201 Julia Street
New Orleans, LA 70130
325 W. Mills Ave.
Breaux Bridge, LA 70517
“I looked at New Orleans and said What does New Orleans have that Cajuns don’t have? New Orleans has, you know, its own music: birthplace of Jazz. It has its own food, you know. And it has a culture, and I thought well Cajuns—you know, we have our own music, we have our own food, we have our own language…And so I thought that that’s what I wanted to do, was to have a restaurant that reflected all that in a very casual way. It’s like a fais do-do, except it’s a restaurant and not a nightclub.” – Kerry Boutte
Kerry Boutte grew up in the small town of Arnaudville, eating his French-speaking mother’s Cajun cooking at every meal and, later, working at her restaurant, the Teche Drive-In. He went on to become a butcher, a restaurant worker, and finally a restaurateur himself. When Kerry opened Mulate’s, in 1980, he branded it “a Cajun restaurant,” which was an innovative term in those days before Cajun culture became a hot commodity. He developed a menu of familiar Cajun dishes—fried seafood platters, jambalaya, étouffée, gumbo—and staged live Cajun music every night. Both Mulate’s locations (the original in Breaux Bridge, now run by Kerry’s ex-wife, and a second location in New Orleans run by his daughter, Monique) remain deeply Cajun today—in décor, in music, and in gumbo. Kerry’s own gumbo-cooking style reflects his mother’s, whether he’s basing the dish on seafood or on chicken and sausage: a rich, peanut butter-colored roux, rice served on the side, filé sprinkled on top to taste, and absolutely no celery.
Listen to this two–minute audio clip of Kerry Boutte defining “gumbo.” [Windows Media Player required. Go here to download the player for free.]
NOTE: What follows is a portion of the original
interview that has been edited for length. To download the entire
transcript in PDF form, please click here.
Subject: Kerry Boutte
Date: July 17, 2007
Location: Fulton Street—New Orleans, LA
Interviewer: Sara Roahen
Photographer: Sara Roahen
Sara Roahen: This is Sara Roahen for the Southern Foodways Alliance. It’s Tuesday, July 17, 2007, and I’m in New Orleans, Louisiana on Fulton Street. If you don’t mind, could you state your name and your birth date and how you make—or made—your living?
Kerry Boutte: Kerry Boutte from Arnaudville, Louisiana. Birthday is August 26, 1944. And I make my living in the Cajun restaurant business.
When you were growing up did your family speak some sort of French dialect? It sounds like you have a little bit in there.
I do, I do; I still have a little bit of that and very proud of it and that makes me a real part of the Cajun culture, and yes…You know what my mother and father speak is like 16th Century or 17th Century French, which actually came from France, but being isolated in the swamps of Louisiana for a couple hundred years they developed their own somewhat—their own dialect and when they—when a new word came into their culture they used—either used a corruption or the English word. And so they speak French and English together simultaneously and it’s—it’s a wonderful thing for Cajuns because it’s very funny when you inject an English word into a French conversation.
What did your parents do for a living when you were growing up?
My mother stayed at home but then she—I think when she got into her 50s—40s and 50s—she just kind of got bored, you know, being a housewife and so she started doing catering and she had a little restaurant at one time called the Teche Drive-In Restaurant, and she did crawfish étouffée and hamburgers and fried baby red snappers and all kinds of interesting things. She was—she was a really renowned Cajun—I mean a real Cajun cook in Arnaudville.
In your household—so your mom did all the cooking?
Yeah, my mom did all the cooking you know. In Acadiana, you know, a lot of men cook, and my dad can [Emphasis Added] cook—well he could cook—but he, I don’t think he liked it. I think he preferred to have my mother cook because my mother was such a fantastic cook
I’m assuming your mom made gumbo?
Yeah, yeah. Well you know that’s an interesting—the interesting thing—I have tried to find out where dark roux comes from. I know roux comes from France, I think: it’s oil and flour. But the dark roux is sort of a mystery to me. Who—you know, who is the first one to do a dark roux? And I’m still researching that trying to find out. Anyway, the Cajun gumbo, you know I think—I think it happened by accident one day, you know, when somebody was doing a light roux with flour and oil and accidentally cooked it too much and decided they were going to put it into water and put some chickens and sausage in it and make a gumbo, you know, because how else would they have done it—you know what I mean? It had to be sort of an accident. But you know it—the Cajun gumbo is pretty much roux and stock water and—and just about anything [Laughs] you can imagine in it, you know. Let’s take—you could have like a rabbit and sausage gumbo or a duck and andouille gumbo or a chicken and sausage gumbo or a seafood gumbo and okra gumbo, and the list goes on and on. They were like, you know, there are tons of ways to make this but traditionally in Louisiana—in Acadiana where I’m from, it was a kind of soupy, brothy, roux, water, stock…So it had a lot of flavor, you know, and the chicken was just sort of boiled in—the chicken and the sausage boiled into it—into this mixture. In New Orleans—I think the way to express the difference between Cajun and Creole gumbo is it’s a little more sophisticated. You know they use—they don’t use as much roux.
In New Orleans they don’t?
Yeah, in New Orleans. They use bay leaf and some use thyme, some use oregano. You know those are the spices that—that New Orleans has pretty much identified with, and of course a lot of okra. You know all their gumbos have okra and they’re really good, you know. Once again it’s like you—you look for what is the best? because they’re all different in New Orleans, you know: the same Creole gumbo is different every place you go. I personally like Praline Connection; I like the flavor of it and it is—I guess it’s because it’s more like a Cajun gumbo there. They call it filé gumbo and we did too back home.
So when you were growing up, your mom never used okra or bay leaf or thyme?
She would make an okra gumbo this way: she would, you know, get—go buy the okra in the fields [Laughs] and cut it up and start cooking it with onion and a little tomato and a little salt and pepper and cook it down for a long time until it almost starts to actually brown. And then add a little stock water and shrimp, and so it was—basically what we grew up with was shrimp and okra gumbo—shrimp and okra gumbo. That was just like a classic thing there.
But that didn’t have roux or filé in it?
It did not have roux—it did not have roux. You know there—my sister would put like just a little teaspoon full of roux when she was—when she made hers but my mother didn’t; she didn’t put roux at all. It was just okra cooked down with water. You could use a little—you could use a little chicken stock water or just regular water, because when you put the shrimp in that’s when it really gives it the flavor, you know.
But that wasn’t the filé gumbo?
That’s not the filé gumbo. The filé gumbo is just—as I know it, it’s just stocky—roux, water, stock, sausage, chicken, you know, a brothy kind of thing. That’s what a filé gumbo is, and of course filé refers to sassafras, you know, and that’s the ground up sassafras and they—in New Orleans it’s really interesting. In New Orleans they use it in—they put it in while they’re cooking the gumbo. In Acadiana where I’m from we use it as a kind of—we just kind of dust it over the top. We serve our bowl of gumbo and then just dust it over the top of our gumbo and that’s the way we did it, but New Orleans cooks it in the gumbo. So it was kind of an interesting—and you know they put their rice in their gumbo while they’re—you know, before they serve it to you, and in Acadiana we always have the rice on the side. It’s kind of a traditional little thing we do.
So when you’re putting your filé—when you’re sprinkling it on top of the gumbo, are you doing that as a seasoning or as a thickener?
Oh it’s just as a seasoning. It gives it a nice little, nice little smell and flavor you know. It’s just very subtle but you know it’s really—but when you put it on you can smell it you know and it’s beautiful.
What does it smell like? Can you compare it to anything?
It’s aromatic. You know it’s—to me it’s aromatic. It’s almost like a perfume except it would be like an herbal perfume maybe or something like that you know. I really like the smell; I mean it’s like, to me, I can smell it right now as we’re speaking, you know because it’s a wonderful—just like, you know, dust your hand over the bowl and smell it. Oh God, it’s a beautiful thing; it’s making me hungry.
So when your mom made a roux, what color was it?
I would say a little darker than peanut butter you know.
What kind of fat would your mom use making her roux?
She would make it sometimes with Crisco oil, which is a vegetable oil, but it had a different taste. She would, you know, do this every now and then but it was—generally it was like cotton seed oil that she used; she always did like cotton seed oil, and it had a pretty good taste. You know just all the oils have different tastes, so it was generally cotton seed oil and Crisco oil but—and it gave the gumbos different tastes; totally different tastes.
What about you? What do you use?
I use peanut oil but I would use—I would use cotton seed oil if it was more available. I like the flavor of cotton seed oil. The restaurants back home when I was growing up, that’s what they used and I sort of got acclimated to that taste I guess. I really liked that taste.
If you’re just making gumbo at home, do you—what color do you get your roux to? Is it similar to your mom’s?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s—yeah I mean every—you know most everything I like today, I judge the quality of it by thinking back to how my mother cooked it because she was that good; you know everything—it’s like I judge everything that I cook by sort of remembering back how my mother did it and what it tasted like, you know. The mind—what would you call that? You know it’s like the mind’s eye but the mind’s taste-buds, or whatever. How does that work, huh? [Laughs]
What kind of pot would your mom make her gumbo in?
She’d use—she’d use aluminum, an aluminum pot—very cheap, you know, kind of a little short stock pot. She just—I mean you know we’re sitting here talking and I’m thinking that, I mean I truly can remember the sights and smells; I have them in my head. You know, right now, it’s beautiful. And so every time I really—every time I eat something that my mother cooked I always reflect back and think about well how did she do that? and what did it taste like? And so I compare it to everything that I eat today; it’s like an obsession almost, you know. But you know, I think fundamentally to know what’s good, what kind of food is actually good or is it really good, you have to have grown up with someone who really did cook good food. There are a lot of kids that grew up whose parents—mothers and fathers—really couldn’t cook very well, and so they had no basis for opinions about food other than what they’ve learned in restaurants or watching the Food Channel [Network], you know. They didn’t have the real experience like I think I did, you know.
So you said that you worked with your mom at her restaurant for a while?
Yeah, I worked with my mom and once again she was making—she was making crawfish bisque, you know, which is something that my mother was an absolute expert at and something you really can't find in the really old traditional way that it was done. I mean you find it in restaurants but it’s a short cut, you know what I mean; it’s—it’s just not what my mother—. To start with, you know, live crawfish and boil them and peel them and clean the heads and the fat and the whole thing. That’s the way she made it, you know, and it was just fantastic. And anyway I—I worked with her for I guess two or three years, and then I went into the military, and then I got out and I became a butcher. And I actually opened a meat market in Morgan City, kind of a service thing with a deli and—and then the meat market didn’t make it you know. It’s just I didn’t have enough expertise; I didn’t have, you know—it had potential but it just didn’t make it, and so I closed it and went to work for Don’s Seafood in Morgan City. And you know for like $100 a week, so just kind of learning—starting to learn the business and how a restaurant worked; how does that work? You know what I mean? And then started actually applying some of the skills that I head learned from my mother but never actually performed because I didn’t—I wasn’t a big cook at that time, you know, and so I started you know dabbling in it. And once again, I’m not a chef; I’m—I can barely cook, but it’s some things that I cook really good, you know. And so I learned all the aspects of the restaurant business from—from the actual preparation to the fry cook to the broiler cook to the gumbo man to whatever, you know—whatever it took; the expediter or whatever it took, and that’s where I started to learn the business and how the business operated. And then I worked with them for a number of years and then find—you know found an opportunity—. Well I was kind of down on my luck, I would say, in 1979. I had an idea in my head and the idea was a Cajun restaurant. I felt like you know I—you know I looked at New Orleans and said What does New Orleans have that Cajuns don’t have? New Orleans has, you know, its own music: birthplace of Jazz. It has its own food, you know. And it has a culture, and I thought well Cajuns—you know, we have our own music, we have our own food, we have our own language, so we actually had more in a way than they had, you know. And so I thought that that’s what I wanted to do, was to have a restaurant that reflected all that in a very casual way. It’s like a fais do-do, except it’s a restaurant and not a nightclub, you know what I mean?
Can I just pause here for a second; can you explain what a fais do-do is?
A fais do-do is an expression for a dance—like a dance at a dancehall where families would go and the little kids would, you know, about 9 o’clock at night start to get a little tired, so they would pull a couple of chairs together or they’d put the little kid on a bench and they would go like, “fais do-do, fais do-do,” which means “go to sleep, go to sleep.” And so you would see them—in fact you’d see them in my place occasionally, where they got a couple and there’s a little baby—a little girl, a little boy—you know, laid out on a chair or a bench or something. And so that—it’s really like, to me it’s everything that the culture is all about, you know, my place, and I’m very proud of that: the fact that it embodies all of those things that are Cajun.
And so well just to back up a little bit. You opened Mulate’s in Breaux Bridge in 1980.
Your daughter [Monique] now runs a restaurant, Mulate’s, in New Orleans.
Right, right. She’s—the original one in Breaux Bridge was part of a divorce settlement. I own the national trademark and she [Kerry’s ex-wife] has a license for me to use the name, so we try to, you know—try to operate under the same rules and regulations, you know.
In the early days at the original location what was—what was your early menu like?
The early menu, oddly enough, so resembles the menu today at the restaurant you know. It was like seafood platter, which was a frog leg, two shrimp, two oysters, a really good stuffed crab that I have—you know I was really good at that—and a piece of fried catfish and some jambalaya. And of course fried catfish and grilled catfish and fried oysters and gumbo. Those kinds of basic things that all the restaurants in that area serve, you know; it wasn’t anything unusual. It was like I wanted to cater to the people. I didn’t want to try to get fancy, and I wanted—I wanted to cook something that they went—that they liked to eat. They loved seafood platters and stuff, and you know so that was like—they had to go out at least once or twice a week to get a seafood platter somewhere. I just made sure that, you know, it was fresh and good—you know it was as fresh as it could possibly be and cooked in good fresh oil.
What kind of gumbo did you serve in the beginning?
Seafood gumbo. Once again it’s that brothy water and roux, onion—a little onion, a little bell pepper, a little salt, a little cayenne red pepper. And then when you put—when you put the seafood in that water, it gives it the flavor. You know and—put a few green onions in there and you eat it with rice.
Do Cajuns use celery in their gumbo?
Not that I know of. I mean some of them might but not—where we come from. It’s like, Celery? You’ve got to be kidding. But then again, you know you might go to another area and they go What? Of course we put celery in our gumbo, you know, but we never would.
Last year some Southern Foodways Alliance members and volunteers who were working on [restoring] Willie Mae’s Scotch House ate here [downstairs] at Mulate’s and you made a special gumbo for us. I don’t know if you remember, but I think it was duck and andouille. Did you grow up eating much game like duck or—?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, like various kinds of birds, you know, it was like [Laughs]—it was like doves, you know, bless their hearts—sweet little doves. We’d make a roti. It was like you’d clean the doves, you know whole; salt and red pepper; and you’d start out with onions and bell pepper, right, and you kind of sauté that down, and you brown your birds, and you add a little stock, and you just simmer that for about an hour and a half—you know what I mean? And it just makes this wonderful gravy. You know one thing Cajuns should be more recognized for is their gravies—their gravies, man. You know what I mean? There’s a sauce and there’s a gravy. Cajuns can make gravy, you know what I mean? I can make a pretty good gravy, but there are so many of them that areway better than me, you know. They are—that’s an art making a gravy, you know making a gravy.
You were saying when we were talking earlier that what you grew up eating, and what Cajuns eat, is gravy and rice dishes?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean we had rice and gravy almost everyday you know, and I love it. [Emphasis Added] You know it was—it was good constitutionally; it was just good, you know. It was like chicken étouffée,steak étouffée, pork chop étouffée, crawfish étouffée. [Laughs]
What does étouffée mean to you?
Smothered…smothered. You—like you brown everything and you put your, you know your onions, and then you start cooking it like in the gravy, and then you’ve got to put the lid on with a little crack in the top of the pot just to kind of like vent a little bit of the steam. And that kind of almost bakes it, you know what I mean; in a way it’s like baking hen in its gravy.
One thing I wanted to ask, which is maybe an unanswerable question, but if you had to define gumbo, how would you do that?
Gumbo is a soup with combinations of seafood, sausage, chicken, duck, pheasant, rabbits, squirrels, [Laughs] birds, you know. It’s just—it’s sort of like a jambalaya and it’s like, you know, just get creative you know. And—and it’s so diverse; you know there’s so many different ways to cook gumbo, you know with—and depending on what you put in it, and whatever seasoning you put in it, and whatever meat you put in it; you know, fowl or whatever. It’s a beautiful thing and—and it’s just, it’s almost undefinable because there’s not one particular kind of gumbo. It’s just—it’s anything that you can think of almost, you know what I mean? There are those—certainly like chicken and sausage gumbo which I had at least once a week when I was growing up, if not two or three times a week, which is you know—it’s like a chicken and sausage you know. It’s a very inexpensive thing to do and—but ultimately comes out tasting really so good, you know just a really simple—it’s a very classic—chicken and sausage—a very classic back in Cajun country. But you know it’s—there’s so many different versions of it that you really can't put your finger on exactly what it is you know. It’s just a, it’s a soup with you know, all kinds of different things in it. [Laughs]
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