The effort upstages any autograph signing or free T-shirts or photo ops. For the 150 or so guests who are registered Zac Brown Band fans, a bit of luck and $50 in addition to the price of a concert ticket gets them a seat at one of the most sophisticated culinary setups of any musical tour on the road today.
At Merriweather, the Eat and Greet takes place in a picnic area behind high fences near the stage. Brown and his bandmates form a receiving line, greeting each wristbanded guest as they come in. Gate crashers don’t stand a chance; security is tighter than the run-through of the afternoon’s sound check. It’s hard to miss the main attraction in his signature knit cap, yet Brown comes across as just a regular, hospitable guy. Microphone in hand, he reviews the rules (no autographs or cellphone shots) and points out the three dishes of his own recipe that always are on the table.
Hamlin introduces the rest of the menu to increasing whoops and cheers. Then he lets the food do the talking. Its accent is decidedly Southern: Georgia Clay-Rubbed Beef Tenderloin, boudin dirty rice and a chocolate peanut butter biscuit pudding with a boozy sauce are among more than a half-dozen offerings. But there are also wood-fired carrots with breakfast radishes, fennel and a juniper-citrus broth, and a strawberry watercress salad with champagne vinaigrette — evidence of a chef who knows what to do with local, seasonal produce.
Coordinating the acquisition of ingredients on the road takes good connections. In the past year and a half or so, Hamlin has established a network that helps gather what’s needed. On this day, RJ Cooper of Rogue 24 is on hand and given props for hooking Hamlin up with ingredients from Path Valley Farms in Pennsylvania. On other days, Hamlin will go shopping as soon as he lands at the venue. Meats are sourced from Creekstone Farms Premium Beef in Arkansas City, Kan.
“Rusty knows what he’s doing,” Cooper says. He and Bayou Bakery chef-owner David Guas cooked with Hamlin last year at the band’s Southern Ground Music and Food Festival in Charleston, S.C. “I bet these people weren’t expecting this.”
The Washington chef called it, based on the comments delivered to Brown as he moved from table to table.
“The meat is so tender!”
“We’re going back for seconds on that pudding.”
“Love that the beer is cold and free!”
Good, home-style cooking has been a priority for Brown, with tender memories of a grandma at the stove and a family restaurant in Georgia to his credit. His musical success has enabled him to engage in mobile gastronomy on a super-size scale, with Hamlin at the helm.