About a dozen years ago, Chef Rusty Hamlin bought the Atkins Park Tavern, a longtime establishment in Smyrna, Ga. His first hire was the songwriting partner of a guy who played clubs in and around Atlanta, but whose name wouldn’t resonate with the public until several years later.
The guy’s name was Zac Brown and the two hit it off fairly quickly.
“It was not only our love for music and food, but our love for family and friendship and atmosphere. What comes first for his and my life is family and friendship,” Hamlin said in an interview this week from his home in Atlanta. “Everything else kind of falls in after.”
One day, they were sitting on the couch, shooting around “If I get big ...” dreams.
An idea that cropped up was to treat concertgoers to a down-home meal, “overserving them and letting them know that we couldn’t do anything without them,” Hamlin recalled.
“When it came to fruition, we were able to go out and have what we have now,” he said.
Traditionally, most acts in country and all other forms of music engage in ritualistic “meet-and-greets” before or after concerts.
“Back in the day, you’d go to a concert and you’d pay $150 to go backstage, shake somebody’s hand and get a picture with them,” Hamlin said. “It’s kind of awkward.”
But for fans of the Zac Brown Band, the practice has evolved into social gatherings called “eat-and-greets.” Fan club members sign up for the feed and then it’s on a first-come, first-served basis.
“We sit them down and Zac and the band and I have dinner with them. It’s such a relaxed, cool atmosphere,” Hamlin said. “Nobody’s nervous, everybody’s talking. It’s just amazing.”
Some ZBB fans from the Quad-City region, likely 150-175 of them, will get their chance to eat and greet before the band’s Friday night concert at the i wireless Center in Moline.
For the first several years, the food was served from a gutted-out trailer dubbed Miss Treated. A year-and-a-half ago, though, Hamlin and his crew graduated to a 54-foot-long semi nicknamed Cookie.
Everyone gets 4 ounces of beef filet and 3 ounces of pork tenderloin, Hamlin said. As for the rest of the menu? Even he doesn’t know what it might be until the day of the show.
Hamlin either scouts out area farms or goes to farmers markets in or near the concert city that morning. Lately, he said he’s been leaning more toward farmers markets.
“I can actually support more farmers in one pickup than I can in going to one local farm,” he said.
He searches for “whatever’s local,” giving him new challenges with each concert.
“That’s my forte, being able to go out, look at the 10 different vegetables they have and intertwine that into a menu that changes every day,” said Hamlin, who adds that he very rarely makes the same recipe twice. “I love creating new things. It makes things fresh for me and my boys, the band. It changes things up for them also.”
Hamlin has become good friends with celebrity chef Guy Fieri and has appeared on several episodes of Fieri’s Food Network cable TV series. Hamlin said he’s in discussions for a show of his own.
“Anything that can promote what we’re doing to make people aware of how much we care about our fans and the local farmers and explaining who we are, that’s what we’re trying to do,” he added.
Other expansion ideas include serving some of the goodies in concert concession stands and expanding Brown’s newly opened restaurant in Atlanta into a chain.
Hamlin, a 38-year-old native of Baton Rouge, La., said it’s amazing that both he and Brown’s wishes have become reality.
“Did I ever know I would ever be on this level? I don’t think so. But my dreams are certainly coming true in that aspect,” he said.
Being on the road with a band means working according to its schedule. During an interview Monday, Hamlin said he was going to be at home for only 24 hours.
But the schedule for a chef, whether it’s on the road with a country-rock band or working in a restaurant, is always changing, he said.
“Being a chef, period, is almost a rock-star schedule. You end up working all holidays, 16 hours a day at your restaurant,” he said. “Being able to create art that not only you can look at but ingest and becomes part of your life.”