Marching to a Different Beat

When a rare wrist disease ended his dream of drumming, he set out on an unlikely path—and found fulfillment in the kitchen.

From age five, Jayson Grossberg cared about one thing: playing drums. He won a jazz percussion scholarship to George Washington University, but in his third year his left wrist gave out. Kienbock’s disease—in which the tiny lunate bone in the middle of the wrist loses its blood supply and dies—left him with such chronic pain and stiffness that, even after surgery, drumming was over.

“I was lost,“ says the Cherry Hill native. “It was all I knew.”

What made him think becoming a chef was the answer? “I hadn’t worked in a kitchen before, so I didn’t know what it entailed,” he admits. “I just knew it was creative and I liked it. When you’re nineteen, you don’t really think of that stuff.”

In fact, the decision was not delusional. The disease was unlikely to recur in his right wrist, doctors assured him. Since he was right-handed, he figured he could get by. In college, he had become a devotee of the Food Network and sometimes cooked for friends. A Mark Twain quote he’d encountered in English class further inspired him. “It was that if people could make their hobbies their careers, everyone would be happier,” he recalls. “And I figured, You know what? Let’s see where it goes.”

A connection through his mother gave Grossberg entry to the famous Washington, D.C., kitchen of Jean-Louis Palladin, where, after repeated visits (and a signed promise not to sue if he cut off a finger), he was allowed to volunteer. “I worked like a slave.…But being in that kitchen, and not settling for anything less than perfect, I fell in love all over again.”

In 1993, Grossberg enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America. But while doing his first externship in Pompano Beach, Florida, his right wrist flared with pain. Soon he could barely hold a toothbrush, let alone use a whisk.

The surgeon who operated on his right wrist advised him to seek a less physically taxing career. Grossberg dismissed the notion. “I had already lost my music,” he says. “I found something I loved, and I wasn’t about to quit.” Or, as his mother, Ellen, graphically puts it, “They’d have had to cut your hands off.”

By the time Grossberg graduated from the CIA in 1997, he had undergone further surgery on his left hand. “The surgeries lessen the pain, but the more surgeries you do, the less movement you have in your wrist,” he says. “My wrists don’t have any real up and down motion. The movement and strength is in my fingers.”

Where others would turn or bend the wrist, Grossberg turns his whole arm. “If I’m saucing things,” he says, “it looks like my elbow is up in the air.”

Despite months of post-surgical healing during which he couldn’t work at all, Grossberg managed to gain valuable experience in several restaurants, including Bobby Flay’s Bolo and Mesa Grill in Manhattan.

In New York, he fell in love with a young editor at Gourmet, Alix Palley. But before they got married in 2000, he suffered a vascular necrosis in his hip—not Kienbock’s disease, but another form of bone decay from lack of blood circulation. After a hip replacement, Grossberg decided that the slower pace of catering suited him. “I figured if I could control what I physically do—I don’t have to peel every carrot—we could make it work,” he says.

The couple moved to Princeton and eventually started their own catering business. The search to buy a catering kitchen at a reasonable price brought them to the working-class town of Audubon. Grossberg had been nursing the idea of opening his own restaurant, and when the space adjoining the catering kitchen went up for sale, he and his wife bought it.

How does he cope? “The pain depends on weather and time of day,” he says. “Some days I get lucky. It certainly hurts after a night’s service, but I never touch painkillers. I have bad anemia, and that messes up my stomach.”

At 34, Grossberg has no regrets. “I know I can’t do this forever,” he says, “but I’m going to do it as long as I can. This is what I am supposed to be doing.”

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