By Frank Sabatini, Jr.
Thanks to a gig he landed at a Japanese restaurant owned by one of his college professors, Jerry Warner found himself more intrigued by cutting fish than by earning a degree in Fitness Management at Humboldt State University.
Warner eventually became executive chef at Café Japengo in La Jolla and was recently a contender on "World Challenge - Pride of Japan," a Japanese reality TV show in which a top Japanese chef faces off against a chef from another country. The show's previous sushi match-up featured a chef from Spain. This time, the producers tapped the U.S. for a competitor specializing in contemporary sushi.
"If you ask for a rainbow roll in Japan, you probably won't get it, because they stay true to tradition," Warner says. "During the show, I think the judges had an appreciation for the ingredients I was using, which broadened their perspective of sushi."
Warner - who's been creating rolls that have playfully incorporated micro greens, chili sauces and tropical fruits since he began working at Japengo in 1990 - says he suspects the producers found him on Google.
On the show, each chef was challenged to construct a sashimi plate, assorted nigiri and three sushi rolls under the direction of language interpreters. While the Japanese chef adhered to convention, Warner bestowed things like baby cilantro and fresh mango to his masterpieces before pushing the envelope further with a dessert roll comprising various fruits.
The champion remains a signed, sworn secret until the episode airs the second week in January on Japan's Asahi network. But visitors to Café Japengo inquiring about the outcome shouldn't look for a trophy or wads of cash spilling out of Warner's pocket even if he does win.
"There's no prize for the winner, just bragging rights," he says.
If a salary raise isn't in order, at least a raising of the sake cups is. Kampai!
8960 University Center Lane, University City
Café Japengo facts and figures
- Café Japengo opened in La Jolla in 1990.
- Chef Jerry Warner has been with the restaurant since its launch.
- Japengo was named "Best Sushi in San Diego" at the California Restaurant Association's Gold Medallion Awards in June 2013.
- Chef Warner runs off-menu secret specials. Whisper to the server for more info.