For some chefs, being the culinary mastermind behind a restaurant for 14 years would be enough. But for Atlanta’s Rusty Hamlin, that was just the beginning.
A partner at Atkins Park Restaurant & Bar, located in the Atlanta suburb of Smyrna, Hamlin also serves as the executive chef for the Grammy Award-winning Zac Brown Band. Among his duties is hosting gourmet “eat and greet” events before every tour date for up to 200 hungry fans.
As if this feat weren’t daunting enough, the Louisiana-born chef is gearing up to face his greatest challenge yet: competing in the 13th season of the hit show Food Network Star, premiering on June 4.
We caught up with Hamlin to dish on what makes him tick, the Atlanta food scene and where his larger-than-life personality is headed next.
What inspired you to pursue the title of the next “Food Network Star”?
Everybody that knows me knows that I love to cook. I’ve been doing this my whole life.
I started in 10th grade, working at a seafood shop cutting fish and cleaning shrimp, crawfish and crabs in Louisiana. I’ve been doing this now for 25 years, it’s the only thing I’ve ever done. I just love it.
And my personality, I kind of turn into a little bit of a clown — a lot. I love making people smile and laugh, whether it’s from just eating my food all the way up to me being a clown.
Everyone keeps telling me and has told me that in the past, “Why bottle that up?” I was actually telling my fiancée this the other day that, when I’m all done here on this earth, I want to be able to lie down and know that I made as many people as happy as I can. That’s just my end goal.
So, whatever I have to do to do that, I wanted to do. And going into the show, I felt like this is where I needed to be. This is what I need to do to show off my personality, my cooking skills and do a dream of mine. My dream has always been to jump on the Food Network.
What aspect of the competition do you find most intimidating?
It would definitely have to be time restraints and getting that done. When I’m on tour with the Zac Brown Band, I have a very short amount of time to make a bunch of food. But it’s a little different when it’s so small, just 30 to 45 minutes to get things out, so I think that’s the most difficult part about competing because I’ve never done anything like this. I’ve never done any competitions on television.
What is going to set you apart from the other competitors? Do you have any tricks up your sleeve?
I think it’s just me being who I am, with my Southern personality and cooking style and me being just really outgoing. I don’t know their cooking skills quite yet, but this is all I’ve ever done, so I definitely know what I’m doing.
I think to put it over the edge would be just who I am and my personality, along with the cooking and what I can offer. It’s hard to compare myself to anybody else. I wasn’t quite raised on that.
But just my skills, I think what I’ve learned in the last 25 years of cooking that I feel like I could bring [some excitement] to the audience.
If you do become the Next Food Network Star, what message would you want to send to your audience?
Well, several things. One would be to enjoy food, to enjoy cooking and don’t be scared of food. Don’t be scared to try things.
One of my personal traits is cooking off the cuff. That means whether going to a farm, a dock or even the refrigerator or the dry storage cabinet, whatever we have. We can make something.
So, No. 1, is don’t be scared of food. No. 2 [is] have fun with it. I think the last one, I’m really big on bringing the family table back together. I mean like really making food a large part of our bringing up and our families.
Things get crazy. We’re all really, really busy, but just taking a couple of days out of the week to sit down and have a meal together is very important to me.
What do you love to do outside the kitchen?
They don’t let me outside. What do you mean?
No, I would have to say that I love playing golf. It’s kind of a relaxing sport that I enjoy — that I’m not good at — that I’ve been playing most of my life.
I [also] have a boat. My dad passed a couple years ago, and I grabbed his boat, so I love going out on that, going fishing. I love being out on the water. Being raised in south Louisiana, we’re all about swamps and salt-water fishing, and I love it. So I’ll bring it out to some of the lakes here or on the coast of Georgia.
Other than that, I immerse myself in the work. I’ll have a day off and sit here just cooking at the house. I’ll turn on some [singer-songwriter] Amos Lee or some really, really good music in the kitchen and I’ll cook so slow, it could take two hours to make a meal, but I just enjoy it.
I promised myself that if I ever woke up one morning and said, “I have to go to work,” then I wouldn’t do it anymore. This has never been a job to me; it’s always been a lifestyle and a career.
How would you describe that Atlanta food scene right now?
The Atlanta food scene is such an amazing array of great new chefs and old chefs. There are a lot of chefs here that have had restaurants for years and have mentored not only myself but the other chefs that are here.
The restaurant scene has really been on the up and up over the last five to eight years with different types of styles of food coming together.
My love is still going to the Dekalb Farmers Market and enjoying that old-school area that’s been around here for years and years and years. And then some of the cool areas that are popping up, Inman Park and on the east side of Atlanta. There are great restaurants popping up there.
And you know, I came up to Smyrna 14 years ago and have been blessed to be up here. They call it “OTP,” so outside the perimeter. Every aspect, even Brookhaven, is doing really well, so I would just say that you can pretty much find anything and everything here, especially with the new trends and stuff like that.
Atlanta is definitely coming on the scene with great food.
Which culinary scene are you dying to explore?
I’m so thrilled with different foods, and I go through these weird trends throughout my culinary career. I went to Italy. I was able to spend two weeks and take some cooking classes and I loved it.
I’m really into Asian flavors right now. I love Korean food. Unfortunately, there’s turmoil, a lot of stuff going on there. If all that wasn’t happening, I would love to go to South Korea to Seoul.
Either that or Vietnam. I love Vietnamese food. I don’t cook Vietnamese very well, honestly, but I do a lot of research, so some of the countries that I’ve always wanted to go to, I’ll research their different types of food, traditional restaurants and put my southern Louisiana twist on them. It’s a real cool mixture.
I do a sauce and I call it “Casian.” It’s got a little Cajun in it and a little Asian; it goes great with any dish. It’s kind of like putting Southern ingredients into some of the spices from Korea. It’s really, really cool and fun, like going into almost a soul food aspect with Korea.
Where would you and your fiancée go for your dream honeymoon?
We’re dreaming as we speak. We’re talking right now about Belize — Zac just got back from Belize and told me that it was just amazing.
We talked about South Africa. I’ve got some friends with family down there who built a house on a game reserve.
We don’t know yet. When I went to Italy, I went up north, so I would love to go back down south toward Sicily.