Sarma Melngailis is the Bad Vegan blowing up the internet, now landing on Netflix couch-bingers’ TVs, in the streamer’s appropriately named Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives, out now. But who exactly is Sarma Melngailis, why is she on the minds of social-media sleuths, and what does it all have to do with a certain shady husband and the Baldwins? Well, here’s the breakdown of the true story behind the latest true crime tale hitting screens, and the woman at the center of it all.
Sarma Melngailis’s life seemed pretty sweet at the height of her success as a raw vegan chef and restaurateur in the early 2000s. As Eater reports, she reigned over New York City’s since-shuttered Pure Food & Wine, which was gaining traction with celebrities including Owen Wilson, Bill Clinton, and, yes, Alec Baldwin, along with a well-heeled crowd joining the vegan raw food movement, albeit given a posh gloss.
Everything at Pure was animal product-free and, cooked, if at all, at 120 degrees Fahrenheit or under. (AND raw food dietit should be noted, isn’t necessarily as beneficial as it’s made out to be when it comes to your nutrition.) It didn’t hurt Pure’s image that Melngailis was sexy, blonde, and Ivy League-educated.
Melngailis has been called the ‘Vegan Bernie Madoff’
Then things took a sharp turn. She seemingly vanished in 2015. She and husband Anthony Strangis (who is indeed one strange character, but we’ll get to that) were accused of not paying staff, who walked out of Pure. She was wanted for fraud and violation of labor law. On the lam, she and Strangis were found and arrested at a Tennessee hotel after ordering delivery of a … not-so-vegan Domino’s pizza.
Yes, Melngailis, who became known as the “Vegan Bernie Madoff”—A label so delicious that the Netflix treatment seemed inevitable — was gotten by a fast-food chain. There are certain things you can’t make up, and Melngailis’s meteoric rise in the food world and downfall to Rikers is among them.
When they were arrested, the couple was charged with 24 counts of theft, fraud, and tax crimes. They faced up to 15 years in prison, and allegedly stole around $ 2 million from the restaurant, including money owed to employees and investors. They owed the government $ 400,000 in taxes.
And the cheesy pie? Melngalis insisted it was Strangis’ order and that she remained an ardent vegan.
A strange entanglement with Anthony Strangis.
But enough about the Domino’s sting, as legendary as it already is, and the legal consequences (we’ll get to that, too). How did Melngailis get herself into this mess? It seems much of it involves her relationship with Strangis.
There’s a lot to unpack in the Netflix Bad Veganwhich is from the scandal-attuned filmmaker Chris Smith, who produced Tiger King and directed Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened. But one place to start is with a genuinely disturbing recording in which it seems Melngailis (who, according to one story, met her future husband via Twitter connections to the Baldwins) rhetorically asks Strangis, “So I’m just supposed to do whatever you say?” And he responds, loudly and angrily, “Yes, you signed onto this.”
There are debated accusations that Strangis funneled Pure money into a gambling addiction. The trailer also includes a vague reference to a “meat suit,” the meaning of which remains to be seen, as well as Strangis’s promise to make Melngailis and her pet dog immortal.
Where is Sarma Melngailis now?
New York’s “hottest vegan,” as the New York Post naturally dubbed Melngailis, is free again. She and Strangis both took plea deals in their cases, according to The Independent.
In May 2017, Melngailis pleaded guilty to grand larceny, tax fraud, and a scheme to defraud. She served four months in the infamous prison system on Rikers Island wearing a gray jumpsuit and subsisting on a diet of “peanut butter sandwiches, bananas, apples, and fresh-sliced cucumber.” She was released in October of that year with five years of probation. She has said she’s ready to return to the culinary world. And from the looks of it, Netflix’s Bad Vegan scored an interview with the criminal vegan of the moment herself. Pull out the pizza.
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