Country music’s hottest act on wheels


Rusty Hamlin, executive chef of the Southern Ground Supper Club, hangs out in the custom-built tractor-trailer kitchen named Cookie from which he can feed up to 2,000 people. (Bonnie S. Benwick/TWP)

“All right it’s dinnuhtime, baby. Let’s do it.”

That’s Rusty Hamlin’s way of inviting a crowd to partake of his pre-concert buffet. It’s a steamy, sunny Thursday, about an hour before the Zac Brown Band show will get underway at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia. The red-headed, Louisiana-born, big bear of a chef and his longtime pal, country music star Zac Brown, have collaborated on another in a series of what they call Eat and Greets.

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.

Cookie, Hamlin’s traveling kitchen, proves how serious Brown and Co. are about eating well. She hit the road in March 2011: a 54-foot-long, 141 / 2-foot-wide, custom-built rig that the country star and Hamlin designed right down to the tilting skillet and full-size walk-in. She’s gleaming steel, all straight and narrow except for the pinup curves painted on her side. And the rig looks like a million bucks, although no one’s confirming that number.

“We looked at what was being used around NASCAR events,” the chef says. “The trailer we had been using wasn’t big enough. I needed to be able to feed a lot of people — up to 2,000 — so that’s why there’s a second story up there for supplies, and all this counter space.”

The rig has been featured on the “Today” show and in major media, but an invitation to enter the long, well-air-conditioned galley is not so easy to obtain. Once a visitor’s allowed inside, though, Hamlin seems pleased to show off the four Alto-Shaam cook-and-hold ovens, the commercial baking ovens, the 36-inch range, flat-top grill, mega-spice cupboard and a separate refrigerator for the staff, in addition to several grills and smokers set up just outside. Attach a tent to one side and Cookie can anchor a party. Even the roof is powered, so the band can perform up there.

In the four or five hours before the Eat and Greet, Hamlin and a kitchen crew of eight do the prep and cook the meats. The chef takes pride in changing up the menu daily (except for Brown’s spice-rubbed beef, pork tenderloin with Love sauce and Pocketknife Coleslaw) and for creating vegetable sides that are a cut above doctored baked beans.

“Zac likes to eat good and eat right,” Hamlin says, adding that olive oil is the fat of choice in the kitchen. “Let’s face it. Not all these dishes are good for you. But we like to give the people something they won’t forget.”

Hamlin admits he’s “married to Cookie” these days, but the ride continues to be a thrill.

“This is the perfect time of my life to be doing this,” says the chef, 34. In the meantime, the 2009 cookbook he and Brown put together, called “Southern Ground: Recipes, Images, Lifestyles, and Lore,” is for sale at the merchandise booth, along with Brown’s Southern Ground Brown Sauce and Georgia Clay Rub.

“Life is good,” the chef says, beaming, “when you’re on the road with Cookie and Zac.”

RECIPES:

Asparagus and Mushroom Summerin Succotash

Corn Bread-Encrusted Black Grouper

Bonnie S. Benwick has the job most envied among cocktail-party conversations. If they only knew ... Cook with her each week at Dinner in Minutes: washingtonpost.com/recipes.
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