Sharing a Love for Food, Music

Chef Rusty Hamlin holds a plate of his Chocolate and Peanut Butter Biscuit Pudding outside of the Zac Brown Band's kitchen trailer affectionately known as Cookie. The band will open the kitchen to select fans during an Eat 'n' Greet gathering during the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.

By KEN HOFFMAN | Houston Chronicle


Chef Rusty Hamlin holds a plate of his Chocolate and Peanut Butter Biscuit Pudding outside of the Zac Brown Band's kitchen trailer affectionately known as Cookie. The band will open the kitchen to select fans during an Eat 'n' Greet gathering during the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.


Popular music has always had a special connection with food — with tasty hits like Blueberry Hill, Jambalaya, Brown Sugar, Honey, Green Onions, Cheeseburger in Paradise and “Cinnamon’s” favorite song on Stage 3 at the Men’s Club, Pour Some Sugar on Me.

Music stars like to own restaurants, too – Justin Timberlake, Sammy Hagar, Jimmy Buffett and half the joints in Branson have the owner singing for his supper.

Paul McCartney’s first wife has her own line of vegetarian frozen dinners.

But no music act has ever taken food to the extreme as the Zac Brown Band, winner of the 2010 Grammy for Best New Artist, platinum-selling country artists, the headline act Thursday night at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo … and dedicated gourmands.

The Zac Brown Band has a fully functional mobile kitchen and restaurant at this year’s rodeo, parked near Reliant Stadium as you enter through the McNee gate.

The restaurant on wheels, called Cookie, was the brainstorm of bandleader Brown and chef Rusty Hamlin. The two met 10 years ago at Hamlin’s restaurant in Smyrna, Ga.

Brown was a struggling musician with a passion for food. He would cook in his family restaurant by day, and his band would perform at the restaurant at night. Hamlin was a young restaurant owner fresh out of the Culinary Arts Institute of Louisiana. He could name every song Brown played in two notes.

They decided: We can do business.

Hamlin describes his cooking as “gourmet Southern infusion, using local products and intertwining them with recipes from around the world.” Brown’s music is country with reggae and Bob Dylan thrown in for good measure. The band led all acts with nine Academy of Country Music Award nominations earlier this year.

“We share a love for food and music,” said Hamlin, who drives Cookie the Kitchen to 200 Zac Brown Band concerts a year. “We are trendsetters in making food an integral part of the concert experience. That’s how we came up with the idea for our Eat ‘n’ Greets.”

Instead of simply going backstage after a concert to shake hands with the group and pose for a fast photo, about 150 Zac Brown Band fans get to have dinner with the guys.

“We give away Eat ‘n’ Greet passes through radio station contests or the local fan club. This way, the fans can really get to know the band members over a casual dinner. We’re limited to about 150 people now, but our plan is to have four or five more mobile kitchens and eventually be able to have dinner for the entire audience,” Hamlin said.

“The goal is to take over the whole concessions, so we take care of their food needs before, during and after the show. My food and Zac’s music – they go hand in hand in concert.”

Cookie is 54 feet long and 14½ feet wide. Brown and Hamlin spent three months designing it, and they got 95 percent of what they asked. It has two floors; the balcony is for storage. The roof of the kitchen is fully powered to allow the band on top to do impromptu performances. After each concert, Hamlin attaches Cookie to a tractor-trailer and drives to the next concert.

After Thursday night’s show, Hamlin will drive Cookie to concerts in Orange Beach, Ala., on Friday and Tampa, Fla., on Saturday. Each morning, Hamlin visits a local farmer’s market and buys vegetables and meat. The growers get two tickets to the concert and passes to the Eat ‘n’ Greet.

Then he cooks breakfast, lunch and dinner for the Zac Brown Band and crew, about 75 people in all, plus the post-concert Eat ‘n’ Greets. The kitchen goes nonstop.

There won’t be an Eat ‘n’ Greet after the rodeo concert because of space limitations in Reliant Park, but visitors can chow down at Cookie or a smaller booth close to Restaurant Row throughout the day.

RodeoHouston is the first time Hamlin has set up shop in one location for two weeks. The menu consists of Zac’s Grilled Pork Tenderloin with Love Sauce topped with Asian cucumber salad, Georgia Clay Rub Beef Tenderloin Slider topped with Pocketknife Cole Slaw, and Rusty’s Creole Jambalaya with shrimp, chicken and sausage. Each item: $8.

His jambalaya won “Best New Flavor” at the Rodeo’s Gold Buckle Foodie competition this year.

But the dish that has everybody looking for a place to sit down, unbuckle their belt and catch their breath is Chocolate and Peanut Butter Biscuit Pudding, which is my new all-time favorite food at the rodeo (this week, anyway).

“It’s my spin on chocolate bread pudding, but I add homemade peanut butter, and I prefer the consistency of biscuits over regular bread. It’s incredible stuff,” Hamlin said.

Check out the recipe, which fills a 6-inch by 10-inch by 2-inch baking pan, about 16 servings (really one serving). Caution: it’s not low calorie, low fat or low anything. But the flavor will make you forget all that.

Peanut Butter Biscuit Pudding


16 baked biscuits

1 pint heavy cream

½ tbsp vanilla

1 cup peanut butter

3½ cups white sugar

1 pint half-and-half

4 eggs

2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips

1 cup white sugar for garnish

Caramel to taste

Break apart biscuits into the greased baking pan. Pour melted chocolate and peanut butter in pan. Sprinkle with white sugar garnish to create a nice crust on top. Bake at 375 degrees until cooked and risen. Add caramel generously before serving.