‘Top Chef’ host was ‘petrified’ during encounter with Teamsters
The celebrity host of Bravo’s “Top Chef” television show told a federal jury Monday that she was “terrified” in June 2014, when the van she was riding in pulled up to a restaurant in Milton, and several Teamsters members began to surround the vehicle yelling profanities.
“One guy came up, was coming toward the car, and he seemed really mad. They all seemed heated up,” Padma Lakshmi told jurors.
One of the men, so close she could smell him, rested his arm at the door window and taunted her and her driver, she told jurors.
“Oh looky here, what a pretty face . . . what a shame about that pretty face,” said the man, according to Lakshmi. “I felt he was bullying me. I felt he was saying, ‘I might hit you’ . . . I was just petrified and wanted it to be over.”
The man was indirectly identified as John Fidler, one of four members from the Charlestown-based Teamsters Local 25 who are accused of using threats of violence to shut down the filming of “Top Chef” in an attempt to extort jobs from the show, which filmed in Greater Boston with nonunion drivers in spring 2014.
Fidler, 53, Daniel Redmond, 49, Robert Cafarelli, 47, and Michael Ross, 62, are charged with conspiracy and attempted extortion, and face up to 20 years in prison.
The testimony of Lakshmi and other witnesses Monday painted a picture of a sordid, profanity-laced scene that, according to other witnesses, has bruised Hollywood’s working relationship with Boston and its labor unions.
“There was a lot of yelling, it felt like really serious schoolyard bullying,” Lakshmi said. “It drastically affected the whole production, not just that day.”
The trial, which entered its second week Monday, has also put an uncomfortable spotlight on the administration of Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who is in the midst of a reelection campaign. At least three witnesses testified that a top Walsh aide sought to withhold permits for “Top Chef” unless the show hired union members.
The show began to film at the Steel & Rye restaurant in Milton after two Boston restaurants canceled their participation following a tip from City Hall’s tourism chief, Kenneth Brissette, that the union would picket, according to previous testimony in the trial and court records.
Walsh, a longtime labor leader who was elected to his first term as mayor in 2013 with significant union support, has vowed that his past as a labor leader would not influence how the administration looks at labor disputes.
Brissette and another aide, Timothy Sullivan, face extortion charges in a separate case alleging they threatened to pull permits for the Boston Calling music festival because organizers would not hire union members. They are set to go on trial in January, and the two have been on paid leave since their arrest last year.
Walsh has declined to answer questions about that case or the allegations made against Brissette in the “Top Chef” trial.
Lakshmi told jurors that Walsh took part in a filming of the show in spring 2014, during the show’s 12th season. But much of her testimony — and that of other witnesses — Monday was spent describing a separate segment at the parking lot at Steel & Rye.
For several hours Monday, she and other witnesses, including her driver, described a harrowing scene in which large men who were clearly not with the show’s production crew blocked access to the parking lot at Steel & Rye, and shouted into cars whenever someone attempted to pass.
“One of the men put his head into the van and was yelling at us,” said Gail Simmons, a longtime judge on the show. “I remember him being very aggressive, animated, I remember being afraid of what he was saying.”
One of the men called her driver a scab, a slur for nonunion workers who work in union positions.
“I was very afraid,” she said.
Several witnesses said that they saw police officers on the scene, but that the officers did not intervene. They would only gently chide the defendants whenever one of the crew members complained.
“It was as if they knew each other,” said Lakshmi’s driver, Jason Duffy.
Through cross-examination, defense lawyers sought to show that the witnesses were not as afraid as prosecutors have suggested, pointing out they were willing to drive to the parking lot with open windows when they already knew there would be a protest. They also pointed out that Teamsters members have protested the “Top Chef” filming in other states, an attempt to show that Fidler and his codefendants were doing exactly what other union members do: They strike and picket for jobs.
Morgan Graham, a former “Top Chef” production assistant who had driven Simmons to the restaurant, said she had been “raised by a bunch of Teamsters,” so she is familiar with a picket line. But, “I’ve never seen people screamed at the way we were,” she said.
“They were coming up to the window and sort of pushing their faces into the window to yell inside,” she said.
Graham said several of the show’s rental cars had their tires slashed, and an antenna was broken, though she did not see who vandalized the vehicles.
Lakshmi told jurors that she had heard of disruptions before the filming of the show in Milton, though she was not made aware of the extent of the Teamsters’ dispute with the show producers. She told jurors her driver began to radio in their position to other producers as they approached the restaurant.
“I just didn’t want to get out of the car, it was an uncomfortable situation for me,” she told jurors, denying defense attorneys’ claims that she was hesitant to cross the picket line because of her political support of the union’s cause, rather than physical fear of being harmed. She said she did not consider the men to be engaged in a picket line.
“I’ve seen [pickets] before, I couldn’t tell who these people were,” she said. “They didn’t have any signs saying they were Teamsters.”