As far as modern fraudsters go, the name Sarma Melngailis isn’t as well-known as Bernie Madoff or Elizabeth Holmes, but that’s about to change.
Following their recent hits, The Tinder Swindler and Inventing Anna, which brought the tales of modern con artists to a wide and willing audience, Melngailis is the latest scammer to get the tell-all treatment from Netflix.
Once dubbed the “Queen of Vegan Cuisine” by New York magazine, Melngailis was not only revered in the vegan community, but her clean-living and stylish lifestyle made her an inspiration for the wealthy, yoga-loving, privileged elite of the Big Apple and beyond.
So, how did this educated, talented woman with New York on her plate end up broke, on the run from police, living in motels and brought down by a Domino’s pizza and a side of chicken wings?
Who is Sarma Melngailis?
Melngailis, 49, became the darling of the New York foodie scene when she, along with her then-boyfriend, chef Matthew Kenney, and restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow, opened Pure Food and Wine in June 2004.
The raw organic vegan restaurant in Gramercy Park, Manhattan was an instant hit, attracting celebrity fans including Anne Hathaway, Stevie Wonder, Chelsea Clinton, Tom Brady and Katie Holmes, who came to tuck into the smashed pineapple and diced cucumber gazpacho, and sip on a Master Cleanse Tini. The restaurant frequently made the “top restaurants” lists in the likes of Forbes.
Melngailis, the daughter of a professional chef and an MIT physicist, also boasted a dual bachelor's in economics from the acclaimed Wharton School. Moving to New York after graduation in 1994, she soon had Bear Stearns and the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce on her resume.
Later she quit finance and enrolled at New York’s French Culinary Institute, which counts Bobby Flay among its alumni, graduating from there in 1999.
The Alec and Hilaria Baldwin connection
After releasing a cookbook, Raw Food, Real World: 100 Recipes to Get the Glow, along with Kenney in 2005, the pair broke up both personally and professionally.
Melngailis kept Pure Food and Wine, and went on to open three juice bars called One Lucky Duck and create a line of vegan snacks.
The chef became a close friend of actor Alec Baldwin and the Hollywood star would go on to meet his wife, Hilaria at Pure Food and Wine. Melngailis then met her future husband Anthony Strangis through Hilaria, after he started following her on Twitter and impressing her with his witty tweets.
“At the beginning it seemed like this fun thing,” Hilaria told Vanity Fair. “He seemed nice. He used to make us laugh.”
Although Melngailis and Strangis dated and broke up, the pair later married in December 2012.
Coercive control or willing partner?
According to the formal charges brought against the pair, during their relationship Melngailis transferred more than $1.6 million from her business accounts to her personal bank account. The indictment stated that Strangis spent $1.2 million of the money at casinos in Connecticut.
So, how did a restaurant that was making around $500,000 a year profit, according to one former manager, end up millions in debt and unable to pay the staff Melngailis had once treated like family?
According to her lawyers, Melngailis was under a form of “coercive control” whereby Strangis directed every aspect of her life, from her finances down to who she could and couldn’t see.
“He combined the best techniques of cult leaders — abusive partner control, manipulation and con artist — along with the worst tactics of prosperity theology, meaning, 'when you give me your money, you’ll get 10 times back next week',” Melngailis’s lawyer Sheila Tendy told Vanity Fair, which Strangis denied.
‘Fugitives from justice’
By January 2015, the staff at Pure Food and Wine and One Lucky Duck walked out over unpaid wages. Melngailis blamed poor profit and the fact that she had changed banks for the delays. The restaurants reopened in April 2015, only to close three months later for non-payment of salaries again.
On May 10, 2016, having been declared “fugitives-from-justice”, police arrested Melngailis and Strangis at the Fairfield Inn & Suites Pigeon Forge in Tennessee after they had been on the run for about a month.
They were accused by the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office of taking almost $2m from Pure Food and Wine, not paying employees and defrauding investors.
The pair were caught after Strangis ordered a Domino’s pizza and wings under his real name, which alerted the authorities of their whereabouts. A food order that one defrauded investor told Vanity Fair made Melngailis “guilty of conduct unbecoming a vegan.”
Bad Vegan is out on Netflix on March 16