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EW: ZBB Eat and Greet Best in the Business?

Whats the best meet-and-greet youve ever been to before a concert?

If you think posing for a picture with the artist in front of a banner advertising their tour sponsor qualifies, you havent attended one of the Zac Brown Bands eat-and-greets. I recently caught one at the New Meadowlands in New Jersey, and heres what it entailed: The band formed a receiving line to shake the hands of all 150 guests.

Then, while Zac chatted up folks standing in line for the buffet created by Southern Ground Executive Chef Rusty Hamlin, the other members actually served you before making their own plates and joining you at the tables. So three hours later, when youre watching fiddle player Jimmy De Martini wow 55,000 people during their cover of The Devil Went Down to Georgia, you keep thinking He handed me my plate. And when Clay Cook belts out America the Beautiful before Zac launches into Chicken Fried, youre thinking Hes the guy I told, I dont like tomatoes, but I really want to try the moonshine vinaigrette on the heirloom tomato salad with smoked corn, edamame, and pickled cucumbers, and he reasoned that I should just take some from him and eat around the tomatoes because theyre red and easy to spot.

Thats the other thing about the eat-and-greet: Sure, this summers have been sponsored by Kingsford Charcoal, but youre not being served hot dogs and hamburgers.

Chef Rustys menu at the Meadowlands tailgate: White Marble Farms pork tenderloin with Zacs Southern Ground Grub Love Sauce; Creekstone Farms beef tenderloin with Zacs Southern Ground Grub Georgia Clay Rub; grilled cauliflower, broccoli and okra with a saffron Chardonnay butter; wild mushroom and snap pea spoon polenta with smoked gouda; braised brussels sprouts with country ham and red-eye gravy; pocketknife coleslaw (as featured in Zac and Rustys Southern Ground cookbook); that heirloom tomato salad with smoked corn, edamame, pickled cucumbers, and moonshine vinaigrette (which Chef Rusty made by sneaking onto Zacs bus and borrowing a couple cups of Junior Johnsons legal Midnight Moon moonshine); fresh bread with agave fig butter; and chocolate peanut butter biscuit pudding. The hour is worth the $50 fan club members pay for it, even if youre not allowed to take photographs or get autographs because the band would rather be eating and visiting with you than posing and signing.

We phoned Hamlin and asked him to explain how the eat-and-greets started. He met Zac Brown in 2001, when he hired songwriter Wyatt Durrette (whod go on to cowrite most of ZBBs hits) as the head bartender at his restaurant Atkins Park outside Atlanta.

Durrette invited him to hear his buddy Zac play (back then in front of 100 people), and Rusty and Zac discovered a shared love of cooking. Next thing you know, were hanging out, he says. Were startin to go to each others houses. Id spend the weekend over at his house cookin, wed do breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and be creative. Hed buy some crazy stuff off the Internet and surprise me with it, like some kind of Himalayan pink sea salt that came from whatever, and I would come back with some raspberry jelly that the bees actually fed on the raspberry bushes and flavored the jelly. Wed go back and forth with each other. Around 2003, they started talking about Zacs dream of combining music and food, and hoping one day theyd have the means to do the eat-and-greets on a large-scale to bring fans closer to the band. Zac said he wants their fans to come to the concert and think theyve got robbed every other time they went to one, Hamlin says.

They started off with a 14-foot trailer they called Miss Treated. Bless her heart, she was old when we got her, Hamlin says, and we put a stove and an oven and a couple home refrigerators in it, and started out like that. Just going out around the country and surprising people with the eat-and-greets. Nobody really had any idea what was gonna hit them when they got there. At the beginning, it wasnt about the food with them. It was more about, Hey, we get to hang with the band and well eat a little somethin somethin.'

But now, he laughs, Its oh my god, I cant wait to go get dinner, and it just so happens Im gonna be sittin across from Zac Brown having dinner with him. Theyve been doing the eat-and-greets on the current scale for two years. Now, Rusty has his own customized two-story 53-foot trailer he calls his life partner. For him, its a chance to support and promote the local farmers he buys ingredients from, which is important to him, and to bring Southern cooking to fans who may not have experienced it before.

We went to Boston, and I brought in stone ground grits from North Carolina, collard greens, fried green tomatoes with pimento cheese, all this stuff. You could see it on their faces when we announced the menu, they were just dumbfounded, he laughs. I just said, I see your faces. I know what youre thinkin. Do me a huge favor: just grab a spoonful of everything and try it. Please, try it, and if you dont like it, Ill go cook you somethin else. Ill do anything for ya, I just want you to try this. I cant believe the reaction I had. People were like, Oh my gosh, Ive heard about this stuff. Ive never been able to get it. We dont cook like this up here. One guy walked up and was like, Man, that grit was amazing. He didnt know that one spoonful has like 10,000 pieces of grits on it. So he said he only had one grit.

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