By RODNEY HO/ firstname.lastname@example.org, originally filed Friday, July 15, 2015
While the Zac Brown Band is touring the country, chef Rusty Hamlin has a most unusual job.
He not only feeds the band and crew but also 150 fans before every concert in what is called a special "eat and greet."
Hamlin doesn't just dole out burgers and hotdogs. Nope. He cooks gourmet meals.
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And the FYI network is chronicling his journey starting Thursday, July 23, 2015 at 10 p.m. on "Rusty's RockFeast: Backstage With the Zac Brown Band."
Georgia's own Zac Brown cares about food as much as he does his music. He even has plans for his own food line. Five years ago, this was Brown's way of combining those two loves in a way that gives his fan base something special no other band can offer.
"I speak the language of food and I truly love it," he said in one of the early episodes.
"What we love about the 'Eat and Greet' is that it completely turns the table around on the fans" Brown told CNN last fall. "We're eating with them and serving them, hanging out with them. That is the best fellowship we can create."
I spoke with Hamlin, who also runs Atkins Park in Smyrna, last week.
He met Zac Brown songwriter Wyatt Durrette at Atkins Park in the early 2000s when Durrette was a bartender. Durrette introduced Hamlin to Brown and they became fast friends. "When I first met him, I knew there was something amazing there," he said, when Zac Brown's group was just a bar band performing at places like Atkins Park.
He'd join them on the road and by the time "Chicken Fried" and "Toes" had become massive country hits in 2009, the "eat and greet" came to fruition.
Hamlin bought a tired old 14-foot taco truck that was pulled behind the tour bus. She was suitably named "Miss Treated." Eighteen months later, Zac Brown rewarded him with a massive 54-foot trailer Hamlin dubbed "Cookie," a nickname he picked up from friends.
In each city, he typically wakes up early in the morning long before the band and starts sourcing for food. With just a few hundreds dollars in his budget, he'd hit local farmer's markets and docks and just make it up as he goes along. He'd try to get back by noon and cook a full meal by 5 p.m. "It's a race to find everything," he said. "It's always down to the wire. We're not making mashed potatoes. We're doing chef food. We put a lot of labor into what we do."
He said fans who are in the Zac Brown fan club ($40 a year) can be placed in a lottery so they have a shot at having a meal with the guys in the band. To spread the wealth, fans can only join the "eat and greet" twice a year.
"We're more interested in getting to know our fans than them getting to know us," Hamlin said.
Here's a sample menu from one of the "eat and greets" that Entertainment Weekly attended in 2011:
Chef Rusty’s menu at the Meadowlands tailgate: White Marble Farms pork tenderloin with Zac’s Southern Ground Grub Love Sauce; Creekstone Farms beef tenderloin with Zac’s Southern Ground Grub Georgia Clay Rub; grilled cauliflower, broccoli and okra with a saffron Chardonnay butter; wild mushroom and snap pea spoon polenta with smoked gouda; braised brussels sprouts with country ham and red-eye gravy; pocketknife coleslaw (as featured in Zac and Rusty’s Southern Ground cookbook); that heirloom tomato salad with smoked corn, edamame, pickled cucumbers, and moonshine vinaigrette (which Chef Rusty made by sneaking onto Zac’s bus and borrowing a couple cups of Junior Johnson’s legal Midnight Moon moonshine); fresh bread with agave fig butter; and chocolate peanut butter biscuit pudding
There is no way the band really makes any profit from the "eat and greets," but as Hamlin says, "they are hopefully fans for life." That means folks who attend these events will likely spend plenty of bucks down the road buying Zac Brown music, purchasing merchandise and seeing them multiple times in concert. To keep it real, there are no photos or video allowed so everyone can focus on breaking bread.
To cover costs, tickets are not cheap. They were $50 apiece in 2011. For lottery winners, they are now $100 each and sold in pairs. (More details here.)
In an episode I sampled that airs tonight, the band rolled into Dallas, which Brown feels is as close to Atlanta as you can get in Texas. Hamlin created Southwestern Berkshire pork sausage with jalapenos, garlic and jack cheese. This was accompanied by seasonal autumn squash bisque, Greek purple potato salad, sweet-and-smokey collard greens with smoked turkey and sweet Vidalia onion (the recipe is here) and farmer's pot pie. Plus for dessert: monkey bread!
He smoked 100 pounds of sausage on two Green Eggs. And Hamlin invited the farmer who put together the sausage to the meal.
Here's the viewing party tonight at Atkins Park:
HOST: CHEF RUSTY HAMLIN
WHEN: THURSDAY, JULY 23RD AT 8:00 PM
LOCATION: Atkins Park Tavern
Smyrna - Market Village
2840 Atlanta Road
Smyrna, GA 30080
Click here for party invite: RUSTY'S ROCKFEAST PREMIERE PARTY EVITE
"Rusty's Rock Feast," 10 p.m. EST Thursdays, FYI