[Editor’s Note: The following article contains spoilers for “Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives.”]
If you’re unpacking the truth behind one of New York’s most confounding public sagas, sometimes it’s best to go straight to the source. To get a better idea about the truth behind the rise and unceremonious end of Manhattan raw food eatery Pure Food and Wine, “Bad Vegan” director Chris Smith spoke to former restaurant owner Sarma Melngailis.
“On this one, it was really sitting down with Sarma. We did an eight-hour interview, just to get a sense of what this was or what it could be,” Smith said. “At least speaking for myself, I went in with no preconceived notion. We had a vague understanding of what had happened. But to go forensically through the story, from her point of view, in as much detail as possible, it just opened it up in a way that made us look at the story slightly differently.”
If that interview comes across as Melngailis explaining her story to someone she doesn’t know, it’s because that’s basically what audiences are seeing. That lengthy overview formed the foundation of the series, and unfolded in the manner largely in the way Smith intended.
“I don’t think I even met Sarma until we were sitting across from each other in the interview. That was the main interview that you see in the series,” Smith said. “I try not to pre-interview people. When people do an interview, and they’re telling you something for the first time, I feel like that’s something that can’t be recaptured.”
That interview became the start of the “Bad Vegan” process, one that included speaking with a number of people in the Pure Food and Wine orbit, from investors to kitchen staff and others who managed to catch a firsthand glimpse at Melngailis’ gradual shift from public face of a trendy culinary staple to the potential mark for a lengthy, persistent, money-draining scam.
“Early on, she provided a lot of the materials that were involved with her case. That included a ton of emails, G chats, basically all the evidence that they presented. But then there was a point where I kind of thought there had to be more,” series executive producer Ryann Fraser said. “So I started trying to work with Sarma to get more. At times, she was reluctant. But I think knowing where we were coming from, she became more OK with it. We were just trying to get to the truth and the heart of what happened. It’s deeply personal stuff, so I understand the sensitivities around it. But she shared a ton with us. In the end, it probably doubled from what it started as, and it started a pretty significant amount.”
“Bad Vegan” points a significant amount of the blame for the siphoned funds at Anthony Strangis, who entered Melngailis’ life as a Twitter acquaintance before ingratiating himself into both the business and her personal life. Much like the collective contributors to “Bad Vegan,” Fraser and Smith internally referred to him interchangeably as both “Anthony” and his online alias “Shane Fox,” depending on the context and the spot in the saga’s timeline. The production team made multiple attempts to include Strangis, ones that were ultimately rejected.
“He was difficult to find. We actually had to go to someone that had a connection to him to get a secret email that we were given. We proposed what we were trying to do and and why we would like his participation. And we never received a response,” Smith said. “He’s unpredictable. I don’t think we went in thinking that he would or would not do it. Our hope, obviously, was that he would sit down. He had a specific point of view on the way that things happened and Sarma’s involvement. We were obviously interested to hear that perspective, to put that against all the documentary evidence that we had come across in trying to tell the story that, in our mind, seemed slightly at odds with the statements that he put out.”
Though Strangis never appears on camera, his words and actions are represented throughout “Bad Vegan.” Melngailis’ recorded phone calls — including one on camera that opens the series — give a literal voice to his behavior over the course of his time around Melngailis and her various business ventures.
There’s also the way that “Bad Vegan” includes the figure of Will Richards, who Melngailis believed was a Strangis associate who could assist with her personal and professional IT needs. For reasons that are apparent to viewers who’ve seen the whole series, “Bad Vegan” has a little bit of freedom in how it’s able to represent Richards. Given that Richards is revealed to be another of Strangis’ personal misdirects, introducing that “character” as another talking-head participant was a creative choice that Smith said was designed to put any viewer in Melngailis’ mindset.
“It definitely wasn’t something from the outset. But I felt like there would be an easy opportunity for people to criticize Sarma for being so gullible, to believe something that in hindsight looks so obviously fictitious. In the moment, you might not know when something’s being presented to you as real, which is the experience that Sarma had. It might be harder to understand without the benefit of looking at the bigger picture of the story in hindsight. I think that was the impetus: Can we take the audience on a similar journey that we did with with Sarma?” Smith said. “We were just looking for someone that felt like they might have a slight, I wouldn’t say ‘sinister’ side, but would seem competent within the tech space and a little bit assured. It was interesting to us that it’s someone who feels like they’re almost from a similar space as Anthony.”
“Bad Vegan” closes with a number of the interview subjects throughout the series providing their final thoughts on whether Melngailis was more the target of psychological manipulation or was more of a willing accomplice in the crimes outlined in the series. Fraser and Smith don’t come to quite as definitive an opinion as some of the “Bad Vegan” participants, but after spending two and half years inside the story, they have their own conclusions.
“As someone who has had hours and hours and hours of conversations on this subject over the course of the project, it’s a gray area. It’s complicated. And I think that it’s really hard,” Fraser said.
“The thing I would say definitively is I do not believe Sarma would have ever been involved or resorted to any criminal activity on her own. That was the one conclusion I came away with from this entire process, spending time with her, getting to know her, looking at her history, and looking at what had happened,” Smith said. “One of the things we found interesting was just how many people had different points of view on her culpability. We were just trying to represent that. You present everything as well as you can and allow the audience to come to their own conclusions.”
“Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives.” is now available to stream on Netflix.