The Zac Brown Band rose to fame with their 2008 hit “Chicken Fried,” an ode to the comforts of hot chicken, cold beer and a pair of comfy blue jeans (video below).
Country music has long been associated with food, its lyrics crooning about pecan pie, whiskey and a mother’s love. Country artists have cooking shows, cookbooks and even restaurants (for a larger treatise on this subject, check out my story for Associated Press.) But the Grammy-award winning Zac Brown Band (one of the groups playing at the Veteran’s Day Concert for Valor in Wasington, D.C.) puts its money where its mouths are: the fans.
The band travels with a 54-foot food truck called “Cookie,” a custom-designed mobile kitchen where chef Rusty Hamlin pushes out heaping plates of barbecue, collards and something called “pocketknife slaw” for as many as 200 hungry fans each night. These “eat-and-greets” have become the band’s signature, a way for them to know their fans more intimately. The lucky attendees are selected by lottery from among fan club members and pay a fee for the event. The show visits as many as 120 cities per year.
Baton Rouge, La.-born Hamlin trained at the Culinary Arts Institute of Louisiana and has worked at restaurants including Atlanta’s Atkins Park Tavern, which claims to be the city’s oldest continuously licensed tavern. “Chef Rusty,” as he’s known, talked with American Food Roots editor Michele Kayal about Southern hospitality, serving grits in Boston and the best American cities for food and music.
American Food Roots: How did you start cooking for the fans?
Rusty Hamlin: Zac and I have been real close friends for years. One day — it was the early 2000s — he was talking about how he wanted to interact and treat the fans more, kind of a thank you. One of the things that came up was food. And it happens to be I’m a chef. We’re Southern guys. I’m from south Louisiana originally. He’s from north Georgia. Nothing makes us happier than getting to know people around a plate of food.
AFR: From what I understand, you use mostly local ingredients, right? And you do this in something like 120 cities a year. So you really get to experience the country’s different seasons.
RH: I’m one of the only chefs able to experience this. … Growing seasons are so different in the states. One day watermelon might be fresh where we are. We get everything we do for the eat-and-greet from the local farmers markets. … I get to meet the farmers, who are an amazing group of people. I slide them tickets and say, ‘Get you a babysitter. You’re coming to eat-and-greet.’ We highlight them and stand them up and give them a round of applause and tell the fans they should support these guys.
AFR: Do the farmers donate their produce?
RH: I would never let them donate it. They do want to. But I feel like we need to be a part of their business. I do not let them donate. We pay for everything.
AFR: You visit a pretty diverse set of cities. How do the fans outside the South react to the food?
RH: This country is so amazing. I’ve been doing this almost five years. Being able to go and bring not only our Southern hospitality but also the Southern influence of my culinary arts — a mixture between Cajun and Southern and farm and wild game — bringing all that around the county is so amazing. I’ve heard it 100 times: they come in thinking they’re going to have barbecued ribs and baked beans and corn on the cob and what they’re having is a Southern fine dining meal underneath the cover in the backstage area. They’re blown away by it. It’s a restaurant on wheels going around the country. And when they get there they love it.
AFR: Which city seemed the most surprised?
RH: We were in Boston, Mass., three or four years ago. I decided I wasn’t going to chef everything up. I was going to bring my family’s true Southern recipes. We did collard greens, stone-ground grits from north Georgia. You shoulda saw their faces. They were like ‘What are you about to serve me? I’ve never seen this before.’ I told them just take a spoonful of everything. And they loved it.
AFR: Food and country music seem to have a natural connection. Why is that? Why not rock ‘n’ roll and food, or Yo-Yo Ma?
RH: Country music is usually a story. It tells a story through words and also through the feel of the song. … Being comfortable with a song and feeling like you’re part of the song and you can sit back. … I love rock. I love rock bands and different types of music. It’s not necessarily the whole rock-star image. But it may be the family atmosphere and family orientation of not only the music but the tour itself. We’ve got 100 people with us on tour and we’re one big family.
AFR: You travel all around the country. What are the greatest cities for food and country music? Where do the two of them really go hand in glove?
RH: Charlotte, N.C. Asheville has an amazing scene for country music. Charleston. Memphis. Birmingham has a great food scene that’s kicking off right now. New Orleans is always my hometown favorite.
AFR: Where do you guys get the biggest reception?
RH: What’s funny is that our huge areas that we go into around the country, they’re at the Northeast. … We’ve sold out two nights at Fenway — at Fenway! Two nights of country music! It’s amazing. There’s a lot of surprises out there. Fenway all the way to Brooklyn. We’ve sold out in Brooklyn. C’mon are you kidding me?
AFR: What are some of your signature dishes? What will fans at eat-and-greet get to sample?
RH: Zac has three signatures at every eat-and-greet: pork tenderloin with love sauce, beef filet with Georgia clay rub and pocketknife slaw. We also do things in rotation, like jive turkey collard greens. And I do a lot of things off the cuff. I make a lot of dishes up while I’m at the farm. Watermelon salads, beets, wild rainbow carrot salads.
AFR: So what’s in pocketknife slaw?
RH: Tomatoes, peppers, green onions, cabbage, mustard, Duke’s mayonnaise, plus cayenne pepper and horseradish. It gives it a nice little kick in there.
AFR: And what about the beef fillet with Georgia clay rub and the love sauce?
RH: We were cooking steaks out, and Zac was like ‘I’ve got this rub.’ I’ve known the rub as long as I’ve known Zac. It’s got 40 different seasonings, mixed with brown sugar. It does look like Georgia clay. He slaps as much as he can get on there, and fires it at 700 degrees and it caramelizes on the outside. Love sauce is a teriyaki-bourbon mixture with coconut milk. Love sauce and clay rub are bottled, so can’t give out the recipe.
AFR: What are some stand-out farmers markets across the country?
RH: Charlotte, N.C. They’re always so excited to see me. In St. Louis, the Soulard Market is so cool. If you’re ever there you gotta go. New York, the outdoor markets are amazing. The L.A. farmers market is really cool because you can go in there and get your vegetables and then you can get Ethiopian flat bread.
Chef Rusty Hamlin sometimes feeds as many as 200 hungry fans of the Zac Brown Band. These fritters are a good way to get your party started too. Hamlin kindly shared the recipe with us. For more of his recipes, visit his site.
- 6 ounces mayonnaise
- 2 tablespoons hot sauce sauce
- 1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon lemon zest
- 1 teaspoon minced garlic
- Salt to taste
- 1/2 cup long-grain rice
- 4 ounces pork sausage, casings removed
- 1 small onion, diced
- 2 stalks celery, diced
- 1/2 green bell pepper, seeded and diced
- 2 ears of corn, kernels stripped
- 1 teaspoon minced garlic
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 8 ounces (71/90-sized) shrimp, peeled and deveined
- 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1 large egg, lightly beaten
- Oil for frying
- 10 bamboo skewers
In a small bowl, combine the mayonnaise, hot sauce, lemon juice, lemon zest, garlic and salt to taste. Cover and refrigerate.
Put the rice in a heavy-bottomed pot, add 1/2 cup of water and cook according to package instructions until tender, about 20 minutes. Set aside to cool.
Brown the sausage in a large skillet over medium-high heat, breaking up any big chunks. Add the onion, celery, peppers, corn, garlic and butter to the pan. Saute until the onions are translucent, 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer the mixture to a large mixing bowl.
Add the shrimp to the pan and saute until just cooked through, 2 to 3 minutes. Roughly chop the cooked shrimp and add to the mixing bowl with the sausage and vegetables. Add the rice to the bowl. Add salt and pepper to taste and stir to combine.
In a small mixing bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, salt and pepper. Add the egg and stir into a thick batter. Add batter to the other ingredients and stir until well coated. If the mixture seems thin or doesn't hang together, add flour 1 teaspoon at a time until it does.
In a deep fryer or deep, heavy-bottomed pot, heat the oil to 350 degrees. Drop heaping tablespoons of the batter into the oil and fry until golden and cooked through, 3 to 5 minutes. Place the fritters on a paper-lined plate to drain.
Thread the cooked fritters onto the skewers. Serve hot with the aioli.