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Recipe by Jay Payne, executive chef, Café Japengo.

What really started me cooking was that both my parents worked, so my job was to start dinner. Many times I just ended up cooking dinner. My grandmother was also a big influence. She is Hispanic and cooks three meals a day. We used to go to her house for dinner on the weekends and she would cook all morning.

When I was a little older, I had a rapport with the owner of the San Diego Yacht Club and started there when I was 14 and a half. The first day I started with the basics: peeling veggies and fruit and chopping parsley. I cleaned two cases of strawberries, two cases of green beans, and two cases of potatoes. I was exhausted and was, like, “How does anyone do this?” But even then I knew cooking was something I was interested in. Just being in the kitchen and seeing the energy there.

I have been at Café Japengo for almost three years now as the executive chef and head up the hot food here. Most people think of Japengo as sushi, but almost 50 percent of our business now is hot-food entrées. My biggest thing is quality. I absolutely will not compromise. If someone is coming in here the first, second, or thirtieth time, the food has to be top quality.

It took a little while to get used to cooking Asian foods after working at La Casa del Zorro and the Fairbanks Ranch Country Club, but I love cooking fusion foods. Here at Japengo I use dried furikake [a dried vegetable condiment] more than anyone I know. It goes great on veggies, meat, soups, and miso soup.

I do cook at home too, but mostly it’s my wife cooking on the home front for our seven-year-old son because I work such long hours. I met my wife at CIA and she’s a chef too. My son loves to help her in the kitchen. He and my wife make pizza from scratch. She makes whole-wheat dough and sauce from scratch and he helps her a lot. My son is very interested in cooking.

When I cook at home, my favorite thing to make is sautéed Alaskan halibut with wild mushroom risotto. I garnish it with a tomato basil and ginger jam. It’s very light and works very well.

INGREDIENTS

(enough to serve with 1 main dish of sautéed halibut)

  • 2 T peeled and chopped
  • fresh ginger
  • 4 Roma tomatoes, diced
  • 2 T fresh basil, chopped in chiffonade
  • 4 T sugar
  • 1 T chopped garlic
  • salt and pepper to taste

HOW TO DO IT

Line a sheet pan with foil. Peel and chop the ginger and chop the tomatoes into a small dice. Chop the basil into a chiffonade by stacking the basil leaves with the stems facing down, rolling them up tightly, and then chopping the bundle into thin strips. Add all ingredients except for basil into small saucepot and simmer very slowly over medium heat until tomatoes are cooked and the mixture is thick. Be careful not to scorch the mixture and turn down the heat if necessary.

After the sauce is finished cooking, add to the lined sheet pan and allow to cool thoroughly. Once mixture is cooled, add basil. Adding the basil after the mixture is cooled will prevent the basil from turning black. Add salt and pepper to taste. Use the jam to garnish fish or enjoy as you like.

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