It was just last week that we here at Star Talk broke the news about the upcoming season of Food Network Star, which kicks off on Sunday, June 4 at 9|8c. Among a crop of talented hopefuls judge-mentors extraordinaire Bobby Flay and Giada De Laurentiis will search for that one contender who has the coveted combo of culinary chops and on-camera charm. Each of the 12 finalists comes to the Star stage with unique personalities and kitchen experiences, and in the coming days, we'll introduce you to all of them. Today we'd like you to meet Rusty Hamlin.
Rusty's love of food started as a child, soaking up Cajun flavors in Louisiana. A Culinary Arts Institute of Louisiana graduate and a Georgia resident, Rusty’s cooking is rooted in Southern flavor. As the Executive Chef for three-time Grammy Award-winning Zac Brown Band and executive chef and partner of a restaurant in Smyrna, Georgia, Rusty truly does it all. Although he is known for his big-hearted personality and making those around him laugh, Rusty will show just how serious he is to be the next Food Network Star.
Describe your culinary POV in one sentence.
Rusty Hamlin: I am a Southern-inspired chef with Louisiana Cajun Creole roots who goes around the country and does what I call cooking off the cuff — whatever’s local and whatever’s coming out of the ground, the sea, the refrigerator, the cabinets is what we’re going to make an amazing meal with.
What would you most like to learn from Bobby and Giada, be it something in the kitchen or on camera?
RH: After 24 years of cooking, I’m still learning today, and I know that all the mentors know what they’re doing. They’ve been around, they’re seasoned — no pun intended — and so this is a great opportunity to learn. My dream is to become a Food Network Star and become part of the Food Network team and family. So, taking their criticisms at heart and utilizing those to try to get perfection.
What do you think is the most-valuable thing you could teach a Food Network viewer?
RH: How to utilize what you have, whether it be, like I said, coming out of the garden, or [if] you get home late and you have to open up the cabinets and prepare something and you don’t think you have anything to prepare. So, doing that with [an] off-the-cuff mentality, but also bringing fun into it. And again, this is what I do — not for a job. My life is cooking. Bringing the fun-personality aspect of cooking off the cuff.
How did you prepare for this competition?
RH: I have the honor to have a little bit of on-camera experience in the past, along with [the familiarity of] being in front of large audiences, and, also, I watched a lot of the [past] episodes. I did some homework for sure.
Which part of this contest — the cooking or the camera work — intimidates you the most? Please explain.
RH: Probably doing them both at the same time. Because as a professional chef, you’re behind the scenes. You're not having to explain what you’re doing, and you’re not having to concentrate on the viewer and get your point across while you’re under time restraints. And that’s going to be a challenge.
Win or lose, what do you want to take away from this experience?
RH: I want to take away that I’m chasing my dreams. The experiences of getting to know everybody here from Food Network Star and the competitors and so forth, and hopefully forming friendships and going home with the W.
What does the term "Food Network Star" represent to you?
RH: The next rung on the ladder, the next part of success in life and in my career.
What's your greatest strength in the kitchen?
RH: It'd have to be my experience. This is all I’ve ever done in my whole life. I’ve cooked — that’s all I’ve ever done. So, the experience of all the ups and downs and all the challenges and everything you have to do with professional cooking. I think that gives me a leg up.
What is the strangest thing we'd find in your refrigerator right now?
RH: Honestly, pickled frog balls — and that’s a Southern term for pickled Brussel sprouts, and it does say that on the label, by the way.
Let's say it's a regular Tuesday night and you're at home. What are you having for dinner?
RH: It would have to be turkey breast. Me and my lady are totally into turkey right now, and she said she never ate turkey before me. I mean, she’s eaten sliced turkey on a sandwiches, but she never ate a turkey as a protein on a plate. Probably because people just cook, cook, cook, cook, cook it, [but] with me, I’m taking temperatures, I get it out, and I let it rest and do all the proper things. So, we’ve been eating a lot of turkey and vegetables. Lots of vegetables.
What do you consider to be your signature dish?
RH: I do a lot of combining Southern and Louisiana roots [with] all kind of things around the country, all kinds of different local flavors. But if I was to stick to something that I can close my eyes and do, it would definitely be jambalaya. It would definitely be a good gumbo or ... maybe even a good shrimp and grits. I can do that with my eyes closed and kill it.
What dish or ingredient will you simply not eat?
RH: It would have to be durian. Tried it and not so much. I don’t like stinky pudding.
What's your favorite guilty pleasure food?
RH: It would have to be fried chicken. Mostly the Nashville hot chicken is my favorite, big time.
What's one dish you have to have at your last supper?
RH: I want a full seafood — anything from the sea — buffet of anything from clams, lobsters, crawfish, oysters, everything in the Gulf. I was raised in the Gulf area, so anything Gulf Coast seafood. I love Dungeness. I like classic king. That’s what I want.
What do you want to say about yourself to fans watching at home?
RH: That I’m really looking forward to introducing who I am, not only as a person, [but] as a chef. And staying true to who I am and putting myself out there for everybody to hopefully enjoy. ... My main ingredient for life is to make people happy and to make people smile, and love. And if I can do that on a big scale, that’s why I’m here.
Tell us more, please.
RH: It's impersonations. It’s full-body movements.
What's the first dish aspiring cooks should master?
RH: Something that your family cooked. That’s where I started. Take something that you’re comfortable [with] and you know, and get that down, whether it's lasagna, whether it’s your dad’s hamburger or ribs or whatever. Whatever you grew up on. For me, it was crawfish and jambalaya. get started with that first. Then once you’re comfortable with that, that’s like your wheelhouse.
Mark your calendar for the premiere of Food Network Star on Sunday, June 4 at 9|8c.