Google the name “Sarma Melngailis” today and you’ll be met with a flurry of splashy headlines mentioning fraud, immortal dogs, a salacious Domino’s Pizza order and the “vegan Bernie Madoff.” But just six years ago, such a search would have yielded countless articles extolling the culinary virtues of the health-conscious restaurateur and her former Gramercy Park eatery, Pure Food and Wine. Sadly, the once insanely popular establishment is no more, though. Sarma lost it, along with upwards of $1.7 million, following a years-long relationship with grifter Shane Fox (real name Anthony Strangis), who gambled her savings away.
The sordid tale is the subject of the new Netflix docuseries “Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives.,” which chronicles the young chef’s rise to fame and subsequent disastrous fall over the course of four hour-long episodes. And it’s almost too insane to be believed.
Claiming to be a black ops soldier, Strangis very early on convinced Melngailis that he was not human, but some sort of heavenly “meat suit”-wearing creature with ties to an otherworldly family who controlled the universe, and that if she passed a series of “cosmic endurance tests,” she and her beloved dog, a pit bull terrier mix named Leon, could achieve immortality and gain access to immeasurable riches. Said tests mainly involved regularly wiring Strangis hundreds of thousands of dollars (most of it taken from the restaurant), which he, in turn, gambled away, leaving her with nothing. The two wound up on the lam for nearly a year before finally being arrested for grand larceny and fraud at the Fairfield Inn & Suites in Sevierville, Tennessee, after Anthony ordered a very un-vegan Domino’s Pizza with a side of wings using his own credit card, which the police immediately tracked.
As ridiculous and mindboggling as the story may seem, it’s all true! Vanity Fair journalist Allen Salkin attempts to explain the unexplainable in a December 2016 article, stating, “Perhaps if you can understand how a sane, successful businesswoman comes to believe the insane idea that her dog can live forever, everything else snaps into focus—how that person might be accused of bilking her investors of $844,000, owe her employees more than $40,000 in unpaid wages, financially strip her restaurant, and now find herself awaiting trial, with a potential 15-year sentence. She had thought all harm would be magically reversed, just as Leon’s life span would be extended, according to her camp.”