Written by: Lisa LeBlanc-Berry
“It’s the American dream,” says Mulate’s owner Kerry Boutta, whose journey as a businessman and an avid art collector began very modestly in Breaux Bridge and without much capital. In 1980, he launched a down-home Cajun restaurant with a three-person staff in a weathered little nondescript building, not far from his hometown of Arnaudville.
“Mulate’s used to be a little nightclub,” says Kerry. “The owner retired in 1975. We decided to keep the name. He said, “˜I don’t want anything for it, just a cup of coffee.’ But before I came across Mulate’s, I had already started to develop the Cajun idea in the 1970s. I wanted to create something of cultural value, not just a restaurant.”
A child of Acadiana who grew up surrounded by great cooks, including his mother who had a dining establishment in Arnaudville, Kerry worked in restaurants for several years before opening his own place in Breaux Bridge.
In the late 1960s, prior to his restaurant endeavors, he joined the army and ended up near Frankfurt, Germany, where numerous beer gardens drew people of all ages who gathered to eat, drink, and dance. The experience served to inspire his idea of eventually creating a similar place when he returned home. What’s more, Kerry reflected how the food was certainly better in Cajun country. Putting this great, regional cuisine together with live music and dancing would be a wonderful thing indeed, he concluded.
“I was just a penniless Cajun with an idea,” Kerry reminisces. “The first day we opened Mulate’s in Breaux Bridge, we had two customers,” he tells me as we nibble hors d’oeuvres with his wife, Tiffa, and art collector/entrepreneur Michelle Vallot in the cavernous, art-filled kitchen of their 10,000-square-foot, three-story residence with a pool and terraces overlooking the Mississippi River. The Bouttas also own a three-story country home in Barataria, complete with a pool, gardens, and a boathouse. “I started out with practically nothing.”
Several months after opening Mulate’s in Breaux Bridge, Kerry added a music component to the restaurant, and hired local musician Zachary Richard for the first gig. Of course, there had been other Cajun restaurants and dance halls for years in Acadiana, but there had not been a combination of both. He was on to something big.
“No one came that first night to see Zachary Richard, but I knew this was the combination I’d been looking for, with the authentic Cajun food, music, and atmosphere, so I hired him again the following week.”
The next step was opening up a space in front of the bandstand for people to dance. Then the customers started coming. Other local musicians were hired, including some of the old-time Cajun bands and a young Michael Doucet, who ended up playing at Mulate’s for nine years with his band, BeauSoleil. “Michael was relatively unknown before Mulate’s, which put him on the international media circuit,” Kerry notes.
Word eventually spread about the fun, rustic dance hall with great Cajun cuisine “out in the country,” and it became “the cool little roadhouse” where people went to eat and dance the night away.
Thanks to Kerry’s innate marketing acumen and timing during the 1984 Louisiana World’s Fair, when journalists and travel writers from all over the world descended on the state, Mulate’s became both a regional and international hit, with other locations to follow, including one in Baton Rouge that opened in 1988 and another in the New Orleans Warehouse District, which opened in 1990 (it is now the sole location). The story of Mulate’s appeared in magazines and documentaries throughout the U.S. and abroad.
As Mulate’s expanded, Kerry’s daughter, Monique, became involved in the restaurant, first joining the team in Baton Rouge while attending college. After completing her studies in accounting, she joined the team in New Orleans in 1997, and took over management in 1998. Monique and her husband, Murphy Cristina, continue to run Mulate’s in New Orleans, with Kerry overseeing operations and Tiffa contributing to public relations efforts.
Housed in a circa 1885 Italianate warehouse across the street from Riverwalk and the Convention Center, Mulate’s now attracts more than 250,000 people a year. It has drawn many celebrities who have shared the bandstand with local musicians, ranging from Dizzy Gillespie to Muddy Waters, Joe Cocker, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Paul Simon, who usually drops in to visit the Bouttas when he is in New Orleans.
“Bob Dylan likes to come over, too; he has visited our house at least ten times,” Kerry tells me. “We’ve hosted a lot of stars like Robert Duvall, who stayed at our house in the country for three months free of charge when he was making a movie. Geraldo Rivera, Dyan Cannon, John Goodman, Oliver Stone, Ron Howard, and Stevie Wonder are some of the other friends who have also come to visit our home.”
Kerry and Tiffa’s 10,000-square-foot residence is the only one of its kind in the area, located around the corner from Mulate’s near the Convention Center. The great room alone measures a whopping 6,000 square feet, complete with a dining table for 14, and a grand piano in the corner of the living area that is often played by well-known musicians during parties. A few short steps lead up from the great room to a multi-tiered pool area on the second floor, while the third floor houses a chic, more intimate entertainment room and large terrace where many small parties have been held overlooking the river.
The Bouttas’ intriguing art collection ranges from the haunting neo-expressionist paintings of David Harouni to Francis Pavy’s colorful interpretations of life in Acadiana, a variety of original drawings and paintings by George Rodrigue, and the mesmerizing metal sculptures of Breaux Bridge resident Russell Whiting, who pioneered carving steel with a blow torch and exhibits throughout the U.S. and Canada.
Kerry remains close with Rodrigue, who has given him some of his earlier works. “George and I have been friends for 30 years,” he points out. “I was sitting at his desk one day while he was painting. I opened the desk drawer and there were 40 to 50 drawings, and he said, “˜You want some?’ So he gave me some of the original sketches for his paintings; he has also given me some of his early, original paintings.” Rodrigue’s art is on display throughout the Boutta home.
The eclectic, intriguing collection of furniture and accent pieces reflects Tiffa’s travels abroad. “My wife selected the flooring and all the color schemes throughout our home,” Kerry points out. “She collected many things during her travels throughout the world before we met; we also have collected things together. I’m not really much of a traveler now, although I’ve been to Europe. Tiffa just got back from India.” Everywhere you look, there is something interesting, unique, and worthy of conversation throughout the Boutta residence.
“We really enjoy living here,” Kerry reflects. “It’s fun to see all the tall ships passing by on the Mississippi River from the terrace. We’re so close to everything. I’m a happy Cajun! It has been wonderful creating something that has had a cultural impact, that also gives people happiness every day.”