The Teamsters picketers were already mad. By the time Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi’s car pulled up to the Steel & Rye restaurant in the picturesque New England town of Milton just outside Boston, one of them ran up to her car and screamed, “We’re gonna bash that pretty face in, you fucking whore!”
“She was scared,” said a Top Chef crewmember who witnessed the incident, which occurred in June while filming an episode for the upcoming 12th season of Bravo’s popular skein, which premieres October 15. “He was screaming at her aggressively and violently.”
Angry that the show had not signed a Teamsters contract and that the production hired local PA’s to drive cast and crew vehicles, the dozen or so picketers from Boston’s Teamsters Local 25 kept at it for hours, raining down racist, sexist and homophobic threats and slurs as staffers came to and left the set that summer day. Jenn Levy, Bravo’s SVP Production, wasn’t spared. Arriving at the restaurant in her black SUV, she soon found herself running a gauntlet of vitriol. “She got out of her car in front of the location and quickly ran through the picket line,” a source said. “They were yelling, ‘You bitch! You slut! We’re gonna get you!’ It went on like that all day.”
John King, Milton’s Deputy Police Chief, said the Teamsters were “threatening, heckling and harassing.” The first officer on the scene, he said, had to call for back-up after the Teamsters “gave the officer trouble.” Reading from the police report, he said the Teamsters were “hostile, swearing, and refusing to let people come in and out. Officers repeatedly tried to de-escalate the situation.” When more police arrived, the Teamsters went to the show’s hospitality tent and “harassed the crew there.” When the officers went there, King said, “A group of them slashed the tires on 14 different cars owned by the crew.”
Numerous calls to Local 25 seeking comment on the incident were not returned, and one of the local’s organizers said he could not speak for the union. Many of those interviewed for this story called the incident the most uncomfortable and threatening labor dispute they’d ever witnessed. No one was injured and no one was arrested, but by the end of the day, more than a dozen of the show’s production vehicles had their tires slashed, and many had their antennae broken off. Several people familiar with the scene said that such bullying and thuggish behavior is what gives the Teamsters a bad name. Rowdy picketing is one thing; threatening women and slashing tires is another.
“As any employee of our show walked on or off set, the picketers verbally attacked us, calling the gays ‘fags,’ the blacks ‘niggers’ and most of the women ‘sluts and whores,’ ” the crewmember said. “It got worse as the day went on. They chased us down the sidewalk when we had to run from one end of the location to the next in the middle of our busy work day. They threatened to kill us, beat us, and said that they would find us and force us out of the city. Needless to say, we were terrified. I’m a strong person, but being called names and yelled at and harassed for 12 hours while working, I started to crumble. I was scared and worried for my safety.
“Meanwhile, the executive producers, the representatives from the network, the production management, and the line producers stood by and did nothing,” the crewmember continued. “They never addressed the problem with the staff, or apologized for putting us in such a bad situation. They never called a meeting with us, or sent the employees an email acknowledging what a terrible situation they put us all in.” The local labor board told this member there was nothing they could do. So for two more weeks, “the picketers continued to subject us to threats of violence, sexual and racist harassment,” the crew member said. “I was scared to go to work. We had to face this nightmare daily until we wrapped the show.”
Another crewmember on the scene recalled a tense confrontation as protesters tried to push their way into the restaurant during filming. Several crew members and a security guard blocked them, and someone inside hurriedly locked the doors behind them. “It was pretty scary,” he said. “They slammed our guys with their chests, screaming at them face to face — ‘Go back to LA you fucking scabs! This isn’t your fucking town! You’re taking our jobs.’ ”
The restaurant’s owners did not return calls and emails. Magical Elves, the show’s production company, declined comment and attorney Jonathan Huh sent out a company-wide email on August 14 telling staff not to talk to Deadline. “One of our staff was recently approached by an outside reporter to comment on union activity that occurred on location at a recent Elves production,” he wrote. “If you are approached by a magazine, newspaper, blog, or other press, DO NOT make any comment, even if ‘off the record,’ without the express permission of your supervisor.”
The crewmember who witnessed the Teamsters threatening and harassing Lakshmi and Levy said Bravo and Magical Elves share blame for putting the cast and crew in a dangerous situation. “Their poor handling of this situation comes as no surprise and really is a symptom of the overall dysfunction of reality-TV production,” the crewmember said. “Reality TV is cost efficient and easier to produce than scripted or more cinematic television. As a result, everyone suffers. To save money, reality TV workers are hired for lower than standard rates because the production companies and networks refuse to embrace unions or hire union workers. Along with that comes a lack of experience, professionalism and integrity. Production executives and showrunners just don’t have the experience or wherewithal to make the right decisions on how to handle issues such as the unions harassing a crew.”
Bravo declined comment, as did Lakshmi. A person from the network with knowledge of the incident said that “the police were called, and given the situation, that was the best we could do.” This person said the network “was willing to make a compromise, but in the end, the Teamsters were not willing to agree.” The Teamsters’ goal, this person said, “could have been accomplished if they did not react that way.”
Season 12 of Top Chef premieres October 15 on Bravo, but no word yet on when the Boston episode will air.