By Robert St. John
Author’s Note: Have a broom and dustpan nearby while reading this column. Names are about to drop all over the place.
KANSAS CITY – I am in the heart of the Midwest eating a meal with the Zac Brown Band and 200 of their closest fans. I met Brown during a meal I served this summer and struck up an instant friendship as soon as he asked for seconds on White Chocolate Bread Pudding. He invited my family to a show, and I offered to provide dessert at his famous pre-show eat-and-greet.
The well-oiled Zac Brown machine is one of the more impressive organizations I have ever been around. Everyone, from his band mates and personal manager, to the security and roadies are some of the most gracious, hospitable and professional people I have ever met.
The 33-year-old, Grammy Award-winning Brown has the work ethic of a young Springsteen, the fan devotion of The Grateful Dead, the musical taste and knowledge of someone who has been in the industry for 60 years, and the Southern charm and graciousness of … well … of one of us.
Actually, he IS one of us, except tonight he’ll be performing in front of 75,000 people.
I love his music and I admire his manners, but what speaks volumes about this guy is that he feeds 200-300 of his fans – on his dime – before every show. That is true Southern hospitality. Brown and his fellow band mates meet, mingle and eat with everyone there. No other touring musician does that.
Food and music are my two favorite interests. In the South, we are all about sharing a meal. Brown and company all hail from the Atlanta area so they take the meal on the road with the music.
Chef Rusty Hamlin has worked with Brown for over two years. Hamlin, his two sous chefs, and six assistants travel the country in a mobile kitchen that is one of the more impressive foodservice facilities I have ever seen – wheels or not.
In the early days they were feeding small crowds out of a mobile food truck. As the fan base grew and the venues got larger, Brown gave the chef carte blanche to design a rig that would handle the rigors of the road and meet the challenge of feeding 200-300 fans night after night, 175 shows a year, from Bonnaroo to Arrowhead Stadium.
Anyone who has consistently fed large groups knows how challenging it can be. When doing it in a different city every night, shopping, prepping, cooking, setting up the tents, tables and chairs, and then breaking it all down a few hours later takes a lot of work and a bunch of people. It also takes a passionate chef.
Hamlin, a native of Baton Rouge, attended culinary school at the Art Institute of Louisiana and spent a decade cooking his way to Atlanta where he worked in several restaurants until Brown asked him to join him on the road.
In addition to the eat-and-greet, Hamlin sometimes prepares a four-course meal for 225 fans or handles concessions at festivals serving up to 1,500 portions of jambalya and beef tenderloin sliders – nachos and hot dogs need not apply. Today he is serving Crescent City Grill’s White Chocolate Bread Pudding.
I first ate White Chocolate Bread Pudding at the Palace Cafe in New Orleans in 1991. I fell in love with the idea and immediately drove home and developed my version. We’ve been serving it in the restaurants ever since. It’s our best-selling dessert, but it’s also a dish easily served in a banquet setting.
Almost everyone goes back for seconds on White Chocolate Bread Pudding. I once served 1,200 portions at an event for Emeril Lagasse when there were only 900 people in attendance.
In the end, people hope to be remembered for something substantial in their lives. Maybe they accomplished an amazing feat, made a major advancement in the field of science or showed overwhelming compassion and charity to help those in need.
Years from now Zac Brown will be remembered for four-hour concert performances, the music he has created and the music and memories he has yet to create. But he’ll also be remembered for the Southern hospitality he offered to the people who loved his music, and for letting Chef Rusty complete the food-music circle.
At the end of the day, I would like my tombstone to read, “He was a great dad, a loving husband, and a good friend who helped feed the needy.” Though at this rate, it will likely read, “Pass the White Chocolate Bread Pudding, please.”
Robert St.John is a restaurateur, chef and author of numerous books.