Obsession, Greed, and Gaslighting: How “Bad Vegan” Tells the Unexpected Story of Abuse, but Answers None of the Right Questions

published Mar 18, 2022
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Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives. Sarma Melngailis in Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives. Cr. Netflix © 2022
Credit: Courtesy of Netflix

A few weeks ago, after wrapping yet another show on Netflix, I decided to scroll through my suggestions of things to watch. Because I have a while to wait on the return of Dead to Me, Stranger Things, Bridgerton, and the follow-up season to The Woman in the House Across the Street from the Girl in the Window, I knew I had to find something else to tide me over. That’s when i saw it: Bad Vegan. The title drew me in and made me believe that a murderous tale was about to be underway by way of another limited series that would leave me checking the doors and sleeping with the lights on.

Of course, as I tuned into the trailer, I soon discovered that my assumption was incredibly wrong and instead was introduced to the now-disgraced raw vegan princess, Sarma Melngailis of Pure Food and Wine, who was essentially ahead of her time. I saved the show under my alerts and went about my day, not thinking that this one documentary would cause me to do a deep-dive into my own thoughts, reconsider some of my own actions, and question more than just my diet.

To be honest, I never followed the story of Sarma Melngailis prior to watching Netflix’s trailer. Although I am a food journalist and someone who has spent many years doubling as a travel journalist, flying to luxurious destinations just to taste and talk about the food there, Sarma’s story — as well as the rise and subsequent fall of her restaurant Pure Food and Wine (and brand One Lucky Duck) — were all new to me. And if it’s new to you, too, here’s a small recap of what you first need to know about Bad Vegan.

Sarma, who was a French Culinary Institute graduate in 1999, met chef and restaurateur Matthew Kenney, with whom she soon fell in love with. At some point, the two went into business together, opening the New York-based restaurant Pure Food and Wine — a raw vegan spot that saw celebrities, tastemakers, and “it” people from all over flock to fill its small square footage. Initially, the restaurant was founded as a way to introduce the world to the approach of healthful eating through raw veganism. Everyone — from founders to employees and customers alike — bonded through the idea that this form of dieting was the way to living a better and fuller life. And for quite some time, Pure Food and Wine was a hot spot that even non-raw vegans stopped by, too.

But as time went on and the success of the restaurant grew, Sarma and Kenney found themselves at odds. The two eventually broke up, resulting in Kenney’s removal from the restaurant and Sarma taking on $2 million worth of debt to be paid back to the investor, Jeffrey Chodorow.

After attempting to ease her broken heart with a new love — her dog, Leon — Sarma, through Twitter, was introduced to Shane Fox. And from there, life as she knew it went completely downhill.

Before reading ahead, however, I have to note that this piece focuses on abuse. I also want to warn you that spoilers are present, so please stop here if you don’t want to know more about the story of Sarma Melngailis.

Credit: Courtesy of Netflix

“It feels like nobody knows the extent of it, except for him.”

Like many people, I found myself constantly questioning Sarma, Shane — who’s name we later found out to be Anthony Strangis — and the other people who actively participated in the horror show that was caused. Similar to those holding spotlights in Netflix’s Inventing Anna and The Tinder Swindler, I frequently asked aloud “How did she even let this happen?!” But then it hit me: Victims of abuse are quite often misunderstood and are most commonly called stupid or simple-minded as a result of the things done to them by their abusers.

In one episode, Sarma was asked by the interviewer whether or not she thought anyone knows exactly what happened to her and her response was, “It feels like nobody knows the extent of it, except for him.” And she’s right. Victims of abuse, although the ones going through it, still don’t understand the extent of their abuser’s actions because the abuser — through manipulation, mind-control, brainwashing, or just plain cruelty — find a way to justify everything they’ve done to those they continue to hurt. And, as Sarma found herself attempting to heal from her relationship with Kenney, Anthony took advantage of the things that meant most to her and used them as pawns in his own plan.

Credit: Courtesy of Netflix

“You signed on to this. You told me you love me. You want the forever. You told me you wanted happily ever after.”

Although at one point Sarma was on top of the world with her companies and was known as the sweetheart of the vegan world, Anthony’s arrival into her life sent things into a complete frenzy. Throughout the course of their years together, it was reported that Sarma gave him well over $1 million and that Anthony took over $400,00 from her mother claiming that Sarma needed it, but was too “messed up” to ask for it.

If that wasn’t wild enough, Anthony — by promising Sarma a “happily ever after” as well as immortality for her dog and gaslighting her by accusing her of valuing money over him (amongst other things) — was able to convince the entrepreneur to continuously ask for money from those close to her and through securing more investors.

In most cases of abuse, abusers seclude the victims from those closest to them and create a sense of reliance on them solely, making it difficult for victims to discuss what’s happening in their lives. And honestly, how do you explain to those who care for you most that you — a well-educated person with the most impressive and reputable restaurant in New York at the time — ended up in a situation that makes no sense to anyone … including yourself?

“Whatever it was, I gave him what he asked for”

In the last episode of the series, Sarma revealed that Anthony berated her with sexual demands and although she felt embarrassed and belittled, she did it anyway. And while there were many instances that Sarma herself noted that there wasn’t a time where she was “bound” or locked in a room (and therefore there wasn’t anything physically preventing her from just walking out), it’s clear Anthony had an unseen hold on her in so many other ways.

While I am in no way excusing the incidents that happened over the course of the years that Sarma was mixed up with Anthony (she did go “on the run” for a full year and create an alias, for crying out loud), I do think that these things should be the premise of a much larger conversation about how we view people just because it isn’t something that we ourselves would do.

Credit: Courtesy of Netflix

“She’s too smart not to know what was going on or, you know, what she was doing.”

I’d absolutely be remiss if I didn’t admit that I battled myself throughout the entirety of watching this show wondering whether or not Sarma was a willing participant in this charade of life that Anthony Strangis was a star in. And truthfully, at the time of writing this, I still have no idea.

While I honestly believe that Netflix tells the story of a vegan maven that had the world in her hand and lost it all in what seems to be one fell swoop very well, I’m also left wondering what happens next? What happens in the lives of the people he endangered (because Sarma wasn’t his only victim throughout the course of this)? Is there ever a point where we’ll know if Sarma was as devious as the media made her out to be? Did she wholeheartedly believe what he told her because he’d gained so much power and control over her? Or, was it all just a ploy to make herself not look bad?

But most importantly, I’m left with the question of how do we essentially eliminate the need to blame victims for the actions of their abusers? While I do believe that Sarma was a willing participant in some of her abuser’s antics, I also believe that, in a sense, she did it because she felt as if she had no choice.

Although I know many people won’t quite agree with or see this in the same way that I have — especially after witnessing the conversation Sarma and Anthony had in 2019 — I still believe that unfortunately, the attachment victims share with their abusers is often misconstrued as them green-lighting their actions.

Overall, while not so much about food as those would probably think, I believe that Bad Vegan tells a story well worth seeing and is a cautionary tale of how the media (and everyday people) have to do a better job at offering a bit of understanding in situations that aren’t as relatable to us in the moment. Ultimately, however, this documentary shines a light on how living a healthy lifestyle transcends well past what you put into your body; healthy lifestyles encompass the mental, emotional, and financial aspects of your life, too. And as Sarma neglected to take care of those portions of her life at some point, the terrible chains of events that unfolded over the course of the years ended up destroying a restaurant that filled others with joy and ruined a standing legacy that now places Sarma in the pockets of our minds for reasons not as beautiful as changing the way we look at food.