I've Got a Crush on Chef Rusty: Southern Ground Food and Music Festival

Claire O'Bryan

I’ve officially got a crush on Chef Rusty.


This Saturday I ventured out to Daniel Island’s Blackbaud Stadium to cover some of the food happenin’s at the Southern Ground Music and Food Festival. The Zac Brown Band, along with sponsors Jack Daniels and Landshark, put on the second annual festival this year.


I’m glad I arrived early for my interview with head chef Rusty Hamlin because shortly after the gates opened, the stadium was completely filled with music and food lovers alike. I was extremely fortunate to score an actual interview with Chef Rusty, in between his one million other jobs that day. After spending just a few minutes with him learning about his passion for local foods and getting good food to hard-working fans, I have a new crush. He’s an extremely down-to-earth guy, taking on big challenges this year like the festival, and the Autism Speaks Gala. Oh yeah, he just helped raise 1.6 million last weekend for Autism Speaks. No big deal.     


And bless his heart… he was as nice as he could’ve been to this little ol' food blogger, who technically has never interviewed anyone other than my dog and my husband (in my kitchen for my fake cooking show). 


You and Zac have been working together for about 10 years now, is that right?

That’s right. A little over a decade ago I opened a restaurant called Atkins Park Tavern (in Smyrna, Georgia), and one of my first hires was Wyatt Durrett—he’s a songwriting partner with Zac. He wanted me to meet Zac, his friend playing up the road at the Dixie Tavern. From that point on, my love for music, his love for food, and vice versa put us in a really cool situation. I started feeding him and he started playing at my restaurant. All of a sudden we’re hanging out, spending weekends together playing in the woods, and cooking food. 


How did the festival get started? The festival is Zac’s brain child. It was so important to get closer to the fans and to serve our fans. I would love to think that I had something to do with the food side of it. Food and music in one festival is a match made in heaven, especially in the South. Being able to do that, bring food and music together and super-serve our fans, we’re sticking to who we are. Still serving family style. And with the front porch boxes, Zac may high-five you while you’re eating a four-course dinner on stage. 


How did you decide on Charleston?  Charleston is one of all of our favorite places to come. We’ve been looking for a home away from home. Charleston kind of envelops who are as artists, whether it’s culinary arts or music—being able to come in and do that is great. 


You’re really big into local farms and using local ingredients. How does that work on the road? That’s huge for me. We tour almost year-round, which gives me the availability to hit farms around the country, year-round. The challenge is being in a different city each day. I had no idea what the hell I was getting myself into, but I feed off that. We get to each city about seven o'clock in the morning, I jump in a vehicle and go out there and meet the farmers. We advance to find the farms and to find what works. Being able to work with the farmers, promote their farms at the Eat and Greet, have them come to a show—we’re taking care of them, I couldn’t do MY job with out them, taking care of the fans; it’s just a win-win situation. I’m really passionate about it.


What’s your favorite thing at the festival? Well, I know there’s some great BBQ here, and over at Cookie (his 54-foot trailer), we’re doing jambalaya, an amazing cornbread roll that’s pan-sautéed with some smoked beef tenderloin, bread and butter pickles, stout mustard and gruyére cheese—it’s ridiculous. It drips down your arm, and it’s okay to lick it. We’re also doing Zac’s recipe pork tenderloin, and the chocolate peanut butter biscuit pudding for dessert over there. 


Check him out at www.chefrusty.com.



Other vendors from all over Charleston represented our city of great amazing food all day, including Home Team BBQ, Taco Boy, Ali Baba, Roti Rolls, Verde and Sticky Fingers, along with Chefs Kevin Johnson (The Grocery) and Michelle Weaver (Charleston Grill) accompanying Chef Rusty in the 4 course dinner for the patrons of the Front Porch Stage Boxes. So what did I have at the festival?  I had the Funky Farmer, courtesy of Roti Rolls.  Above, in the gallery, are a few shots of the weekend, including backstage at the plating of the four-course meal by the chefs themselves.