13 October, 2017


Posted in : Dinner Party on by : Grace Rice

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I grew up in a household where a dinner party entailed the following:

  • inviting the entire family, your neighbor, your neighbor’s family, and your Sunday school teacher
  • flinging massive heaps of food onto the plates of loved ones and crying out in utter indignation when they weakly protest to a 5th helping of dessert
  • listening to your aunt reconfirm her title as reigning karaoke champion

As much as I hated these pant-stretching affairs, dinner parties filled with food always brought a warm sense of nostalgia—a humble reminder of my working class roots. So needless to say, I wasn’t the biggest fan of fine dining despite many attempts at enjoying deconstructed soups and scallops artfully arranged to resemble the woes of human existence. I despised the miniature portions, the pretention, the exorbitant prices that rationalized average plates of food into Michelin-star dishes. I believed that food should be simple, plentiful, and enjoyed with friends and family.

So when I was invited to Sous Rising for an 18-course, 3-hour upscale experience with eight strangers, I wasn’t sure what to feel. Sous Rising is a guestaurant, a dinner party where customers “enjoy restaurant quality food, service, and ambiance all while being a guest in the chef’s home.” On one hand, I was eager to observe an accomplished chef in action. On the other, I was concerned that my general cynicism would ruin a rare opportunity to experience something truly remarkable.

Founder and chef of Sous RisingJake Bickelhaupt has worked the kitchens of Chicago’s finest restaurants including Alinea and Schwa. His playful interpretation of new American cuisine fuses art with science; foams, dehydrators, and coagulants are vital components of the cooking process. From online purveyors to the Argyle markets, Jake scours the culinary landscape for the best and most unique ingredients, including Kentucky bourbon and hedgehog mushrooms from Oregon. Although Jake hails from Wisconsin, his twist on new American utilizes unique Asian flavors, including kumquats, yuzu, galangal and fermented black bean. Latin-inspired nuances, including tomatillos and tamarind, also appear throughout his dishes. Alexa, a native of Austin and Jake’s wife, is the server and host of Sous Rising.

When I first arrived, Jake’s sous-chef (who wishes to remain anonymous) kindly took my jacket before I meandered around their apartment, a seamless balance of wood, metal, earth, and classy chic. Swanky music lingered pleasantly in the background as I tried to think of witty conversation topics. After all, what are dinner parties if not opportunities to boast about your intellectual (or booz-brewing) capacities? The other guests were mostly older couples and opposite of me in nearly every demographic respect, but after an initial exchanging of background stories, I felt my shoulders start to loosen. 7pm marked the beginning of our meal, and Alexa laid down some house rules. No setting things on fire. No drug use. No getting piss drunk and being that asshole. No slot games and other gambling games. If you used the restroom, everyone waits before the next course is brought out. For me, her grounded kindness and sharply intelligent attitude immediately set a positive tone—she wasn’t just the hostess who scraped away your crumbs after each course. She was a vital component of the guestaurant experience.

The table spread—an elegant sprawl of garlic cloves, eucalyptus leaves, and white candles—directly faced the kitchen where Jake busily prepared our feast. Our dinner began with a play on oysters and an edible cocktail with hints of rosewater and cucumber. We proceeded with a trout roe course, topped with carob bubbles upon a bed of white chocolate and pink peppercorn frozen ‘air’.  I’d never had trout roe before, and the bursts of saltiness combined with chocolate tickled my tongue in a fascinating and novel way.

As we continued with a fingerling potato soup and monkfish salad, the table split into two conversations; one half talked about fad diets, food allergies, and celiac disease being the new autism while the other bemoaned the current state of television, citing Bravo and TLC shows as unmistakable evidence of humanity’s downward spiral. I strike a conversation with the male diner sitting next to me, a chef from Tri-Star Catering and an avid home brewer. I also sat across from a South Carolinian transplant who now works at a coffee roaster in the northern burbs and whose dinner partner works at a legal firm dealing with mesothelioma cases. Needless to say, our conversation topics were thought-provoking and in some cases, cringe-worthy.

The next course was Jake’s interpretation of Midwestern comfort food: corn three ways. A polenta cake garnished with dehydrated popcorn sits on top a salty black bean sauce, accompanied by a sous vide egg yolk sprinkled lightly with Australian Murray river salt. After this savory dish, we cleansed our palate with an umeboshi-infused soda before diving into French-toast course topped with a delicious dollop of uni. Our playful dinner continued with a tamarind taffy skewered with a eucalyptus branch, which I foolishly ate and discovered tasted like a hybrid between mint and thyme.

As we dined our way through two fish dishes (snapper and char), the conversation developed a sustained momentum. Wine bottles began to empty, laughter became heartier, and voices that seemed quiet at first became the loudest at the table. Despite my initial reservations, I was enjoying myself immensely. I found that Carol’s Pub in Uptown was a “melting pot” bar for gays, ethnic minorities, and “fraternity and sorority bitches.” I also discovered that Mark Hamlin was now enormously fat and old, more like Jabba the Hutt than the handsome Luke Skywalker. I also found out Jake doesn’t watch Top Chef, a show marked more by commercialism than culinary artistry. He also explained that his proximity to Argyle influenced many of his Asian-inspired dishes, and that local grocery owners used to joke about his shopping selections. “I might be white, but I’m not that white,” Jake tells me.

We continued with a “pickle” course, a beet cooked for over 24 hours so that its texture resembles that of animal meat. This was followed by an intensely savory course called “growth and renewal,” featuring duck cooked four ways: duck jus, duck malt, duck breast, and duck confit. This intricately-textured dish hit produced powerful punches of umami as I munched on crispy duck skin and the moist mushroom cake that layered the bottom of the pot.  As we eagerly dug into our clay containers, we all gasped in delight upon unearthing a singular mini carrot, with leaves still attached, buried within the layers of savory duck.

Our potted duck course was soon followed by a salty pecorino chip topped with pecorino air, and a kumquat “buzz button” tart that provided much-needed palette cleansing. As we effortlessly transitioned from course to course, I marveled at the kitchen’s perpetual state of cleanliness and organization: the pots and pans were neatly stacked, and all the mise en place were meticulously organized into labeled plastic containers. How Sous Rising manages to keep organized, serve elaborate dishes, and maintain perfect timing between course transitions still astounds me. In my state of gluttony and merriment, I almost felt guilty watching Jake and his crew hustle around the kitchen. I asked Alexa what they ate when they weren’t busy freeze-drying popcorn or procuring uni from the coast of Maine. She replied, “Tacos. We eat a lot of tacos.” Similarly, Jake’s sous chef tells me that one of his favorite dishes is pad thai from Cozy Noodles. Astounded that chefs would eat anything besides their works of culinary genius, I quickly realized that cooking was different than eating. Eating involves ingesting food that makes your taste buds happy. Cooking is a lengthy endeavor that requires forethought, creativity, and razor-sharp execution. In fact, Jake’s sous chef says that it takes an entire week to prepare for the weekend dinners and that Jake will occasionally wake up at 2am to prepare for an event.

As our bellies begin to distend and the conversation inevitably evolves into stories of alcohol, parents, and business woes, we’re presented with the final substantial course: a deconstructed carrot cake. A masterpiece of artfully-arranged chocolate ganache, chamomile-infused ice-cream, lemon curd balls, and pistachios, it was—by far, my favorite meal of the evening. Like some hedonic beast bound by no scruples, I ravaged the thing in under sixty seconds. No shame, only tears of bulimic regret.

Jake’s sous tells me that unlike most chefs who casually converse about their day in the kitchens, his conversations with Jake revolve strictly around the food. Whether it’s refining a technique or re-conceptualizing a dish, he says that cooking fills him with a “high,” a consuming aura of suspended euphoria. Thomas Merton once said, “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.” As I watch Jake gingerly rearrange a singular pea shoot leaf with a tweezer, I realize that he’s no chef. Far above it. He’s an artist, engrossed in a timeless passion that grips the heart with yearning and breathlessness. To him, food is art, torture, beauty, light— an impossibly complex entity that needs and wants attention.

Without drowning you in sentimentality, let me preface by saying that I didn’t necessarily walk away with friends (or at least friends by my definition). I learned about Australian culture, how to brew hops, and Philadelphian accents. I learned about exotic flavor combinations (strawberry foam and spring onion yogurt is actually quite tasty) and breaking-edge culinary techniques.  But ask me in a year, and I will probably have forgotten most of it.

However, I will remember that I actually enjoyed my fine-dining experience—though, to be honest, I can hardly call it that. For me, the meal resembled a casual stroll through a culinary art museum, where Jake curated each dish based on his unique memories. But as with all art, individual perception is highly subjective. For me, the “flavors of Tom-Yum” course with seared fish and coconut noodles reminded me of Sunday temple gatherings when I sneakily stole bits of food from the monks’ kitchen. The kumquat tart reminded me of picking fresh kumquats during New Years with my godmother. The winter corn dish reminded me of lonely Midwestern winters, cramming for finals and wishing I’d never moved away from home-sweet Texas. Each dish, each morsel, each flavor created a frame of a memory reel I’d forgotten had existed.

Am I converted believer of fine dining now? I can’t be certain, but I will say that it’s a different experience for everyone. Some do it because they’re hardcore foodies with refined and adventurous palettes. Some do it because their wife/girlfriend made reservations, and damn it, they’re weren’t going solo! But I think I’ll do it for the art, for the opportunity to glimpse into the wicked imagination of a Sous Rising.

menu details:

Oyster (oyster leaf, malt vinegar, black pepper),  Juniper Jump (Hendricks gin, cucumber, lime, rosewater, hibiscus),  Trout Roe (carob, white chocolate, pink peppercorn, pineapple),  Soup (potato, chips, pea, milk),  Salad (Spanish octopus, avocado, blood orange, Marcona almond),  Coconut (kaffir lime, lemongrass),  Winter Corn (yolk, fermented black bean, cream, fava blossom),  Soda (umeboshi),  Uni (brioche, maple, shiso),  Tamarind “Thaw” (eucalyptus),  New Zealand Medai Snapper (jicama, tomatillo),  Char (spring onion, strawberry, yogurt),  24 Hour Beet (butter, dill, anchovy, red wine), Potted Duck (hedgehog mushroom, parsnip, hearts on fire, malt, lime),  Salty (pecorino, pecorino, and more pecorino),  Tart (kumquat, buzz button),  Sweet (white chocolate, chamomile, meyer lemon, carrot, galangal, pistachio),  Caffeine (chicory, cardamom)