As David Letterman’s last show — Wednesday night — approaches, we’re a little misty-eyed about what it means for late night comedy. But in our reminiscing, one segment stands out: a 1996 appearance by famed chef Daniel Boulud on the Letterman stage. If you clicked on our roundup of best food moments, you no doubt saw it: the all-out mayhem, the pained looks on Boulud’s face, Letterman’s ever-crazier hijinks, and the audience’s unbridled glee.
We rang up Chef Boulud to find out what the heck was happening behind the scenes.
“David has always been impossible with chefs,” Boulud said without hesitation when we called. While other late night hosts often rehearse on-screen banter with guests before airtime, Letterman never did. What happened next was always a surprise.
Sophia Loren shows Dave how to make tiramisu in 1999. Photo: CBS
“That show was exactly how he liked it: To basically throw you under the bus, every time,” Boulud said. “If I didn’t take over the show” — which involved cutting Letterman off mid-sentence — “I wouldn’t have been able to do any anything I wanted to do.”
And what Boulud wanted to do was cook. Letterman wanted to entertain. Hence the antics: pressing a plate of raw scallops to his face, chucking live clams at the audience, and spoon-feeding people in the front row from a tin of $400 caviar. It was all Boulud could do to keep the segment moving forward.
But Boulud says his exasperation was a little for show, too — he understood Letterman’s role as an entertainer. There were no hard feelings: Letterman visited several of Boulud’s New York City restaurants over the years (Daniel, DBGB, and Boulud Sud, to name a few) and the chef returned to his program four or five times. But every visit was a taste of Letterman’s particular brand of calamitous comedy.
Cher feeds cake to Dave on his birthday in 1999. Photo: CBS
On one occasion, Boulud was slated to cook lobster: “He ran out of the stage with my lobster, and he ran into a limousine, and told the driver, ‘Put it back in the ocean!’” the chef recalled, a bit frantic at the memory. “I followed him to come and get it. It was so mad! I was like, ‘Where’s my food! Where’s my food!’”
Another time, Boulud attempted a cod dish: “I had my beautiful whole fish and my mise en place, we started the show, and he was smoking a cigar next to me. He put the cigar right into the mouth of the cod. It was totally mad!”
Boulud noted that he has yet to experience the same level of frustration on other late night programs. “Only Letterman can do that!” he said. “He has the arrogance, that degree of ignorance. He always plays naïve. He’s boyish, acting like the impossible kid who just wants to have fun.”
That’s not always a bad thing, he added. “We’re going to miss Letterman, that’s for sure.”
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