Imagine this real-life challenge on a busy night of cooking and serving food: The corporate director of culinary procurement for Harrah's Entertainment and several associates show up for dinner at your restaurant. (In this case, LB's Steakhouse at Grand Casino.) But Bill Barum isn't just your boss. He's also an accomplished chef who has cooked for Jordan's King Hussein and, more recently, handled Super Bowl catering for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
To complicate matters, the group doesn't want to order off the menu. "Surprise us with your cooking," they say instead.
What do you do? If you're LB's chef de cuisine Jimmy Gentry, you think on your feet and get busy, combining classical French cooking with something new.
"Our corporate chef is a big fan of Indian food, so I played off of those flavors," Gentry explains, smiling at the spontaneity of his eight-course meal. "It was fun."
So what dishes did Gentry whip up over the next two and a half hours? Curry cauliflower to start, followed by Indian lamb stew, shaved salad with warm ajowan-seed vinaigrette, and crisp sea bass, jasmine rice, and red-curry yogurt. Frozen-grape granité came next to ready the palate for Marsala-roasted filet of beef and a puree of Yukon gold potatoes. No room for dessert? Too bad, because Gentry served grilled angel food cake with yogurt and black-pepper/raspberry marmalade.
"I cook using a hybrid of my classical training mixed with the tastes from food I like to eat," Gentry says. "I like the smaller places, the mom-and-pops, the Asian restaurants, because they tend to be the most authentic."
Gentry's current favorites are seafood dinners at Asian Palace in Bartlett and Sunday-morning dim sum at Nam King, located in southeast Memphis near Winchester and Kirby. "A friend took me to Asian Palace, and it's probably the best Chinese food I've ever had," says Gentry, recalling the restaurant's lobster tanks and lavish presentations. "I try to remember those kinds of tastes because I like to incorporate ethnic flavors into my cooking. They play really well with simple food."
Gentry's creative flair for mixing tastes and textures is reinventing LB's traditional steakhouse offerings with a cooking style as accessible as the chef himself.
"We still sell more eight-ounce filets than anything else, but I'm dressing up the beef specials," Gentry says. "Just because we are a steakhouse doesn't mean we have to act like one all the time."
Seafood selections are being updated as well with Gentry's preferred spices and seasonings: soy, star anise, basil, mint, dashi, sambal, surachi, coriander, sesame, yuzu fruit, bean paste, and Chinese black vinegar, to name a few.
Gentry's new direction is attracting national attention and local acclaim. In October, LB's received an award of excellence, or DiRona Award, from the Distinguished Restaurants of North America. Loyal foodies, who know Gentry from his six years at Erling Jensen the Restaurant in Memphis, also appreciate his revised menu. LB's now serves about 250 customers each weekday and up to 400 on weekend evenings, an accomplishment Gentry shares with Chris Clark, his sommelier and general manager.
At LB's, the corporate setting is more departmentalized than a private restaurant where chefs typically trouble-shoot many different tasks. "If something breaks at LB's, I call the maintenance department instead of trying to fix it myself," Gentry says. "It's taken some getting used to."
Fortunately, adapting to new kitchens is easy for Gentry whose first summer jobs were in Arkansas restaurants operated by his mother, Lisa Hackett. "My dad was in the liquor business in Memphis, working for Star Distributors," Gentry says. "I used to joke that by the time I was in elementary school, I had been in more restaurants and nightclubs than most adults."
Since then, he's cooked at Three Oaks, Ciao Baby, Country Squire, Pig N Whistle, Ruth's Chris, and Erling's.
Is there any one important cooking tip he's learned? "Think of a recipe as a guideline and experiment," Gentry replies, "and don't forget to have fun."
And what about the secret to cooking a perfect steak? "Rub it with salt, pepper, and a little olive oil and pop it in a hot oven," Gentry says. "You'll be amazed at how good it is once you get it off the grill."