UPDATED with other people’s testimony below: Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi took the witness stand today for the first time in trial of four Boston Teamsters accused of trying to extort the show for driving jobs during a location shoot three years ago. She testified that she was “terrified” and “felt threatened” as she attempted to cross a picket line for filming of the show in the Boston suburb of Milton.
Lakshmi said she had been driven in a minivan to the Steel & Rye restaurant in Milton by her longtime assistant, Jason Duffy. They were met by a group of men in the parking lot. “I told Jason to slow the car down to avoid hitting these guys,” she said. Lakshmi’s passenger-side window was down, and one of the Teamsters put his arm in the window, resting his elbow on her door. “He kinda said, ‘Oh, looky here, what a pretty face. What a shame about that pretty face,’” Lakshmi testified, without naming the person. “I felt he was bullying me. I thought he might hit me. I felt threatened. I felt really bad for Jason. He looked terrified. I thought it was less likely that they would hit a girl. I’m glad they didn’t go to Jason’s side. He’s the unsung hero of our show. He look terrified. His knuckles were white on the wheel.”
As the minivan approached the picketers, “I really didn’t want to cross the line,” Lakshmi said. “I don’t like confrontation, and this was a very heated confrontation.” She said she saw two female Top Chef producers nearby, “and I was surprised they were brave enough to be talking to them. I started getting scared when the guys weren’t getting out of the way. There was a police officer nearby who seemed to be directing cars in the street. I was surprised the police would let them do this on private property. I felt threatened.”
The non-union Top Chef has faced picketing by Teamsters in other places, including Texas, Nevada and Washington, D.C., but Lakshmi said that “in other states, we didn’t have trouble as menacing as this. They didn’t harass me.”
At the shoot outside Boston, she said, the Teamsters showered her and the cast and crew with profanities and subjected them to “serious schoolyard bullying.” And that harassment, she said, “drastically affected the mood of the whole production, and not just for one day.” The Teamsters, she said, “had slashed the tires of a bunch of cars,” and “people were afraid to drive home alone.”
Lakshmi said the Teamsters called her a “scab” but she wasn’t sure what it meant. “I assume it means you’re a scab if you cross a picket line.” (In fact, a scab is someone who takes the job of a striking worker.) She said she was reluctant to cross the picket line because “I was afraid to be photographed — that my face would be in the paper for doing that, that I would be retaliated against by other Teamsters.”
Under cross-examination, she was reminded that she’d told FBI agents that she “couldn’t stomach” crossing a picket line because her mother had been a union nurse.
Meanwhile, Duffy testified that as he was trying to enter the parking lot that he was approached by a Teamster who said, “Oh, pretty lady in the car – who’s this?” He said another Teamster “approached the car and called me a ‘pickle.’ It had a weird, jokey feel to it, like they were trying to provoke us.” He said a “very angry guy” approached Lakshmi on the passenger side and was yelling at her. “I didn’t hear 100% on the other side, but Padma was clearly uneasy and scared – there was panic on her face.”
Two Milton police officers were nearby, Duffy said. “They weren’t doing police work. They weren’t stopping the gentlemen from doing what they were doing. It was like they knew each other. It was, ‘Hey buddy, come on, stop doing that.’”
On cross-examination, Duffy said one of the Teamster said in a heavy Boston accent, “Hey pickle, who you got in your car, pickle? Who’s that pretty lady in the car?” He then asked the defense attorney, “Do you know what ’pickle’ means? That means ‘fag.’”
Duffy testified that he personally received “no threats,” but said “they insulted me over and over.” He described the encounter as lasting for about two minutes. Asked if there were any threats against anyone present, he responded, “Miss Lakshmi.”
Sandee Birdsong, the supervising culinary producer on the show, then testified that she was standing nearby when Lakshmi’s car pulled up. “One of the Teamsters said, ‘There’s the pretty one,’ and everybody started to swarm her car.” She then ran to the car and saw a Teamster reaching his hand through the passenger side window and “said he would ‘Mess up her pretty face’ or ‘Punch her in the face,’ or something like that.”
Birdsong said she then got between the Teamster and the car to protect Lakshmi. “She was completely shocked and scared – it was a very shocking experience,” she said. Duffy, she added, was “was pretty scared. It scared him pretty bad.”
She said that during the confrontation she heard numerous slurs, including “faggot” and “towelhead.” Birdsong said she told a police officer on the scene, “’This is not right. They shouldn’t be doing this.’ He informed me that ‘[the Teamsters] knew what they were doing.’”
Earlier, Gail Simmons, a longtime judge on the show, who arrived at the restaurant in a different car, testified that one of the men put his head through her window and yelled, “Scab!” “I remember them being aggressive, and I was scared,” she said on the stand. “I remember thinking they were men who wanted to harm us.”
Also this morning, Morgan Graham, driver of another Top Chef vehicle that day in June 2014, said, “There was a lot of yelling, a lot of insults, a lot of loud, rude things being yelled into the window.” Asked by a prosecutor if she was worried about the safety of cast members in her van, Graham said, “Yes, ma’am.” Graham was the travel coordinator in charge of the fleet of vehicles being used on the set, and she testified that 11 tires were slashed on nine vans and she spent most of the day arranging for them to be repaired. Photos of the slashed tires were shown in court today.
Local 25 Teamsters Daniel Redmond, Robert Cafarelli, Michael Ross and John Fidler have pleaded not guilty in the extortion trial. Mark Harrington, the local’s former secretary-treasurer, pleaded guilty to the same charges in December and is serving six months of home confinement and two years of probation. He’s also been ordered to pay a $10,000 fine and restitution of $24,000.
Erik Pedersen contributed to this report.