If you watched the Netflix series Bad Vegan, you may have noticed a chef's name that should be familiar in SF vegan circles — Matthew Kenney, who is the celebrity chef behind SF's two-year-old vegan Italian restaurant Baia.
Kenney, who's more well known around Los Angeles and New York than in San Francisco, has in the last two decades built a significant empire of plant-based restaurants around the globe — many in hotels, and including the Sestina Pasta Bar and Double Zero pizza chains. But early in his career, Kenney opened two New York restaurants with then-girlfriend Sarma Melngailis, the short-lived Commissary (2001-2003), followed by Pure Food & Wine in 2004. The latter became a media darling and a favorite hangout of vegan celebrities like Alec Baldwin, and Melngailis and Kenney co-authored a cookbook in 2005 titled RAW FOOD/real world.
Pure Food & Wine is the restaurant at the center of Bad Vegan, and was the source of the embezzlement and fraud scheme for which Melngailis and her gambling-addict ex-husband Anthony Strangis were convicted in 2016. Strangis didn't enter the picture until around 2011, and Kenney had long since left the restaurant — pushed out by investor Jeffrey Chodorow, who said he had more faith in Melngailis's business acumen when she and Kenney said they could no longer work together after breaking up in 2009.
These days, Melngailis has lost her career in the food world, and as she says in the documentary, she doesn't expect anyone would ever want to invest in a venture by her after the revelations about the fraud scheme. But Kenney has remained in her corner, and as TMZ reports, he said through a rep that he wishes Sarma the best, he believes in second chances, and if she wants to open another restaurant she should do it.
Obviously, he doesn't sound like he's running to back her in any financial way, though. (Baia remains open and ostensibly a success, in the former Jardiniere space in Hayes Valley.)
In addition to bilking investors, Chodorow included, Melngailis and Strangis screwed a bunch of employees out of paychecks, and ultimately their jobs, at what was a successful and popular Manhattan restaurant. The documentary led to a fair amount of Twitter chatter about Melngailis perhaps playing up her victimhood, when her innocence in the whole scheme isn't so cut and dry.
Also, some oddly friendly-sounding phone calls between Melngailis and Strangis after their arrests raised many eyebrows.
Melngailis has called the Netflix documentary, particularly the ending, "disturbingly misleading," but she said she was nonetheless grateful for "the coverage" of her story, and what she says is a case of coercive control on the part of Strangis. (The story of their 2016 arrest blew up in New York media because, after a year on the run, they turned up in motel in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee ordering Domino's pizza and wings —which was apparently all for Strangis, but hence the "bad vegan" moniker.)
The *ending* of #BadVegan is disturbingly misleading… and, the rest of what I put on IG is below. @oneluckypuppy 📚💓 and hi @rcbregman hope u don’t mind this but love your book. 🙏🏻 pic.twitter.com/Le3Z5wFMxE— Sarma (@sarma) March 18, 2022
Melngailis hinted on social media that there will be a "next installment coming soon."
And she made clear after her 2018 release from Rikers Island that she hopes to revive her One Lucky Duck brand, and perhaps Pure Food & Wine itself.
"If you tell me to open a food truck, I’ll want to punch you in the face. (Sorry)," she wrote on her blog. "I want the big brand back, the restaurant back. Not for me, but so they exist again, for those who loved them and those to come who would."
She has implied on her blog that she maintains some source of work and income, though it's unclear what that is. This month, after the release of the doc, she wanted to make clear that she had not financially benefited from the Netflix show. She agreed to have Netflix, however, pay to compensate the former employees of her restaurant who were still owed back pay. "Of all the harm and the many debts resulting from my downfall, this portion weighed heaviest," Melngailis writes.
Top image: Matthew Kenney and Sarma Melngailis, then the proprietors of Pure Food & Wine in New York, at a book party for their raw food cookbook on July 17, 2005. Photo by Theo Wargo/WireImage via Getty Images