Netflix ‘Bad Vegan’: What We Know About Sarma Melngailis and the Pure Food and Wine Fraud She Committed With Husband Anthony Strangis

Pure Food and Wine, a now-defunct vegan restaurant, has burst onto the New York foodie scene at the perfect time. It opened in 2004, when the idea of ​​raw vegan cuisine still seemed new enough to spark curiosity. Tucked away at the bottom of a building in the Gramercy neighborhood, a block east of Union Square, it became one of the first restaurants in town to serve only raw food. From the start, it generated expectations and captured the attention of bloggers food.

The architect of the place was its co-founder and owner Sarma Melngailis. Originally from Newton, Massachusetts, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and the prestigious Wharton School, she worked at a few investment companies before moving on and enrolling in culinary school. Melngailis graduated from the Center Culinaire International, then known as the French Culinary Institute, just a few years before opening Pure Food and Wine.

For a time, the restaurant seemed to thrive. It’s become a celebrity hotspot: Alec Baldwin and his wife Hilaria Baldwin have said it was their first date spot; Boy George was interviewed once by New York Times while eating servings of Cauliflower and Sweet Corn Polenta from Pure Food and Wine. The magazine New York he praised its “delicious” cuisine and the “blissful lack of pedantry” of its staff. In 2009, actress Alicia Silverstone, in a food journal column for Grub Street, reported that she had feasted on the place’s “amazing arugula and hazelnut cheese salad”, a dish of vegan cheese “beautifully prepared and so delicious” and “a mint chip”. ice cream that was so amazing”.

But a few years later, in 2015, Pure Food and Wine collapsed. Employees resigned twice that year over alleged unpaid wages. Melngailis has apparently disappeared twice. “She really disappeared from the map,” said a former employee gothamist in July.

The next true crime documentary to premiere on Netflix is ​​about what happened to Melngailis around this time. bad veganwhich will premiere on the platform on March 16, will tell how Melngailis met Anthony Strangis, a man she would eventually marry and who she says was a big influence in her life, as he promised her to great rewards if she would unconditionally accept your requests, however strange they may be.

Woody Harrelson, Sarma Melngailis, Pure Food and Wine chef Matthew Kenney and actor Jason Lewis at a celebration of the documentary film ‘Go Further’ (with Harrelson) on November 8, 2004 in New York

(Andrew Kent/Getty Images)

The story, according to Netflix, is about a woman who was once at the dawn of vegan food in New York, until she met Strangis on Twitter, began “drawing funds from her restaurant and to send money to [él]”, and that even at a certain moment she thought he had the power to make “his beloved pit bull“, to finally flee, accused of having stolen nearly 2 million dollars from the restaurant and its employees. Their affair ended in 2016, when Strangis ordered a pizza from Domino’s under his real name, allowing law enforcement to locate him and Melngailis.

Looking back, there were early signs of trouble in the history of Pure Food and Wine.

Matthew Kenney, the restaurant’s original chef and Melngailis’ former boyfriend, quit in 2005 and was sued by restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow, with whom Melngailis had opened the place. This happened after Kenney and Melngailis split. Chodorow accused Kenney of allegedly luring former Pure Food and Wine employees into his own business; Kenney denied the allegations and said New York Times that “some employees” had contacted him and that he had “the letters to prove it”. Meanwhile, Melngailis told the newspaper: “Everything is very complicated, so I prefer not to comment.”

Shortly thereafter, in 2007, Melngailis, who had by then started several other businesses in addition to Pure Food and Wine, hinted at other problems in a message from Blog.

According to vanity loungeshe replied to an email in which someone described her life as a “dream life”: “And so I think all these people would probably choke if they knew that not only do I often feel completely exhausted, jaded and even at my wit’s end, but I also have a personal debt of a few hundred thousand dollars… that I am filled with a burning rage to have built this empire… and that I I have a latent residual destructive eating disorder that I occasionally relapse into.

But none of this compares to what happened after Melngailis met Strangis.

The two are thought to have started talking in 2011, via Twitter. The Melngailis team ensured vanity lounge that Strangis used the platform to interact with Alec Baldwin’s account (Baldwin was a client of Pure Food and Wine and then a friend of Melngailis). Strangis’ attorney denied that Strangis used the accounts or usernames linked to the indictment, or that he attempted to enter Baldwin’s virtual orbit.

Melngailis and Strangis met in person in November 2011, according to vanity lounge. They are believed to have married around December 2012 (a marriage license was issued to them on December 5, according to the magazine; marriage licenses are valid in New York State for a period of 60 days after issuance ). She introduced him to Pure Food and Wine “in 2013,” reported Forbes in 2017.

Authorities later allege that Strangis began spending Melngailis’s money. According to an indictment filed in May 2016, “From January 2014 to January 2015…Melngailis transferred over $1.6 million from business accounts to his personal bank account. Strangis spent nearly $1 million of those funds at Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut, over $200,000 at Mohegan Sun Resort Casino in Connecticut, over $80,000 at specialty watch retailers including Rolex and Beyer, over $70,000 in hotels in Europe and New York, and over $10,000 in Uber rides. He also withdrew hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash.

Meanwhile, according to a version of events told to vanity lounge by one or more sources close to Melngailis and denied by Strangis’ lawyer, Strangis reportedly began making various claims (for example, that Melngailis’ computer had been pirate and that she should email her login details to her SMS expert; that some of his relatives and employees were “red shirts”, that is, bad people; and that Melngailis had to undergo a series of “tests” which, according to Melngailis, were supposed to give him power).

“I would have access to unlimited resources to expand my brand around the world, to make the documentary that I always wanted to make, the one that would end up changing people’s behavior and help end factory farming. Basically, he could do all the world-changing things he had silently dreamed of. I could help whoever I wanted and stay young forever by doing it.” vanity lounge. At some point, Melngailis said, he would have convinced her that “among the things that would be granted to me” her dog Leon would be “immortal and by my side for eternity”. (Strangis’ lawyer denied these claims when vanity lounge reported them).

Sarma Melngailis with his dog Leon

(Netflix © 2022)

According to the indictment issued against Melngailis and Strangis, Melngailis stopped appearing at their businesses, including Pure Food and Wine, in 2014, “but told staff via email that he was working to develop and grow the business. The district attorney’s office said in 2016. He allegedly failed to pay employees in April, May, July, August and November of that year. “In August 2014, Strangis (aka ‘Shane Fox’) held a staff meeting and made numerous false claims, including claiming he was buying the business ‘on paper’,” added office. prosecutor. “In January 2015, their checks bounced, leaving 98 workers without pay. They refused to work, despite the insistence of the owner, and the business closed.”

In February 2015, Melngailis reportedly sought investment from former backers to reopen the business and, according to authorities, “falsely stated that he had to withdraw money in 2014 to help his mother”. “Based on her lies, four people invested a total of $844,000 and she used some of that money to pay former employees and settle other scores,” the prosecutor’s office said.

After Pure Food and Wine reopened, Melngailis reportedly tried to reassure investors that he was looking to sell the business to a man named Michael Caledonia. In May 2015, an investor reportedly discovered that Caledonia was actually Strangis.

“In June 2015, Melngailis allegedly transferred over $400,000 from business accounts to his personal account,” the prosecutor’s office wrote.

“She withdrew more than $100,000, transferred more than $300,000 to Foxwoods in her husband’s name, and paid nearly $25,000 at Connecticut casinos, according to the investigation. Bounced again, he sent them text messages and emails promising to fix everything and threatened to fire anyone who refused to work, according to the findings of the investigation.In July 2015, the employees permanently closed the company. accused allegedly defrauded 84 workers of up to $3,500 each, for a total of more than $40,000.

Melngailis and Strangis left New York in the summer of 2015, according to the prosecutor’s office. They were reportedly found in Las Vegas, Louisiana and Tennessee. It was in this latter state that they were arrested on May 10, 2016, at a hotel in Sevierville, about 20 miles (32 kilometers) from Knoxville, where, according to vanity loungethey were “hidden for 40 days and 40 nights”, until an order for “unraw, non-vegan cheesecake (and a side of chicken wings)” from Domino’s revealed their location.

In between, Melngailis and Strangis faced charges of second degree grand larceny, second degree criminal tax evasion and first degree scheme to defraud. Each faces up to 15 years in prison. Both plea agreements were accepted. Melngailis pleaded guilty in May 2017 to robbery, criminal tax evasion and fraudulent scheme, the new york post office at this moment. She served four months on Rikers Island and was released in October 2017 with an additional five years of probation. Strangis spent a year behind bars between May 2016 and May 2017; he was also sentenced to five years probation as part of his own plea deal.

bad vegan will premiere on Netflix on March 16.

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