From the Kitchen to Center Stage
Atlanta-Based Chef Rusty Hamlin is Ready for His Moment in the Spotlight

By Lee Valentine Smith

Rusty Hamlin has been obsessed with food since he was a kid. After deciding early in life that food was his passion, his path has led from the Culinary Arts Institute of Louisiana to massive stadium tours as Executive Chef for the Georgia-bred, Grammy-winning Zac Brown Band. On tour in "Cookie," his custom mobile kitchen, he hosts elaborate Eat 'N' Greet culinary events where fans can dine on his original creations and mingle with the band.

But now Hamlin - who is also Executive Chef and Owner of Atkins Park in Smyrna - is out of the kitchen and in the spotlight as he takes a bite of reality television as a contestant on Food Network Star, premiering this month and running every week through mid-August. The winner gets their own show on the network and the competition is fierce. INsite recently grilled Hamlin for details.

How did you get involved with the series?

I've been honored to have been on TV several times and of course being with Zac for several years now. I have some friends on the Food Network and it's an outlet that highlights not only your cooking abilities but your personality.

Food has been a part of your life for a long time  now.

When I was in the 10th grade in Baton Rouge, I knew I wanted to either fly jets or cook. I loved them both. But the cockpits were a little too small for me so I decided to go cookin'. I dove into it and went to culinary school right outta high school.

When did you decide to move to Atlanta?

I decided to spread my culinary wings, if you will, and came to Atlanta in '96 and just learned a whole bunch from the chefs around here. To really dive into the traditions of southern food was so amazing to me.

You were so steeped in the Louisiana food traditions, how did Georgia-style cuisine compare?

The personality of the foods are very similar - and the history. I think that's one thing that sets me apart from other chefs is that I really love the history of food. Over the years, I've really delved into food cultures, whether it's Italian or Korean or Asian-style foods. I just try to learn as much about the different histories of food as I can and how they all match with soul food and southern food in general.

How did you meet Zac Brown?

A bartender friend took me to see him down at the Dixie Tavern out on Windy Hill Road. He was killin' it on stage, just him and his guitar. That was in 2002 and that's when our friendship started.

You hatched the "Eat and Greet" concept before he even had a recording contract.

Yeah, we were sitting around a campfire one time with a mason jar of goodness and we decided we wanted to bring a better experience to the fans on tour around the country. At that time, he was playing seven days a week around Atlanta. And now it's been about eight years that I've been bringing that experience to the fans.

So you've been a part of the concept and the crew since the very beginning.

Yeah we didn't even know what it would be like. I went down to South Georgia and pulled a 14-foot trailer out of 10-foot weeds, brought it back up to Zac's house and started working on it. Gutted it and added refrigeration and a propane set-up and we started taking it out on the road. There were a lot of long days but I think I learned a lot myself in the process. Then when "Chicken Fried" hit big, Zac said, "Let's build us a real trailer." We turned a 54-foot trailer into a professional kitchen.

You've had quite an adventure with Zac.

The whole thing has been crazy. From Zac saying, "You wanna jump in the Scout and drive to over to Athens for a show?" to selling out Fenway Park three days in a row. And my culinary skills have grown as the band has grown. I've had great comradery with chefs from around the country and that's important to me to be able to share experiences with food. And to share music with Zac and the fans. Now when Food Star premieres, we're gonna be all together, watching and laughing and just having a good time.

The creation of music and food are very similar and both tend to create a bond with the consumer.

Yeah, they do. A songwriter developing a story with music is very similar to me developing flavors on a plate. When someone looks at one of my plates I want them to know, "That's Rusty." It's a very defined way of cooking. It's fun, colorful and flavorful.

You've been around Zac and the creation of music for so long, do you play as well?

On tour with Zac, a lot of times when we check into hotels and stuff, somebody behind the counter will say, "And what instrument do you play?" I play the sauté pans. That's only thing I know how to play.

Season 13 of Food Network Star premieres Sunday, June 4th at 9pm ET/PT on the Food Network. For information about Zac Brown's Eat N Greets, visit zacbrownband.com

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