Review by Tatiana Miranda
After the success of the Netflix docuseries Tiger King and Don’t F**k With Cats comes a new one titled Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives. This blend of pop culture and true crime documentary follows the story of Sarma Melngailis and her infamous raw vegan restaurant Pure Food and Wine. While the story begins as a usual one of a failed business due to fraud and embezzlement, as it goes on, it becomes increasingly clear that the media at the time didn’t have the whole picture. Talking head interviews of Pure Food and Wine managers and employees, Melngailis’s friends and family, as well as Melngailis herself, break down the downfall of the restaurant and Melngailis’s picture-perfect vegan lifestyle.
The documentary begins with Melngailis’s roots and how she came to open Pure Food and Wine with her then-partner, Matthew Kenney. News footage and tweets regarding the restaurant prove how popular it was at the time, with its raw vegan menu being groundbreaking and a spot for many celebrities to frequent. The story then shifts to Melngailis’s growing relationship with a man named Shane Fox, who is later revealed actually to be named Anthony Strangis. Love mixes with lies and deception as he takes control of the business and funds, leaving her employees confused and unpaid.
Beyond interviews filmed for the documentary, there are also e-mail correspondences, text messages, and phone calls between Melngailis and Strangis, as well as diary entries from Melngailis written as everything was going down. Since neither of them informed their families or employees at Pure Food and Wine of what was really happening, the messages between the two and Melngailis’s inner thoughts give insight into the manipulation and control Strangis had over her.
Bad Vegan is not just the tale of the failure of one of the most popular restaurants in Manhattan at the time, but also one about the reality of abusive relationships and how individuals can be coerced into doing terrible things for the ones they love. The discussion of brainwashing and cult-like behavior coincides with that of Patty Hearst, a well-known figure who committed bank robbery due to her involvement with a cult. In the episode titled “No Angels in Hell”, it becomes evident that, although Melngailis was mentally abused, she also had a part in her own undoing. The documentary attempts to uncover the truth regarding the supposed victim’s actions and if Melngailis was entirely unaware of what she was doing.
This Netflix docuseries is nothing special in terms of documentaries. Still, it does pose the interesting question of how the justice system should deal with those involved in cults and abusive relationships. The series also gives a unique insight into Sarma Melngailis’s undoing, going beyond what many media outlets reported on at the time and giving her a way to share her story outside of the courtroom.
Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives. is released on Netflix March 16th.