It’s 9:30 in morning and Rusty Hamlin is walking away from two rows of tour buses, into the middle of Meadowlands Parking Lot A with a cell phone stuck to his ear. "No problem," he says into the phone, "Whatever you can do. Thanks." His hangs up and smiles. "You see how polite I’m being, right?" he asks a reporter. Hamlin's calm is impressive: The perhaps-soon-to-be celebrity chef was supposed to be in a van with a driver heading to a farmers’ market half an hour ago. The late start is going to add pressure to an already difficult day.
But such is life when you go into business with your old friend, country music star Zac Brown, on a new kind of music tour. The Meadowlands stop—for a show in the vast New Jersey football stadium—is part of what the two friends call an "Eat & Greet," a more personal, intimate way for Brown to mingle with fans. At events in cities such as Atlanta, Chicago, and San Jose, about 150 passes go to members of Zac Brown’s Fan club, who pay roughly $50 for a pre-show dinner with Brown and his band. The dinner is a collaboration between the singer and the chef. It’s a stage where old South meets the new, and a couple of buddies from way back see how their hospitality stylings can survive in the face of corporate sponsorship, big business, and fan expectation.
Hamlin shoots a glance at Cookie, his mobile kitchen, parked at the lot's edge. The chef, a linebacker buff with a beard and short, spiky hair, and Cookie have become de facto mascots for the Zac Brown Band. That's no small matter: Brown is one of the fastest-rising stars in country music—he co-headlined stadium shows this summer with Kenny Chesney, his latest release "You Get What You Give" went platinum, and "Knee Deep," his duet with Jimmy Buffett, topped the Billboard Country Singles chart. This chef-singer dynamic is an unusual relationship, even by the standards of the rapidly mutating music industry.
But it makes sense when you consider that Hamlin and Brown met about a decade ago and the share a deep passion for food and music. (Sure, who doesn't? But these guys take it to another level.) And they both like to cook, too. In 2004 Brown opened Zac’s Place, a restaurant-bar where he was just as likely to be found working the line as he was to be onstage with a guitar. Hamlin, meanwhile, worked his way into a partnership at the venerable Atkins Park Tavern, developing a contemporary take on Southern cuisine. They’d hang out on weekends, one-upping each other in the kitchen.
It certainly helps that they're both marinated in the food business' hectic pace. Because "Eat & Greet" prep starts around 9 a.m. on the morning of a show. While his crew configures Cookie and begins baking, Hamlin searches local farms and markets, gathering up fresh ingredients. On this particular morning, the produce market he finds turns out to be a chaotic and desultory Middle Eastern grocery across the street from a strip club in an industrial section of Patterson, NJ. Still, he dives in, searching bins for acceptable corn, cabbages, and red bell peppers before setting off to the local Whole Foods.
What happens next is part mad dash, part systematic assault, with a sprinkle of improvisation, and only a dash of routine. Cases of heirloom tomatoes and brussels sprouts go into the wagon. Country ham for a red-eye gravy is not easily found, so substitutions are in order. Fresh fava beans are nowhere to be found, complicating his plans for succotash. In the bulk foods aisle he moves toward the grits, but swerves left and loads up on polenta. Saffron, wild mushrooms, and a bottle of Chardonnay go into the cart along with a bag of chips for the ride back to the stadium.
By the time he's back in the Meadowlands lot, it's past noon, and there are less than four hours to prepare dinner for fans, the band, and a larger than usual coterie of VIPs. His staff unloads the van, as Hamlin barks orders. Assistants chop cabbage for Brown’s "pocketknife" coleslaw, and the chef improvises a salt and sugar cure for the Whole Foods ham. While the stadium is busy with sound-checking bands and tailgating fans, the kitchen works at a blistering speed. At a Cookie-adjacent grill, tenderloins of pork and beef, slathered in Zac’s Love Sauce (a coconut milk, teriyaki concoction) and his Georgia Clay brow-sugar-based rub, hiss on the BBQ. (Both sauces, incidentally, are sold on Brown's website, alongside more typical fan bait: T-shirts, CDs, and key chains.)
Like a Zac Brown performance, the dinner is a careful mix of standards and improvisations. The pocketknife coleslaw and BBQ meats are established hits, like Brown's songs "Chicken Fried" and "Knee Deep." And just as Brown can crank out a mosh-pit-worthy cover of Rage Against the Machine’s anarchic anthem "Killing in the Name," Hamlin offers an unexpected take on biscuits and gravy. The biscuits get a fig and agave butter, and the red-eye gravy makes its way to a platter of braised Brussels sprouts. The tomatoes are served with edamame and smoked corn, dressed with a moonshine vinaigrette—the Georgia gang planting a flag squarely in the middle of a New Jersey parking lot.
At 3:30 in the afternoon, tables are set with white cloths and silver lanterns under a canopy extending from Cookie’s roof. Brown and the band welcome fans, one by one. The singer grabs a bullhorn and stands in front of the crowd: "We’re here because we do care, and we want to try to reach you in a different way," Zac says. "We want to feed you a good gourmet meal and get to visit with you."
The band lines up with Hamlin’s crew behind the hot dishes, ladles at the ready. Once the fans are seated and eating, Brown and the band load up and take seats among them
Then, barely an hour later, it’s over. The guests join other fans inside the stadium. Hamlin and his crew pack up Cookie for the drive to Detroit. Brown takes the stage under a darkening sky. By the time the band closes with "Chicken Fried," a steady rain is falling on the blissed-out crowd of 50,000 strong.
After the show, Brown and his band drive through a downpour back into the stadium for an encore with Chesney. In the middle of the group is Rusty Hamlin, dreaming of Detroit's local produce.
[Photos by: Matthew Kronsberg]