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‘Bad Vegan’ Review: Netflix’s Window Into Mysterious New York Cooking Sensation Is More Sad than Salacious

This four-part look at Sarma Melngailis lands somewhere between an overly familiar Netflix doc and an insightful examination of a downward spiral.

Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives. Sarma Melngailis in Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives. Cr. Netflix © 2022

“Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives.”

Netflix

Pick any memorable detail at random from the overview montage at the beginning of “Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives.”: an immortal dog, an undercover operation, a circle of picketers. More notable than any of those individual pieces, though, is the whole itself.

Almost a tacit admission that a four-part documentary series with this title wouldn’t exist without things turning out badly, the show begins at the end, teeing up a tell-all conversation with Sarma Melngailis. In the ever-calcifying Netflix house style, there’s the former proprietor of trendy New York eatery Pure Food and Wine, looking straight into the camera and describing how on the verge of turning her restaurant into a blooming culinary empire, the arrival of one enigmatic individual helped to upend it all.

Much like the reputation of Pure Food and Wine in an enthralled subset of New York socialites, Sarma becomes the prism through which to view everything that made her the subject of media attention in New York and beyond. Her former employees and associates meticulously lay out the highs and lows of working at the street-level raw food restaurant, outlining a steady ascension that maybe could have continued were it not for the efforts of one other determined individual. Though he doesn’t participate directly in the series, “Bad Vegan” outlines how the man who arrived in Sarma’s orbit as ambitious Twitter mutual Shane Fox gradually became a slow-played agent of tumult in all those best-laid plans.

It doesn’t take long for “Bad Vegan” to show Fox’s veneer begin to melt away and reveal some more manipulative aims underneath. It’s a key distinction that the series draws, acknowledging how someone could be taken in by the idea of Fox without also reveling in putting that same behavior on a glorified swindler pedestal. In some ways, constructing something so dependably designed to carry the viewing audience forward is a level-headed counterpoint to some of the more sensational instincts that a story like this Pure Food and Wine saga might otherwise call out for.

Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives. Sarma Melngailis in Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives. Cr. Netflix © 2022

“Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives.”

Netflix

Chris Smith, the director behind “American Movie” and other rapid-response Netflix docs such as “Fyre” and “Operation Varsity Blues,” does include a few tiny stylistic flourishes that keep this from being purely a rote recollection of events. (Phone call transcripts pass by against hovering looks at the New York City skyline rather than against a sterile, black background.) But apart from one gigantic storytelling swing that comes into focus the more that Sarma’s story narrows, this is mainly a vehicle for a behind-the-scenes companion piece to a tabloid fascination.

It’s not exactly a secret, given how he’s introduced in the opening seconds of the series, that Fox’s presence in the greater Pure Food and Wine ecosystem — not to mention being a key part of Sarma’s personal life, too — decays in some unavoidable ways. “Bad Vegan” includes a sizable amount of personal communication between the two that, if not proves, at least paints a picture of an unsettling, toxic relationship. The more that those Gchats and texts and emails become the focus, it’s more evident that “Bad Vegan” itself is not built to gawk at salacious details.

If anything, it builds an incremental case for how the slow boil of pressure from the restaurant’s growing spotlight, coupled with an emotionally fragile interlocutor with a penchant for dark secrets, could be a recipe for a kind of break with reality. With the caveat that much of the input for this project comes from people just as mystified by the insular decisions that Sarma came to make as the company’s finances started to waver and dip, “Bad Vegan” takes a straightforward approach to showing how that muddying of the waters had real, tangible consequences.

The emotionless Instagram selfies and the fraught recorded phone calls on display here are not the stuff of lavish, salacious excess. “Bad Vegan” isn’t demanding sympathy, but it does try to mimic that constant dangling of answers coupled with a fraught codependent relationship. It’s a trajectory that’s telegraphed from fairly early on, one where threats and disappearing funds become a series of tests to prove commitment. There’s a healthy dose of skepticism in “Bad Vegan” that helps it avoid framing this saga as a love story gone wrong, and maybe its most insightful decision is to emphasize how numbing that ratcheting strain becomes on Sarma herself. It strives to recreate that sense of exhaustion and frustration at a lack of a definitive conclusion that Sarma claims to have felt in the bleakest parts of this story.

Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives. Cr. Netflix © 2022

“Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives.”

Netflix

In that way, “Bad Vegan” isn’t designed to be some grand uncovering of an unknown conspiracy, either. Aside from Sarma, arguably the main narrative voice giving this story its shape is Vanity Fair writer Allen Salkin. His outlining of events is largely built on what already worked its way into his reporting or is drafting on the other screenshotted headlines from Vulture, the New York Post, and elsewhere. “Bad Vegan” stops short of becoming a trenchant piece of media criticism, but it at least tries to grapple with the points where public perception of the Pure Food aura didn’t match the atmosphere inside the kitchen.

Even as it’s successful in tapping into a certain sense of despair, “Bad Vegan” is always working at something of a deficit in unwrapping Fox. He and Sarma’s relationship is the black box that everyone is trying to unlock, but that pursuit of answers and context becomes the preoccupation for the series at the expense of nearly all else. Particularly over the runtime of a four-part series, it becomes clearer that these friends and family members are mainly there to speak to Sarma’s motivations. Getting a fuller view of the story preceding the spiral is at least a focus, however single-minded.

As tends to be the case in the more honest pieces of true-crime-adjacent deep dives, “Bad Vegan” is a story without winners. The book covers and the perks and the vacations shown here only end up being a liability and a fuel for the engine that drove this venture off a cliff. There’s a temptation to categorize Sarma’s story as one with shocking twists and turns or one that maps onto the recent run of true-life facades that involves both a meteoric rise and a spectacular fall. But there’s a sadness and hurt here that comes through more than any fascination with the extraordinary. However the various contributors to this project may end up categorizing Sarma’s culpability (or lack thereof), hardly anyone is delivering their personal verdict with a smile.

Grade: B

“Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives.” premieres Wednesday, March 16 on Netflix. 

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