Matthew Kenney and Sarma Melngailis in 2005.
Photo: Paul Hawthorne/Getty Images
Tomorrow, the food world gets its own scammer docuseries. Netflix will release Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives, which arrives courtesy of director Chris Smith, whom you may know from projects like Tiger King and Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened. This time, the focus is on restaurant owner Sarma Melngailis, often called the “vegan Bernie Madoff,” who went from celebrity restaurateur to fugitive after becoming involved with a man calling himself “Shane Fox.” The story of Melngailis’s restaurant, Pure Food and Wine, was baffling at the time, and it remains baffling now. So to get you up to speed, we’ve put together a quick primer that you can peruse before you watch the film. Here’s everything you need to know ahead of the docuseries’s March 16 release:
Pure Food and Wine was a raw vegan restaurant in Gramercy that opened in 2004, a time before anyone had ever heard of Impossible Burgers or the phrase “plant-based.” Nevertheless, the restaurant was vegan-glamorous, not granola, and three-dollar-sign expensive, turning out spicy Thai lettuce wraps and zebra tomato-and-zucchini lasagna (with pistachio-basil pesto). Vogue said it was the sexiest health food had ever been.
In a Vanity Fair report on the restaurant, Allen Salkin chronicled the scene:
[T]he bar scene hosted yoga-sleek patrons sipping signature cocktails, like the Master Cleanse Tini (organic sake with lemon juice, maple syrup, and cayenne pepper in a martini glass rimmed with crystal date sugar). In the garden, lit by candle lights, the likes of Anne Hathaway, Stevie Wonder, and Rooney Mara could be seen gracefully masticating such offerings as cauliflower couscous with pickled Persian cucumbers and cultured tree-nut cheeses. On warm evenings, it felt as privileged a place to be as gated Gramercy Park itself.
It is also, somewhat famously, the place where Alec Baldwin met future wife Hilaria in 2011, as documented in a New York Times wedding announcement: “I was standing near the door with my friends when he walked up and took my hand and said, ‘I must know you,’” the future Mrs. Baldwin told the paper.
When it opened, it was a collaboration between chefs Matthew Kenney and Sarma Melngailis — a couple at the time — with funding from restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow. When Kenney and Melngailis broke up in 2005, she bought out his stake in the restaurant.
Let’s break it down:
・Matthew Kenney had opened the Upper East Side restaurant Matthew’s in 1993, which got him on Food and Wine’s best new chefs list in 1994. Then came a succession of scene-y, non-vegan projects, including Commune and Commissary, the latter of which was also in collaboration with Melngailis. By then, Kenney already had a robust history of financial problems related to his growing empire. “He’s a nice guy, he really is,” his former accountant told the Observer in 2002. “But he doesn’t have the aptitude for business, and he doesn’t often surround himself with people who do.” After their split, he left Pure Food and Wine — not by choice, he told the Times — was sued by Chodorow, opened a natural-living education center and café in Dumbo, and moved to Oklahoma before ultimately landing in Los Angeles and launching what would become the new foundation of his improved empire, Plant Food and Wine in Venice (vegan but not strictly raw).
・Sarma Melngailis is the central character of this story. After graduating from Wharton, Melngailis worked in finance — Bear Stearns and then Bain — before realizing her true passion and enrolling at the French Culinary Institute. She then got a job working on Kenney’s cookbook, the two became a couple, and, in 2004, they opened Pure Food and Wine. Later, Melngailis expanded the brand with a trio of juice bars, called One Lucky Duck. Melngailis was also intensely introverted and extremely connected to her dog, a red-nosed rescue pit bull she named Leon. (This will be important later.)
・Jeffrey Chodorow is the “mega-restaurateur” behind China Grill Management, which at one point had 25 restaurants under its umbrella, among them the now-closed Ed’s Chowder House, the shuttered China Grill, and the still-going Asia de Cuba. Chodorow was also the money behind Pure Food and Wine. A former lawyer, he’d had his own legal troubles, having been involved in what the Times summarizes as a “bankruptcy debacle at Braniff International Airlines that drew him four months in prison.” He was also one-half of the 2003 NBC reality show The Restaurant, with chef Rocco DiSpirito, which ultimately chronicled the litigious demise of their professional relationship. It is possible, however, that you remember him instead from that time he took out a full-page ad in the New York Times, for close to $40,000, castigating Frank Bruni for a zero-star review of his short-lived samurai-inspired steakhouse, Kobe Club. That restaurant, you might recall, had among its decorations 2,000 swords dangling, blades-down, from its ceiling.
・Alec Baldwin is an actor, writer, and producer who is — let’s say this as charitably as possible — no stranger to scandal; Hilaria Baldwin is a yoga instructor and entrepreneur with a controversial Spanish accent.
For the first several years of Pure Food and Wine, everything was going along just fine. Melngailis owed Chodorow money — she’d taken out loans to buy out Kenney’s half of the restaurant — but the restaurant was profitable. Then in 2011, she met someone named Anthony Strangis. At the time, Strangis called himself Shane Fox and claimed to be wealthy from his involvement in secret government black ops, about which he was not at liberty to speak.
Exactly. From there, things get murky. Strangis promised to give Melngailis enough money to get out of debt, free herself from investors, and achieve her dreams, but first she had to pass a series of “cosmic endurance tests,” which mostly involved lending Strangis/Fox vast sums of money. “He convinced me I’d be empowered in ways I couldn’t imagine,” Melngailis told Salkin. “I would have access to unlimited resources so that I could grow my brand all over the world, make the documentary I always wanted to make — the one that would finally change people’s ways and help eradicate factory farming. Basically, I could do all the world-changing things I’d been quietly dreaming about. I could help whoever I want, and stay young forever doing it.” Also, her dog would become immortal. Over the course of this process, she handed over access to her phone, email, and bank accounts.
Melngailis’s staff was increasingly alarmed by what seemed to be Strangis’s influence, and also — more crucially — by their missed paychecks. Melngailis failed to make payroll five times in 2014, according to reports, closed the restaurant temporarily in the winter of 2015 when the staff walked out, reopened with new investors, and then closed permanently that spring. By the end, she’d transferred more than $1.6 million from her business accounts to her personal account, and Strangis had spent $1.2 million at Connecticut casinos.
Strangis, it goes without saying, was not, in fact, involved in secret government operations, but rather was a gambler who, according to the Post, had “previously done time for grand theft and impersonating a police officer.”
As Salkin explains:
The two were accused by the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office of draining Melngailis’s 12-year-old raw-vegan restaurant, Pure Food and Wine, of nearly $2 million, stiffing employees, duping investors, going on the lam, and spending lavishly on hotels, watches, and casinos.
Eventually, police discovered them camped out at a Fairfield Inn & Suites in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, by tracking an order from Domino’s Pizza.
From the outside, and perhaps also from the inside, it is very hard to make sense of what happened here. One explanation — and the one Melngailis’s lawyers planned to use in court — is that Melngailis was a victim of “coercive control,” which Salkin describes as “a form of domestic violence that can manifest as a cult of one, with a spouse as a brainwashed partner.” The idea is that under the spell of Strangis, Melngailis literally lost touch with reality. This possibility, to whatever extent it’s true, makes both the situation and the series deeply unsettling.
Sarma Melngailis took a plea deal and was sentenced to four months in jail followed by five years’ probation. As of 2019, she wasn’t opposed to reviving Pure Food and Wine, if it were ever possible, and was working on a memoir. She lives with Leon and has been a strong supporter of Pete Buttigieg. She and Strangis — who served ten months in prison followed by five years of probation and has since kept a low profile — are now divorced.
Leon the pit bull, meanwhile, does not appear to have become immortal, but he recently celebrated his 12th birthday, as documented on his Instagram.