How fresh, local food fuels the Zac Brown Band and their fans.
STORY BY RISA FELDMAN
PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE ZAC BROWN BAND
What happens when a super-popular musician and an accomplished chef start chattin’ it up one summer night?
With Zac Brown and his buddy, Chef Rusty Hamlin, what happened was the idea for a new kind of preconcert event that puts a Southern hospitality-styled spin on the traditional “meet and greet.” The Zac Brown Band calls this unique event the Eat & Greet.
Before each concert, typically backstage, up to 200 lucky fans experience a very special home-cooked meal. Items on the menu are typical Southern fare, such as barbecue beef and pork, along with side dishes made from locally sourced ingredients personally picked out by Chef Rusty. For a special treat, the band members are the ones serving the meal! Then Zac and his band mates hang out, eating alongside the fans and meeting them individually.
I first heard about the Eat & Greet while visiting my folks in New Jersey and listening to a local country music station. The Zac Brown Band was scheduled to perform at the PNC Amphitheater in Holmdel, New Jersey, and the DJs were talking about it and off ering tickets to a lucky caller.
THE EAT & GREET STORY
As a food/travel writer and host of a radio show about restaurants and chefs, I had to find out more about this concept. After a few email exchanges and phone calls, I was able to get two tickets to experience it for myself.
I invited my high school buddy Jeff Bernstein to join me. After arriving at the site, we received our Eat & Greet passes — which typically go for about $50 — and entered a tented area next to the concert venue. Next to the tables set for about 100 people was a specially designed mobile kitchen, which Chef Rusty calls “Cookie.”
This $750,000, 54-foot kitchen on wheels is gleaming and gorgeous, and has everything a chef could dream of to ensure he can create any type of dish he wants! The state-of-the art fittings include a six-burner stove, four ovens, a huge soup pot, large deep-fryers, a spice pantry, and a walk-in refrigerator.
I met with Chef Rusty before the Eat & Greet officially started, and he filled me in on how it all began. In a nutshell, he met Zac in 2001 in Atlanta, where he owns a restaurant called Atkins Park that Zac would frequent. The music-loving chef and the foodie country singer became good friends, and one day, while discussing fans and the concept of the meet and greet, they remarked how cool and different it would be to merge Chef Rusty’s expertise and love of cooking with Zac’s fan-greeting events.
Chef Rusty laughs when thinking back to how it started out with a tiny 14-foot food truck, dubbed the Miss Treated, running alongside the great big touring vehicles. Once they saw how popular the Eat & Greet concept was becoming, and what they could really offer fans with a better culinary setup, Chef Rusty created Cookie – his gourmet mobilized kitchen.
Nowadays, he says he loves the 12- to 14-hour days spent shopping, prepping and cooking for each Eat & Greet, and also relishes the chance to talk about recipes and swap stories with satisfied guests after the food is served. It’s all one big adventure for this Louisiana native. “In the restaurant business, chefs often don’t have any windows,” Rusty muses. “But we have no walls. I get to see the country, and not just see it, but experience it firsthand as well.”
EXPERIENCING AN EAT & GREET
“People are blown away. They come out expecting hot dogs and hamburgers, and instead they get to experience food that they’ve never had before,” says Chef Rusty, who loves visiting with the farmers and taking advantage of what the seasons and the local markets have to offer. Rusty and his two sous chefs research each concert location ahead of time to find out what local organic farms and markets are in the area. They try to buy from as many as they can to supply ingredients for that evening’s dinner.
Chef Rusty never knows what he will create until he determines what is in season at that time and what looks good to him.
He asks farmers for their opinions on items and even has local celebrity chefs join him in the kitchen on occasion. The menu is never the same, except for a few staple dishes. This is important to Rusty, as it allows him to constantly reinvent himself in the kitchen.
ON THE MENU AT AN EAT & GREET
Chef Rusty’s formal training, his Baton Rouge upbringing, the fresh ingredients he bought that day at Delicious Orchards in Holmdel, New Jersey, and his homespun creations made the meal at the Eat & Greet that I attended fabulous!
- Avocado Cornbread
- Zac’s Pocket Knife Cole Slaw
- Cantaloupe Gazpacho Salad, with cucumber, red onion, basil, lemon, heirloom cherry tomatoes, peppers, and Bloody Mary Vinaigrette
- Summer Corn Pudding, with oyster mushrooms, Brie cheese, sun dried tomatoes, and crispy parma prosciutto
- Pork Tenderloin in Zac’s Love Sauce
- Zac’s Georgia Clay Rubbed Beef Filet
- N.J. Blueberry Fried Pie Cobbler with lemon whipped cream
- Tuscan Sheep’s Milk Ricotta-stuff ed Zucchini Flower, with Parmesan and pine nuts
- Grilled Green Beans, with artichoke, tomato, basil, kalamata olives and Romano
“I’m in a movement with a lot of chefs to keep people from buying imported produce and go back to where you get 100 percent of it from a local farmer, ” he says. “That helps not just our health — because we have no idea what they’re pumping into those [other] vegetables — but it also helps the local economy.”
In addition to shopping at local farms, the band gives free tickets to the farmers and mentions them before the dinner begins to show their appreciation. Zac’s fan club (the Zamily) now includes the farmers themselves, who are eager to off er their products in the feast.
I have to admit, in addition to being totally impressed by the meal, Jeff and I both got a kick that we were being served by the entire band — and of course, who doesn’t want to meet Zac Brown in person?
But the Eat & Greet is not just about a fabulous meal or meeting the band in a personal setting. It is about recognizing local sustainable farms and farmers across the country who deserve to be appreciated for their eff orts in a very tough economy. The Zac Brown Band and Chef Rusty do just that — deliciously.