While watching Bad Vegan, the four-episode Netflix documentary series that chronicles the downfall of New York City raw vegan restaurant Pure Food and Wine, I found myself continually wondering when, exactly, the real crazy shit was going to start. (Warning: spoilers ahead.)
For those who haven’t yet watched, here’s a recap of the pertinent details: the documentary centers around the scandal involving Pure Food and Wine owners Sarma Melngailis and Anthony Strangis, both of whom were ultimately arrested on a litany of charges including grand larceny, tax fraud, defrauding investors, and violations of of labor law. The duo went on the run, and were caught by the feds in a turn of fate that the internet found hilarious after they ordered a (probably not vegan) Domino’s pizza to their Tennessee hotel room.
It is, to be sure, a wild tale, but in the world of restaurants, wild tales are not rare. In fact, there is a whole category of stories related to criminal activity in the restaurant world, ranging from wine-drenched Ponzi schemes to a restaurant fraudulently serving Popeyes chicken to alleged pistol-whippings. It’s not even totally unheard of for shady restaurant owners to go on the lam after they’ve been accused of crimes, either — in 2019, Attila Gyulai, the owner of Chicago Vietnamese restaurant Embaya, was arrested in Spain after 10 months of hiding from the authorities following his indictment on fraud charges a year prior.
Strangis is not interviewed in the documentary, but Melngailis spoke extensively about their relationship, alleging that Strangis engaged in “coercive control” of both her and her finances by making her believe a wide variety of lies, including the notion that he had the ability to make both Melngalis and her beloved dog Leon live forever. Ultimately, both Melngailis and Strangis both ended up doing jail time, and Pure Food and Wine closed its doors. Leon, by the way, is still alive.
And sure, that sounds absolutely bananas. But is it really more bonkers than the guy who lied about being a celebrity chef with a Food Network show in the works to win over women and investors, only to end up getting arrested for wire fraud? Everyone loves a good mob story, and the restaurant industry is home to plenty of those, including the 2003 murder of mobster Albert Circelli, who was killed inside exclusive NYC Italian restaurant Rao’s in 2003 following an argument with a guy named Louis “Louie Lump Lump” Barone over a song on the jukebox. A decade before that, the restaurant burned to the ground in a fire that was “deliberately set.”
Instead of listening to Melngailis describe how she willingly handed over tens of thousands of dollars, without question, to a dude just because he told her he was rich, I’d much prefer to see a deep-dive into the Pizzagate conspiracy, which resulted in an actual shooting at a restaurant, or even learning more about the secret marijuana farm that grew underneath a Brooklyn maraschino cherry factory.
Among her many crimes, Melngailis was also accused by her employees of stealing wages, and that’s not exactly uncommon in the restaurant industry, either. Even large chains like McDonald’s have paid out millions to settle lawsuits that alleged wage theft. The same is true in the world of fine dining, evidenced by vaunted eateries like Thomas Keller’s Per Se and acclaimed Lummi Island spot the Willows Inn, the latter of which paid $600,000 to settle a class-action lawsuit filed by its employees alleging wage theft.
With all of that in mind, the shenanigans at Pure Food and Wine are a little yawn-inducing, especially when stretched across four meandering episodes. At the end, viewers are left wondering who was really getting scammed here — was it Sarma, who thought she had her hooks in a rich investor who could save her struggling restaurant, or Anthony, a charming con man intent on riding Sarma’s coattails right to the top? Who can say? But one thing’s for sure: There are certainly stories equally — and more — deserving of the Netflix documentary treatment than the tale of Pure Food and Wine.