05/11/2012 06:57 am ET Updated Jul 11, 2012

Treme Star Kermit Ruffins Opens New Orleans Speakeasy

The sun has barely set on the final day of the 42nd annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, when a special after-party gears up, horns blaring, in the historic Treme section of town.

Jazz trumpeter, vocalist and bandleader Kermit Ruffins, a fixture on the New Orleans jazz scene -- a man with a sunny disposition who lends authenticity to the popular TV series Treme by playing himself -- is opening Kermit's Treme Speakeasy.

Part soul food restaurant, part clubhouse, it's located around the corner from the Mahalia Jackson Theatre and Louis Armstrong Park, on Basin Street.

"The Grammy is in the House!" roars Ruffins as the clock strikes seven on the restaurant's opening night. Members of the award-winning Rebirth Brass Band, an iconic New Orleans group, saunter in. One musician casually carries the little prize in his hands, the first-ever Grammy award for a brass band.

It's hardly the glitzy setting one associates with Hollywood. Kermit's Treme Speakeasy is a modest, 40-person joint, with a red brick interior and linoleum floor. It's a work-in-progress; hardware for wall-mounted TVs is up -- without the TVs.

But the raw ingredients for success, New Orleans-style, are here: a stage, a bar, chairs, a kitchen serving up cheap rice and beans, chicken and crawfish and talent.

"The Grammys were in February," confides a guest, "They just got that Grammy last week." And that Grammy, a small golden trophy perched on a bare table, seems to belong to everyone in the room, a recognition of their life's work and New Orleans culture.

Opening Night Features Rebirth Brass Band

Ruffins, a beer in hand and wearing a sleeveless shirt, plaid shorts, blue beads and over-sized white newsboy cap, stands outside welcoming Speakeasy's first official guests. "I'm a people lover like you wouldn't believe. I want this to be a place where people can get together," he says.

Inside, crammed on a tiny platform, the Grammy-winning musicians -- playing trombones, trumpets, a tuba, and drums -- deliver a blistering hot Do Whatcha Wanna, Rebirth's anthem song.

More musicians arrive -- another horn, the washboard. Latecomers just play from the dance floor. They belt out long, exuberant songs, one after another, including Freedom, a poignant Ruffins' composition from the 1980's.

It's the fourth set in a long day for the Rebirth Brass Band, which Ruffins co-founded as a high schooler in Treme. He's still close with the group after an amicable split. This week they've played nine or ten high-octane sets from hot, humid outdoor stages at NOLA's marathon Jazz Fest. In their last set, in a priceless shout-out, they announced that night's opening of Kermit's Treme Speakeasy from the festival's huge Gentilly Stage to thousands of fans.

Cranked up this evening, their music is fast, bold, virile -- and loud as hell.

Jiggling, foot-tapping party-goers, just inches from the stage, meld with the musicians. Women too big or too old to be moving fast are moving very fast. A small man whose teeth are as bad as his sneakers are gleaming, wearing a backwards cowboy hat, shows off fancy footwork; he's so limber he's surely made of rubber.

Most of the crowd -- family, friends, and a few tourists -- don't pay the $10 cash cover. Tonight -- well, every night, really -- is about the party.

Big Easy's Big Loves: Music & Food

New Orleans, known for both celebrity chefs and celebrity musicians, lacks combination musician-chefs.

And Ruffins, popular for his late gigs at Vaughn's and Bullets Sports Bar, handily fills this niche.

"Kermit is famous for his big smokers," says Mark Samuels, president of Basin Street Records, Ruffins' label, referring to a huge barbeque that smokes meats. "When he plays Thursday night at Vaughns, he often serves red beans and rice outside with BBQ after the show. He just takes his smoker out and cooks for his fans." Ruffins never charges for this food.

"When I was a kid we'd go fishing with the whole family," Ruffins reminisces. "We'd leave at four in the morning and be back by nine with a lot of fish and a lot of clams. There's the jukebox in the backyard. Everybody's eatin' and dancin', just having a good time."

"Sure, I want to make a little money with the restaurant," says Ruffins. "But I don't care about making money. I'm not going get rich here. The idea is to break even, and have a place where everyone can have a good time."

After years of giving away food, will he have trouble selling it? Ruffins jokes, "No. I've been taste-testing for 28 years."

Ruffins' Rabbit Recipes

"I'm real good with the wild foods," says Ruffins, who can make a feast out of home-butchered rabbit or raccoon. The trumpeter's recipes have been touted by television food celebs Jamie Oliver and Andrew Zimmern. Ruffins is a sharer. His rabbit recipe, served with yellow rice:

"Saute the rabbit legs in olive oil that's well seasoned with Tony Chachere's More Spice Seasoning; brown it real good. Pour some white wine on it, add a little chicken fat, and make a brown roux on the side with a lot of chopped onions and "the trinity" (onions, fresh bell peppers, and celery), all chopped up real good, pour that on and let it cook till it's real tender, about two and a half-hour on a medium fire on the stove." (Kermit Ruffins' sauteed rabbit recipe)

Treme: The Next NOLA Tourist Attraction?

Kermit's Treme Speakeasy has that elusive quality that tourists love: local authenticity. It is also well located for New Orleans' famous parades. It's "in the heartbeat of the Treme," says Ruffins, "where the 6th Ward Mardi Gras Indians and the Zulu Parade passes every year." And because Ruffins is so popular, his restaurant will also be natural stop for spontaneous weekend "second line" parades, predicts Samuels.

Like his music, Ruffins' restaurant has a certain rhythm, featuring different menus and music every night; a fancier place might call this "curated." Just for instance, the schedule includes:
  • Monday, expect live music by Kermit Ruffins and the BBQ Swingers, with beans, rice, and BBQ chicken.
  • Tuesday is seafood night, but featuring turkey necks, potatoes, corn, and smoked sausage alongside crabs.
  • Thursday, musicians (invited to "bring your horn and swing out") have an open jam session and eat free.; the music's likely to be great.
  • And, on Sunday, when presumably everyone's exhausted from playing and partying, patrons are invite to just "hang out with Kermit and eat a good meal."
Information: Kermit's Treme Speakeasy Restaurant. 1535 Basin Street, New Orleans. 504-309-5828.