Matthew Kenney and Sarma Melngailis in 2005.
Photo: Paul Hawthorne/Getty Images
Tomorrow, the food world will have its own scam docu-series. Netflix will release Bad vegan: fame. Fraud. Fugitives, incoming courtesy of director Chris Smith, who you may know from projects like tiger king and Fyre: The Greatest Party That Ever Happened. This time the focus is on restaurant owner Sarma Melngailis, often referred to as 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’ restaurant, Pure Food and Wine, was puzzling then, and it remains puzzling today. So, to get you up to speed, we’ve prepared a quick intro for you to go through before watching the movie. Here’s everything you need to know ahead of the docuseries’ 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.” Nonetheless, the restaurant was vegan-glamorous, no granola, and expensive three dollar signspicy Thai lettuce wraps and tomato and zucchini zebra lasagna (with pistachio-basil pesto). vogue said it was sexiest diet foods had never been.
In one vanity lounge report on the restaurant, Allen Salkin chronic the scene:
[T]he bar scene hosted stylish patrons in yoga sipping signature cocktails, like the Master Cleanse Tini (organic sake with lemon juice, maple syrup, and cayenne pepper in a martini glass rimmed with crystalline date sugar). In the garden, lit by candlelight, Anne Hathaway, Stevie Wonder and Rooney Mara could be seen chewing gracefully on offerings such as cauliflower couscous with pickled Persian cucumbers and cultured walnut cheeses. On warm evenings, it felt as privileged as Gramercy Park itself.
It’s also, somewhat famously, the place where Alec Baldwin met future wife Hilaria in 2011, as documented in a New York Times wedding invitation: ‘I was standing by the door with my friends when he came over and took my hand and said, ‘I need to know you'”, the future Mrs. Baldwin says the newspaper.
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 separated in 2005, she bought out her stake in the restaurant.
Let’s break it down:
・Matthew Kenney had opened Matthew’s restaurant on the Upper East Side in 1993, which made him Food and wineit’s list of top new chefs in 1994. Then came a succession of scene-y, non-vegan projects, including common and Commissioner, the latter also being in collaboration with Melngailis. By then, Kenney already had a solid history of financial troubles with his growing empire. “He’s a nice guy, really”, his former accountant Recount the Observer in 2002. “But he doesn’t have the business aptitude, and he doesn’t often surround himself with people who do.” After their separation, he left Pure Food and Wine – not by choice, he told the Times — was prosecuted by Chodorow, open a natural life education center and cafe in Dumbo, and moved to Oklahoma before finally landing in Los Angeles and launching what would become the New foundation of his improved empire, Vegetable Food and Wine in Venice (vegan but not strictly raw).
・Sarma Melngailis is the central character in 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 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, including the now-closed Ed’s Chowder House, the shuttered China Grill and the Asia de Cuba still in operation. Chodorow was also the money behind Pure Food and Wine. A former lawyer, he had had his own legal setbacks, having been involved in what Times abstract as a “bankruptcy debacle at Braniff International Airlines that landed him four months in jail”. He was also half of the 2003 NBC reality show Restaurant, with Chef Rocco DiSpirito, who finally recounted the disputed death of their professional relationship. It’s possible, however, that you remember him instead from when he took out a full-page ad in the New York Timesfor nearly $40,000, castigate Frank Bruni for a starless review of his pop-up samurai-inspired steakhouse, Kobe Club. This restaurant, you may recall, had among its decorations 2,000 swords that hung, blades down, from its ceiling.
・Alec Baldwin is an actor, writer and producer who, let’s put it as charitably as possible, is no stranger to scandal; Hilaria Baldwin is a yoga instructor and entrepreneur with a controversial spanish accent.
During the first years of Pure Food and Wine, everything was going very well. Melngailis owed Chodorow money – she had taken out loans to buy out half of Kenney’s restaurant – but the restaurant was profitable. Then in 2011, she met someone named Anthony Strangis. At the time, Strangis went by the name Shane Fox and claimed to be wealthy from his involvement in government covert operations, which he was not free to talk about.
Exactly. From there, things go downhill. Strangis promised to give Melngailis enough money to get out of debt, free herself from investors and realize her dreams, but first she had to pass a series of “cosmic endurance tests”, which mainly involved lending to Strangis /Fox large sums of money. “He convinced me that I would be empowered in ways I couldn’t imagine,” Melngailis Recount Salkine. “I would have access to unlimited resources to grow my brand around the world, to make the documentary I always wanted to make – the one that would finally change people’s habits and help eradicate factory farming. Basically, I I could do all the world-changing things I quietly dreamed of. I could help anyone I want and stay young forever by doing it. Plus, her dog would become immortal. In the process, she gave access to their phone, email and bank accounts.
Melngailis staff were increasingly alarmed by what appeared to be Strangis’ influence, and also – more crucially – by their missed paychecks. Melngailis failed to make payroll five times in 2014, according to reports, temporarily closed the restaurant in the winter of 2015 when the staff left, reopened with new investors, then closed permanently this spring. By the end, she had 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 notin fact, involved in covert government operations, but was instead a player who, according to the To posthad “previously served time for robbery and impersonating a police officer”.
Like Salkin Explain:
The two were charged by the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office with draining Melngailis’ 12-year-old raw vegan restaurant Pure Food and Wine of nearly $2 million, stiffening employees, tricking investors, to go on the run and spend lavishly on hotels, watches and casinos.
Eventually, police discovered them camping at a Fairfield Inn & Suites in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, following an order from Domino’s Pizza.
From the outside, and perhaps also from the inside, it is very difficult to understand what happened here. One explanation – and one that Melngailis’ lawyers planned to use in court – is that Melngailis was the victim of “coercive control”, which Salkin describes as “a form of domestic violence that can manifest itself in the worship of “one, with a spouse as a brainwashed partner. The idea is that under the spell of Strangis, Melngailis has literally lost touch with reality. This possibility, insofar as it is true, makes the both the situation and the series deeply troubling.
Sarma Melngailis took a plea deal and was sentenced to four months in prison followed by five years probation. Since 2019, she was not opposed to revive Pure Food and Wine, if 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 probation and has since kept a low profile — are now divorced.
Leon the pit bull, meanwhile, doesn’t appear to have become immortal, but he recently celebrated his 12th birthday, as documented on his Instagram.