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Omaha Magazine

Go, Go, Gadget Chef

Jun 23, 2023 01:01PM ● By Julius Fredrick
chef profile Brad Groesser sojourn

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

While Chef Brad Groesser of Omaha would never describe himself as wise, he’s certainly earned the epithet. That’s because the “Gadget Chef” as he’s lovingly called by his patrons, knows that experience can’t be loaned—it must be bartered with, often at great cost.

“It was a gun mount accident on board ship; a hot gun, bad powder, and a misfire, and my hand got brushed off in the recoil,” Groesser recalled of the event that claimed his right hand and most of his forearm. “I mean, that was pure shock…it took them about 45 minutes to cut me out of the gun—and I mean, you’re talking about about a gun that has a 15 foot barrel, 5 inch caliber […] it was 18 hours before I actually saw a doctor.”

Severals years prior, a listless 17-year-old entered a US Navy recruitment office. In his youth, Groesser spent half the year with his dad at his grandfather’s farm in Weeping Water, Nebraska, and the other half with his mom in Los Angeles, California, where he found his sea-legs working shipyards. 

Still, the frequent moves instilled a certain restlessness in Groesser, a comfort with shifting environments, and a desire to see the world. The Navy, he thought, would stay his wanderlust. And for a time, it did.

“I was lucky enough to be on a ship rigged for sub warfare, so we weren’t with a big detachment—we were always out on our own,” Groesser said. “And it was old enough that it broke down all the time, and we got towed into secure places. And my chief, rather than sit on the ship and wait for the repair part would be like, ‘We’re gonna rent a car to go pick it that up so we can get underway faster.’ 

“You know, I’ve skied Sarajevo, I’ve skied Mount Etna, skied the Pyrenees in Spain, surfed Morocco…so, very nice opportunities, you know?”

Yet, in a fraction of a second—amid plumes of gunpowder and cries for help—Groesser’s life sharply, irrevocably, changed course.

“I was off the coast of Nicaragua when this happened,” said Groesser, nodding toward his customizable prosthetic. “[Then] I was at Wilford Hall Medical Center in Lackland Air Force Base getting rehab. And then they sent me to Naval Air Station in Corpus Christi, and I was there for six months before I finally got medically discharged.” 

The result was a tremor of disbelief, and for a time, the trance of ennui.

“I was partying hard. But again, I was 20. It’s something the military teaches, sadly, but I think it keeps us sane out there,” Groesser noted. 

Once again, Groesser found himself pinging between California and Nebraska, weighing and ultimately rejecting the benefits of the GI Bill. In time, memories of the ship that took his hand resurfaced, and tellingly, the good outweighed the bad.

“My best friend in the service was a cook, I was a storekeeper supply guy, so I would help him order his food […] but after hours when I wasn’t working, and he was down there working the midnight shift, I would go in there and just cook with him and hang out,” Groesser said.

After five years climbing the ranks at TGI Fridays and a stint waiting tables at then Clint Eastwood-owned Hog’s Breath Saloon, Groesser was finally ready to take the leap from front to back of house, returning to Nebraska for culinary school. This new battleground, however, demanded a more sophisticated arsenal.

“My mother, who lived in Houston at the time, read an article in the paper about this student who had a similar thing who made a similar attachment,” he said. “So now I’ve got this attachment on my prosthesis; hook up a knife or a carrot peeler or a grater, 10 different kinds of knives […] I can chop pretty fast. Don’t cut myself too much. Can’t complain.”

Following the upgrades, the newly forged “Gadget Chef” wasted no time accruing professional experience—working alongside the late chef Gene Commorata at the Brass Grille while still in school, landing the executive chef position at the Dundee Dell following graduation, and later serving as the food service director at the Ralston Arena.

“After the Ralston Arena, I went back out there and was food service director for Iowa Western [Community College],” Groesser said. “And then this opportunity came up, and I opened the Sojourn.”

Named for his many journeys, the Sojourn Cafe opened in Ralston in 2019 to rave reviews—the made from scratch meals and breezy, California-inspired interior earning the Gadget Chef a slew of regulars. Quality standards were exacting, as Groesser—alongside his right-hand man and Iraq war veteran Jason Russell—ran a tight ship.

“I was a noncommissioned officer, I got my stripes […] so my leadership style is a little more brutal,” Russell confessed. “[Groesser] does have a soft spot for people. He’s not like Gordon Ramsay, I’m more Gordon Ramsay, right? When you have kids at first-time jobs, they typically need direction and discipline, and you get that in the military.”

Despite Sojourn’s initial momentum, no restaurant could outpace the all-consuming pandemic of 2020. While mandated closures weren’t immediately fatal, they would prove to be a killing blow as the cafe hemorrhaged employees. Groesser shouldered much of the responsibilities himself, leading to burnout and the eventual closure of the Sojourn Cafe in late March, 2023.

“You know, I’ve left early, I’ve come in late, but I’ve just not been here a day we were open,” said Groesser during an interview during Sojourn’s final week. “Except one Sunday when I had the flu. So, almost four years, that’s the one day I closed down.

“I’m just…tired. I’m sad because we have a great following and reputation, it’s not because business sucks. It’s just, I’m worried I can’t keep up this pace, you know? It’s bittersweet. It’s going to take awhile to set in because I put my heart and soul into this place, it’s my family…but I have to take care of myself.”

Despite the setback, the Gadget Chef continues to adapt and reconfigure; another experience in his armory, wiser for  the exchange. Today, Groesser helms the downtown Marriott’s kitchen as their new Chef de Cuisine—his mettle untarnished, and stronger than ever. 

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2023 issue of Omaha Magazine. To subscribe, click here. 

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

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