Kerry Boutte is a most unlikely-looking Cajun. He looks like a refugee from L.A. with his ponytail and hipster threads. His restaurants and his apartment are adorned with avant garde works by artists from Acadiana—Boutte is obviously an aficionado of the more sophisticated visual arts created by his Cajun comrades.
He may appear to be a big city boy, but once he opens his mouth, you know you’re talking to the authentic item. The lilt of the bayou is in his speech, and once he launches into an impassioned declaration of love for his native culture, cooking and music, you know you’re meeting the real thing: a child of Acadiana.
Boutte just opened the latest location of Mulate’s, billed as “The World’s Most Famous Cajun Restaurant,” in New Orleans. Just across Convention Center Boulevard from the Riverwalk, the restaurant is already attracting record crowds. Of course, the name “Mulate’s” is familiar to any student of pop Cajun culture in southern Louisiana. In fact, Mulate’s, it can be said, virtually put Cajun music and dancing on the world map. What Paul Prudhomme did for Cajun cuisine, Mulate’s—and Kerry Boutte—did for traditional Cajun music and dancing.
Some accuse Boutte of commercializing a culture and tradition that’s been the Cajun heritage since 1765. That’s when the first band of 200 Acadians led by Joseph Broussard dit Beausoleil embarked in New Orleans, to eventually settle in New Acadia, not far from present-day Breaux Bridge. The Acadians sought freedom from British oppression in Nova Scotia, and ended up settling in southwest Louisiana. They lived in isolation for many decades, and clung to their unique ways and French tongue until the discovery of oil and American intolerance threatened to destroy the culture.
But Cajuns are a hard-headed, strong-hearted lot. The Cajun tradition flourished underground for many a year, but it took Paul Prudhomme to make the earthy Cajun cuisine trendy in the early 1980s. By that time, a love for the Cajun culture—particularly music and dance—was slowly seeping into mass culture. At one time, the only place you could hear Cajun music in New Orleans was on Thursday night at the Maple Leaf—or in Acadiana at the many small clubs and roadhouses that still kept the music alive.
Kerry Boutte and Mulate’s changed all that.
Word of the uniqueness of the little place in Breaux Bridge spread worldwide, but not without some shrewd planning on Boutte’s part. To his credit, while the music has been shown to the world, the flavor of the tradition has not changed a whit. In fact, it’s flourished and expanded with the music of such bands as Michael Doucet’s Beausoleil, which achieved fame at Mulate’s.
Yes, the Cajun music and dance tradition—and real Cajun cooking—is alive and well at Mulate’s. Just ask Kerry Boutte.
Were you born in Breaux Bridge, the site of the original Mulate’s?
Actually, I was born in Arnaudville, which is a small town about 15 miles from here. It’s got about 1,000 people. My parents were both from there. My dad was in the oilfield, worked as a driller; he’s retired now, and he’s 80 years old. My mother is a crazy Cajun lady, boy, she’s just so beautiful! She’s a great Cajun cook. I always speak French when I go back home to my parents’. I love to speak French, it’s great.
Mulate’s is known for its authentic Cajun cooking. Are you a good cook too?
Although I really didn’t do any cooking prior to getting into the restaurant business in 1975,like other people in Louisiana I learned a lot from my mother by just watching her. I got to understand what real Cajun cooking was all about by just observing her in the kitchen.
What kind of influence did Paul Prudhomme have on the “Cajun craze” cooking that’s swept through the country? Is that real Cajun cooking?
Well, obviously what Paul did was extremely important. I often say that what Paul did was make the cuisine famous and we made the culture famous. What we did was to incorporate an awareness of the culture almost simultaneously to the notoriety that Paul achieved. Actually, I worked for Paul in 1979 as sort of a sous chef for a very short period of time at Commander’s Palace. I have extreme respect for what Paul has done and for what he does. However, when I left, he asked me why I was leaving, and I told him I just didn’t believe what he was doing to Cajun cooking.
You’re known as a real supporter of the culture and all the arts. Have you always been artistically inclined?
Well, I only went to college for a couple of semesters at USL. I never really did well in anything, except I always made As in English. I think if I had pursued an education, I think I possibly could have been a writer or something like that, in retrospect. I’ve always been able to put words together pretty well through the years. It’s been important to me to try to articulate life in the best way I possibly can, verbally, intellectually, mentally and spiritually.
Were you always entrepreneurial?
Not really, no. I just didn’t have much influence on that. But, what drove me, I’ve often said, is a great gift my parents gave me: the freedom to be myself. When I was 26 I got married, and that’s when I buckled down and started working to try and support my family. I have a deep sense of responsibility to my daughter from that marriage who’s now 18 and just a beautiful girl.
I sort of accidentally got into the restaurant area because I needed a job out of high school and there was a job opening in the meat department of a local grocery store. After that I went into the service and ended in Europe for a couple of years. That was really a turning point in my life, I think, because I got to meet a lot of different people who left a lasting impression on me. This one particular guy, a Greek, Theodore Xares, a brilliant intellectual and artist. He talked to me a lot about life. Prior to that I really didn’t believe that I had anything, that I was anybody, that I was smart or anything. Being around these sorts of people started to awaken the spirit in me of who I really was, and also an appreciation of my roots.
So you, like so many other people from Louisiana had to leave to really come to appreciate the beauty of our culture?
When I was growing up, Cajun music was to me like everybody else, just chank-a-chank; it wasn’t important to me, you know. But then when I came back to Acadiana in 1979, I remember the first group I saw was Red Beans and Rice and Pat Breaux was playing the accordion. And I was just so inspired, I mean I said, “God! This is my music, this is the music of my people. This is so incredibly great!” The fact that I had gone away and seen other things and then came back had renewed my sense of perception and appreciation. Oh God, it’s so powerful, when you’ve been around and you come back you recognize that the music was created by the Cajun people. It’s so unique and special. That was one of the inspirations for me to do what I’m doing now.
Tell us about how Mulate’s came about.
I had a friend who was a partner in Don’s Seafood who took me under his wing and showed me what the restaurant business is all about. From 1975 to 1980, I worked in restaurants, both front and back of the house, but mostly in kitchens, so I got a real good sense for what it takes to make a restaurant operate successfully. Back in 1975, I opened a small Cajun restaurant in New Orleans that didn’t work out. That’s when I went to work for Commander’s Palace for a little while. But I was driven by this something, I couldn’t figure out what it was. And I remember telling my wife that I had to go find what it was that I was looking for…and maybe it was back home. So I went back home and applied for jobs at several restaurants and nobody would hire me. And finally I got involved with a couple of partners in this place [in Breaux Bridge]. It only had thirty seats at the time. When I look back, it almost seemed to me that when I put my hand on the door of Mulate’s for the first time, it was like “Eureka! I found it. This is what I’ve been looking for!” We only had two customers the first day we opened and I think they came in by accident. But my intention has always been to build something that would last a long time. That’s the way I operate my whole life. The second day we were open I remember I had a meeting with my “staff” of three people, and told them we were going to make it the greatest Cajun restaurant in the world.
Did Mulate’s have traditional Cajun music from the very beginning?
The first time we played music here, it was about three months after we were open. We played Zachary [Richard], Sonny Landreth, Pat Breaux, Shelton Sonnier, the great bass and guitar player. At that time, Zach and Pat were doing dual accordions…it was an incredible sound, one that I haven’t heard since, you know. And to me, you know two accordions on the bandstand is just incredible. The accordion is an awesome instrument. On that particular night, nobody showed up, you know. And we played Zach I guess about three or four months, and at that point it got to be where we were getting really busy. The problem was that Zach’s act was really geared more to a nightclub setting, not to the kind of scene I was trying to create.
So Mulate’s wasn’t created to be a “nightclub”?
No, not at all. I was trying to create kind of a German beer garden type of setting, you know, where you brought the family, where you ate and you drank and where you danced and you listened to your own ethnic music, like the Germans listen to oompah and that kind of stuff. So Zach and I broke off our relationship, and that’s when Zachary introduced me to Michael [Doucet] and that’s when we started playing Beausoleil, in 1980 to 1988. Michael really guided me in the direction I ultimately went, in that we sort of revived the old traditional Cajun music.
Mulate’s is known for its authenticity of music and musicians. How do you define “authentic” Cajun music?
Back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when Cajun music was really being created and the accordion was introduced, that’s what really made it special and really made it different. ‘Cause when they started playing those old French tunes with an accordion, they played it like it had never been played before. And created this whole new sound. And then it existed for a short period of time as traditional Cajun music, where they played it in little nightclubs and in houses and for parties. Then in the late ’20s and early ’30s, Nashville got hold of the sound and thought that if they just put a steel guitar in there, they could make it sort of a “country” sound and they could sell records. It existed, this kind of country Cajun with the steel guitar for all these years. It was a sort of strain of Cajun music that I didn’t particularly care for. There are a lot of people in Acadiana that think that that is authentic traditional Cajun music because they lived it for forty or fifty years.
And when we started playing music here, Michael introduced me to people like Dewey Balfa and Octa Clark, who were the guys who were still playing the authentic traditional folk Cajun music. Guys like D.L. Menard, who’s sort of country, Don Montoucet. This music was kept alive all these years by these guys playing it at their houses, because it was an unacceptable form of music in clubs. The country Cajun type was the kind played in nightclubs, with the steel guitar. That’s what we brought back, the traditional folk Cajun music. That’s the kind of music I like.
You’ve often said that Beausoleil is your favorite band in all the world.
Well, Michael [Doucet, of Beausoleil] is a traditionalist. However, Beausoleil’s style has developed in a particular way I like to compare to the Chieftains. Beausoleil has a special kind of sound which I don’t think anyone will ever be able to capture because of the impassioned way Michael plays the fiddle and because of his intelligence in interpreting the music. Michael has not only been able to play traditional Cajun music, but he’s also able to stretch it out, playing traditional music, then going off and coming back again. You can hear in Michael’s music people like Canray Fontenot, who’s been a big influence in his work. Michael’s also a big fan of Stephane Grappelli, and I think there was some influence there. But Michael’s been able to take those influences and make it into a style that he can call his own. Michael is a very brilliant, brilliant musician. He’s the one who really helped me to reestablish and redefine traditional Cajun music in a modern context at Mulate’s. He was given the freedom to do the kind of things he’s done over the years at Mulate’s, stretching the music but still keeping it what I consider traditional, to help me find the guys who were still doing it in the traditional folk ways. Michael is a unique and special person who’s now being recognized as a major force in American folk music. He’s played Carnegie Hall, and just all over the world. Michael’s music is special because it’s recognizable as traditional and also it’s danceable. What’s so remarkable is that he can play traditional Cajun music, add his own special style to it and be able to stretch out his own imagination.
Mulate’s has been around for a long time. Was it always a Cajun restaurant?
No, Mulate’s was here and was a little bar, regionally popular as a nightclub. A lot of the kids who went to USL, because of the blue laws, used to come out here and party. Mulate’s was originally owned by Edwin “Mulate” Guidry [mulate means mulatto]. He closed it down and leased it and it changed hands lots of times, it was a black nightclub, a white nightclub, a pool hall, a crab house, lots of things. When we took it over in 1980, we didn’t know what to call it, but Mulate’s had a name recognition. But we thought that might have some negative connotation because of its reputation as a nightclub (and it does to some people who haven’t been here in ten years!). We asked Mr. Guidry if we could use the name and he told us he would be “honored.” When we asked him what he wanted, all he said was a “cup of coffee.” But now that we’ve made the name famous, they’re trying to claim that we should pay them something for the name. But we’ve made Mulate’s famous as a Cajun restaurant, and it took us ten years to do it. We’ve applied for a national trademark and they’re challenging us for the trademark, so right now the whole thing’s in the courts.
Mulate’s has almost become synonymous with “Cajun” worldwide. How did that happen?
We’ve been on the Voice of America, which is broadcast in 42 languages around the world, five times. We’ve been on documentaries in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, numerous times in Europe, in France, England, the BBC, on French television. We’ve had visitors from almost every continent in the world. We’ve been on every major network three or four times.
There was a 30-minute live program via satellite broadcast from a television station in San Francisco. The print press coverage has come from probably about 100 newspapers throughout the country and the world and has been absolutely phenomenal. This all started when the World’s Fair came to New Orleans. We had created this authentic Cajun scene with the food and music and dancing here in Breaux Bridge in the heart of Cajun country. I thought, “Wow, people will really want to see this.” So we heard the World’s Fair was coming to New Orleans, so we extended invitations to the media by whatever means we could, and lo and behold the press showed up and we started getting publicity all over the world. And they haven’t stopped coming since. The important thing to remember is that, yes, we did hype it in a sense, you know that we were telling them to come here and we’d show it to them, but the reality is that if there hadn’t been anything really original here, they would have never written about it.
What do you think draws people to Mulate’s?
This whole thing is all about fun. It’s fun! Every time I’ve ever talked to anybody about this place, that word’s come up. It’s you know, it’s just a good thing, it’s family, it’s the right kind of values. It’s good clean fun, dancing and eating, just assimilating and being part of something that’s really truly American and wholesome and decent, you know.
Do you think you could take Mulate’s to another city outside Louisiana and still be as successful?
Theoretically, to get the same feeling we have here, it’s possible, but improbable. Mulate’s is not just a place for tourists, local people come here, too. That was our intention.
We wanted to have an authentic Cajun menu; maybe we can translate the food to another city. There’s no serious chain out there with credibility that interprets the whole Cajun phenomenon in the right way. I feel confident that we will be able to do that, but without the live Cajun music format. It’s too hard for the bands. But you probably can’t get the feeling of the original outside this area. And that’s the way it should be. Mulate’s is a feeling, and a culture, and you can’t franchise that in the live music sense. In the restaurant sense, because of our credibility, yes, I believe we could franchise it. I don’t think we could translate the feeling of our places in Louisiana elsewhere, and I don’t think it should be done elsewhere. It belongs here.
If you would take the Mulate’s restaurant concept to another city, where would you take it?
Probably to coastal cities, where seafood is important and available. We’ve considered Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, maybe one of those cities. I’m really happy that we’ve been able to open our location in New Orleans, there are so many people who pass through New Orleans and we have an interesting old building in a great location right across from the convention center and Riverwalk. “Cajun comes to town!”
We’ve often thought about taking Mulate’s, including the music, to Paris, which would almost be full circle. You could get bands to tour there more. That might be the one place it could work, far, far away from home. Almost every day of the week you see somebody here from France. They come here in droves. It could possibly work in France. People mention London to me as the place to go, and it’s ironic, in a way [laughs] because the English kicked us out of Nova Scotia and here we go, “Hey! We’re ba-a-ack!!”
Do you see a continuation of the folk tradition in Cajun music in some younger up-and-coming bands?
There’s one great example right off the bat, Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys. They are playing very traditional Cajun music, as good or better as any. Steve is really a prodigy when it comes to playing the accordion, and he’s a very versatile musician; he plays almost everything and he plays accordion as well or better than anybody you’ve ever heard. He and Dewey Balfa are playing in Europe right now.
We hear Dewey Balfa has a hit record in Ireland right now.
No! [Laughs] Fantastic! Dewey is close to being a saint. He’s a really great human being. He and his brothers were some of the first to export traditional Cajun music out of the state. People would just hear them and invite them to play all over. He’s just a great person and a great human being. He’s got such a great love and passion for people in his music. He’s just a great guy.
Louisiana is very tied into its traditional music. There’s a lot of concern about whether or not there will be young musicians to “carry the torch” on to other generations.
That’s an interesting thought. You know, I looked at New Orleans when I was putting the idea for Mulate’s in New Orleans together, to satisfy tourists and locals too. Traditional jazz is what made the New Orleans scene. It was, in my opinion, very much like traditional Cajun music. As things go, everything evolves. Traditional jazz evolved into other forms and the traditional form is not the same or as prolific as it was. I’m very aware that the very same thing can happen to Cajun music. It would evolve into rock music or some strain of more avant garde, or something more saleable or more “enjoyable”. The interesting thing is that we’re just starting an awareness of traditional Cajun music. We’re paying bands to keep the music alive. That’s what people want to see, especially tourists. They want to see the folk music of your culture. I love all kinds of music, I have eclectic tastes. But visitors want to see the original form of the music! It’s great music, it really is incredibly wonderful music. Like dixieland jazz, it’s a happy kind of music, as opposed to modern jazz, which is more intellectual and you have to have a special understanding of the music to enjoy it. Traditional Cajun music is fun music, it’s fun to listen to, it’s fun to dance to. That’s what attracts people.
You say you have “eclectic” taste in music. Besides Beausoleil, who are some of your favorite performers?
Well, let’s see, I like the Chieftains, the Gypsy Kings, Philip Glass, Dickie Landry, Kahunta. Of course, I like modern jazz and dixieland, R&B. I like world music, Dan Del Santo’s World Beat, I like French and African music, some of the stuff Paul Simon’s doing right now.
A lot of celebrities have visited Mulate’s. Who are some of the people who have come through (and played) at Mulate’s?
Paul Simon played here. Huey Lewis. Joe Cocker sang “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” People were freaking out, freaking out! Robert Palmer. Stevie Ray Vaughan. John Fogerty. Doug Kershaw. Robert Duvall—he’s not a player, but he’s a hell of a dancer! Richard Thompson. Delbert McClinton. Chicago. Dizzy Gillespie. Muddy Waters. Edith Butler, a Canadian singer. Roy Buchanan was here. [Refers to the wall in his office, which is covered in celebrity autographs] We’ve had this wall for only about three years, so we’ve missed a lot of the musicians who’ve been here over the years. John Hammond was the first star who ever came here, about 1980. Bobby Charles, writer of “See You Later Alligator” was here. He was a resident of Abbeville.
You’re also a big supporter of the visual arts.
Yeah, I collect a lot of art, mostly local people, Tina Girouard, John Delesmond, Francis Pavy, George Rodrigue. They’re all friends of mine. I love art. I mean, it really makes me happy. To surround yourself with it is such a great reward, the reward you get for doing something right. I have more of a taste for avant garde or modern art than I do for other things. Some of the drawings in the restaurant were done by Robert Dafford and Randy LaBrie, Vincent Darby, a resident of Arnaudville who does these swamp scenes. We’ve got Earl Hebert, who does sort of primitive, very colorful Cajun drawings. A lot of posters. I’ve got some stuff by Robert Harris, who is a young artist who does a lot of fun kind of things.
We hear in addition to your love for Cajun music that you love to perform yourself.
I suppose I’m a frustrated singer. There was really no musical influence around home that could tell me whether or not I could sing or I should continue to sing. I still sing to myself in the car. I actually composed a Cajun song a little while ago that I was asked to sing in a TV interview in Lafayette. I was reluctant for a minute, but it came out all right, I guess. I play triangle. Everybody’s got a certain kind of beat and I think mine might be a little unusual. But I’ve actually had some musicians say that I was great and I’ve had other people say “Man, when you gonna learn how to play?!” But I can play with Beausoleil and the Mamou Playboys really easy, but it’s because of that tempo and beat that I fit into it very easily.