Touring musicians often complain about the "boredom" and "monotony" of road life. As a result, observations about how cities can blur together and how repetitive the daily routine can feel have become songwriting clichés.
But while this is a common complaint, it's not one that touring culinary artist Rusty Hamlin voices.
Mornings on the road find Chef Rusty visiting farms and farmer's markets. After two or three hours of frenzied shopping, it's back to "Cookie," his state-of-the-art, 54-foot mobile kitchen, to prepare a family-style dinner for up to 200 lucky fans of the Zac Brown Band. Then it's off to a new city and everything starts over again.
As Rusty notes, each day is an improvisation. He lets the ingredients, as local and fresh as he can get them, drive the day's menu. Meanwhile, the clock relentlessly ticks, and no unforeseen variable—from bad directions to traffic to unexpected finds—can be allowed to interfere. Fans are invited, and dinner must be served.
But as he relates his road stories with an infectious grin, it's obvious that the unique, daily, "farm-to-tent" life he and Zac Brown have created is the one he loves. Putting in the 12 to 14 hour days to stage the band's famed "Eat & Greet" events—held for fans before each concert—is a more rewarding life than the restaurant world he came from.
Why? It lets him get to know farmers around the world. It lets him collaborate with famed local chefs. And it lets him get to know his diners as he serves them personally.
Like many chefs, the Louisiana-born Chef Rusty is passionate about fresh, local ingredients, and is an advocate for the family farms and farmers who make that possible. But unlike others, what's "local" for Rusty constantly changes. He may shop at New York's famed Union Square Greenmarket during one tour stop, and visit a Durham, N.C. hydroponic farm during another. His international travels have taken him from Sydney Fish Market in Australia to Jean-Talon Market in Montreal and many points in between.
"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 vegetables—but it also helps the local economy."
"I have a job that comes with a huge responsibility," he continues. "This is why natural and organic foods are so important to me—because my art literally goes into your body. I always say: be careful, because what you eat can help you run a marathon, or it can park you on the couch."
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Born in Baton Rouge, Rusty grew up steeped in Louisiana's famed culinary culture, with jambalaya and gumbo among his go-to dishes. His introduction to the kitchen began with his mother, who would offer her four-year-old son spoonfuls of her latest homemade creation and would pay the boy a dime for each ingredient he was able to identify. (Eventually, she had to drop the price to a nickel when he started draining her wallet dry.)
Rusty landed his first job as a line cook at Belle of Baton Rouge, a downtown riverboat casino. He advanced quickly, eventually being named executive sous chef, overseeing all of the on-site restaurants. Meanwhile, his life was hectic; he juggled school each day from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., then a full-time job at the casino from 4:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. "Sleep? That's what weekends were for," he recalls, laughing.
Once he got his academic bona fides (eventually earning a total of seven degrees), it was time for a change of scenery—he plunged himself into Atlanta's dynamic restaurant scene. His journey began at the 1848 House, a bastion of southern plantation tradition in suburban Marietta. From there he went to Phoenix Brewing Company where he gained valuable experience cooking with beer.
Chef Rusty was handed his biggest challenge to date when the owners of Atkins Park, a popular bar and grill, hired him to completely rethink the kitchen and revamp the menu. He did so with nods to his Cajun/Creole inspirations, Justin Wilson and Paul Prudhomme, and the results exceeded expectations. That success led him to a suburban satellite location of the same establishment, which recently marked a decade of success.
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It was while Rusty was making a name for himself as an Atlanta chef that he first got to know songwriter Wyatt Durette (then head bartender at Atkins Park) and Zac Brown, who was playing to packed rooms at Marietta, Georgia's Dixie Tavern and enjoying local success. As charismatic, larger-than-life southern men who appreciate music, food, and the culture that unites the two elements—in 2004 Zac would open his own lakeside restaurant—the two quickly became good friends.
It was then that the seeds were planted for today's roving culinary adventure. "One day in 2002, I was sitting on Zac's couch at Lake Oconee and we were talking about the pros and cons of concerts—what was good and bad, and what we would change if we could. Both of us had a passion to 'superserve' fans by doing something unique, and that's how Zac came up with the idea of the Eat & Greet."
Now, after having lived and refined the concept for nearly four years, Hamlin is even more impressed by how rewarding and fresh the experience is at each tour stop. "I used to see Zac and the band do autograph signings, and the people in line are sometimes shaking because they're so nervous. I mean, God forbid that someone says something stupid in the 10 seconds they have with the artist."
By contrast, sitting around a table tends to relax people, he notes, and the nervousness usually fades. As they tuck into the delicious creations Chef Rusty and his team have put together, the food takes the spotlight and the members of the band become merely part of the enthusiastic gathering sharing a meal.
And it's not always just Chef Rusty, his sous chefs, and his team of local servers and bartenders. Multi-night stops provide the opportunity for this merry band of culinary artists to paint on a larger canvas, pulling in local chefs and collaborating on a four-course menu, which uses a unique set of custom-built "stageboxes" to give fans an intimate, up-close experience combining food and music.
To date, Hamlin's collaborators include Sean Brock, Mike Lata, Michelle Weaver, and Kevin Johnson from Charleston, S.C.; Matthew Lackey and Bob Waggonner from Nashville; and RJ Cooper and David Gaus from metro D.C.
Through it all, Rusty is mindful that he's not just representing the Zac Brown Band; he's also an ambassador for a tradition of southern hospitality, encompassing the South's traditions of sharing and camaraderie around the table, even as the cuisine at the center of it changes. And so he takes pride in opening minds and broadening horizons. A tour stop in Cambridge, Massachusetts was a prime example, as Chef Rusty offered up a menu of "dirty soul food"—including stone-ground grits, collard greens, corn bread, and stewed okra with tomatoes.
"You could just see 150 people thinking, 'what is a grit?' So I said, 'just take a spoonful of everything, that's all I ask. Just taste it. I'll go get you something if you don't like any of it."
The result of the experiment? Rave reviews. Chef Rusty laughs, recalling his guests' reactions. "It will stand out in my head forever," he says.
Whether produced by grits or gazpacho, reactions like these are what fuel Chef Rusty, who relishes his unique life, interacting with fans and operating in the open.
"In the restaurant business, chefs often don't have any windows," Rusty observes. "But we have no walls. I get to see the country, and not just see it, but experience it firsthand as well."