremely passionate about what we’re doing, and who endured a period of struggle to get where they are,” she says.
“For me, when cooking food, there is a struggle,” Bickelhaupt says. “You labor to produce something that’s not for yourself, but for the world, and if you keep doing that through adversity, you see where it takes you.”
Konro is expected to open in January at 424 Park Place, No. 101, in West Palm Beach. Visit KonroRestaurant.com.