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Jimmy Gentry takes charge of Cafe Brooks and Izakaya

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Once he graduated with a culinary degree from Johnson and Wales in South Carolina, Jimmy Gentry began to make a name for himself in Memphis.

He served as executive chef at Erling Jensen: The Restaurant, which was named "Best Restaurant" by local polls including The Memphis Flyer's Best of Memphis, and he presented at the James Beard House in New York. He ran several restaurants and opened one, Magnolia: A Delta Grille, during a tenure in Tunica, until taking an instructional position at L'École Culinaire.

He wanted something of his own, though, and that turned into the visionary catering company Paradox Catering and Consulting, which he opened in 2010 with business partner and fellow casino culinary employee Alia Hogan.

One of their regular clients was the Brooks Museum, which has become quite the trendsetter for happening events, especially when food oriented.

Meanwhile, in early 2016, the long-standing Brushmark closed its doors while the Brooks continued its renovations and prepared for its year-long centennial celebration.

Brooks administrators weren't sure what they were going to do to replace the beloved Brushmark until it dawned on them.

"We really liked [Jimmy's] art, the art of his food," says Karen Davis, public relations specialist for the Brooks. "We thought it would be a good fit for everybody."

And in mid-January, Café Brooks by Paradox opened to reveal a rustic, but modern, upscale fast-casual dining experience just off the museum's rotunda.

"[The Brooks] approached us, and we were thrilled," Hogan says. "It was a natural fit."

The menu is described as "a unique take on classics."

Take the Reuben. Gentry and team pickle their own corned beef and cut it in-house, then they top it with Korean cabbage and serve it on a pretzel bun ($10).

Their Caesar salad comes with arugula rather than Romaine lettuce and is topped with a special Asian fish sauce vinaigrette ($7).

"We use day-old croissants for our croutons," Hogan says.

One of their top-sellers is the Grown Up Grilled Cheese, using house-made pimento and cheese with bacon served on French bread ($10).

They offer daily specials, a soup of the day (I had the lentil and kale in coconut milk with curry and sort of quit listening to them while I was eating it), weekly grits dishes, and burger specials.

"We try to use as many local products as possible," Hogan says, serving local grits, Claybrook Farms burgers, and seasonal vegetables.

That includes coffee — Reverb drip and espresso drinks — and beer, with one local brewery on tap at a time.

They also have wine on tap, one red and one white, and all of their pastries, including bread, cookies, muffins, biscotti, and fruit galettes, are made fresh in-house.

Future plans include debuting a brunch on Mother's Day and hopefully doing some special events during the Levitt Shell season.

The decor was planned by the Brooks, with massive pieces of local wood used for tables and countertops, designer-inspired seating, and artwork and other ornamentation echoing exhibits in the museum.

Currently, fabrics inspired by Yinka Shonibare MBE's "Rage of the Ballet Gods" exhibit hang on the walls and wrap throw pillows.

"We plan on rotating the art to match whatever we have going on," Davis says.

For Gentry and Hogan, the Brooks venture does not mean putting an end to their other ventures and activities. They will continue running their catering business and continue to offer their Underground supper club, pop-up dining experiences that take place at off-the-wall locations and are announced only two days before.

And recently Gentry took the executive chef position at Izakaya.

"We know where we need to improve, and we have a better feel of what diners want," Hogan says. "Jimmy is there to take care of getting the food to match the Japanese-French fusion they want it to be."

After debuting some of his ideas on Valentine's Day, including Miso Butter Oysters, Smoke Pork Belly with pear purée and black garlic reduction, Jidori Chicken with celeriac purée and foie gras sauce, and Crisp Salmon with red curry, avocado, coconut, and arugula, he hopes to have the menu he wants in place by March.

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