What Really Happened To Bad Vegan's Sarma Melngailis

Celebrity chef Sarma Melngailis became a big deal when she started promoting veganism and eating raw food. She told The Village Voice in 2009 that she worked in finance before she ventured into the food industry but realized that she "wasn't passionate about anything in the world of finance." So Melngailis decided to attend the French Culinary Institute. 

Even after her culinary training, she didn't have a clear concept of raw food and assumed vegan food was awful. Things changed after a visit to a raw food cafe that served delicious dishes. She said, "That night I kind of had this crash course in raw food over dinner. I decided to try it as an experiment after that, and then the experiment became permanent." 

Melngailis was onto something. According to The New York Post, her restaurant, Pure Food and Wine was launched in 2004 and was reportedly a hit with huge names like Alec Baldwin. She also seemed dedicated to the place and "worked constantly," according to a server and bartender named Benito Borjas-Fitzpatrick, who recalled that Melngailis sometimes slept at the restaurant.

Things came crashing down for the chef in 2016. According to People, police officials arrested Melngailis and her husband, Anthony Strangis, at a motel in Tennessee. They were allegedly "on the run" after "swiping nearly $2 million from investors and employees [at Pure Food and Wine]." The story of what happened became the basis for the Netflix documentary "Bad Vegan."

The couple faced serious charges

Per Vanity Fair, the Sarma Melngailis and Anthony Strangis crossed paths on Twitter in 2011 and ended up tying the knot the following year. Before they got into trouble with the law, they reportedly paid for luxuries like watches, hotels, and casinos while deceiving investors and not paying wages to employees at Pure Food & Wine. Citing an indictment, the outlet said Melngailis allegedly took over $1.6 million from the restaurant and that her husband blew $1.2 million of it at casinos. According to NY Daily News, they only got apprehended thanks to a delivery driver who spotted them in Tennessee. Reportedly, the couple had ordered non-vegan pizza and chicken wings from Domino's, adding perhaps another layer of deception.

Melngailis' defense team thought about using a "coercive control" defense. They suggested her husband abused and controlled her, allegedly manipulating Melngailis into obeying his commands. He purportedly assured the chef that he would help her sort out her financial troubles and give the gift of pet immortality but never did. Per People, prosecutors contended that  Melngailis was a willing participant. A trailer for the Netflix documentary "Bad Vegan" raised the possibility that she scammed her husband before publicly blaming him. Melngailis chose to file for divorce in May 2018, which Strangis accepted without a fight. 

If you or someone you know is dealing with domestic abuse, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233. You can also find more information, resources, and support at their website.

The story is even stranger than it sounds

According to Vanity Fair, Sarma Melngailis shared an odd relationship with her husband, Anthony Strangis, who allegedly made many strange promises — he supposedly even assured the chef that he could make her beloved dog, Leon, live forever. Those who were a part of Melngailis' network were rather confused. Per People, an ex-associate who was close to Melngailis admitted that it didn't make sense for the celebrated chef to fall for a man like Strangis, who had previously gotten in trouble for impersonating a cop and committing grand theft. They said, "There were tons of conspiracy theories about why she married him. Was there some sort of blackmail involved?" 

Regardless of why they married, they may have become partners in crime. As the NY Daily News detailed, they ultimately pleaded guilty in court to scamming victims out $1 million. In 2017, Melngailis admitted committing criminal tax fraud, taking more than $200,000 from investors, and "scheming to defraud." She was sentenced to four months in jail plus five years of probation (via The New York Post). Strangis spent more than a year in jail before receiving five years probation. 

Strangis' lawyer Samuel Karliner said at the time, "She [Melngailis] was a savvy businesswoman who came up with a plan and he helped her execute it." Meanwhile, the chef's lawyer remarked, "She was ... controlled by a lifelong predator and fraudster." The actual details of the story remain murky.