In the early 2000s, Sarma Melngailis had everything. She was the hot blonde chef of celebrity-packed restaurant Pure Food & Wine, the face of the kind of dietary movement — vegan food with nothing cooked above 120 degrees Fahrenheit — that was quickly gaining ground in New York City.
But in 2015, Melngailis disappeared. She hadn’t been paying her staff, vendors, or landlord. Her staff unionized and walked out over unpaid wages, and she was wanted for fraud and violation of labor law. Eventually she was found with her husband, Anthony Strangis, in a hotel room in Tennessee, after he ordered Domino’s pizza with a side of wings. She had been subsisting on vegan bowls from Chipotle.
If you’re thinking this story is fit for the screen, Netflix agrees: Here’s the trailer for Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives, a documentary from Tiger King producer and Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened director Chris Smith, a man who clearly knows his way around a juicy, knotted scandal. The documentary will be released on March 16.
The film attempts to answer the burning question of so many of the world’s biggest scandals: how did someone with so much success fuck up so badly? As you may have guessed, love plays a big part. Strangis supposedly manipulated Melngailis, meeting her after becoming close with Alec and Hilaria Baldwin on Twitter (just a wild detail). He was coercive and controlling, with Melngailis telling Vanity Fair that he subjected her to “cosmic endurance tests,” promising her fame, fortune, and even immortality. Per the trailer, something called a “meat suit” was involved.
Eventually Melngailis began loaning him money. According to the indictment, she had transferred $1.6 million from her businesses to personal accounts, “of which her husband blew roughly $1 million at Foxwoods casino and another $200,000 at the Mohegan Sun in Connecticut.”
However, in the trailer one source asks, “What if she’s running a con on him?” while another calls her the “vegan Bernie Madoff.” So things might be even wilder than they seem. But between this and the other raw vegan restaurant owner who kept exposing himself on the subway, there’s never been a better advertisement for stoves.