Melngailis sitting in her empty restaurant with her dog, Leon. Photo: Jeff Brown

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About six months after Bad Vegan came out on Netflix, Sarma Melngailis sat on the floor of her old Gramercy restaurant, Pure Food and Wine. She took out her phone and began filming herself. The space — where Alec Baldwin and Gisele Bünchden once came for raw vegan lasagna and master-cleanse-tinis — was empty and dark, formerly brick-red walls whitewashed. “It feels strange,” she says, beginning to cry. “I’m just grateful to be back and excited to be able to tell people and really happy to be doing this, just coming back with a solid foundation and coming back as a different person.”

The documentary series had been a massive hit — directed by Chris Smith (who’d produced Tiger King just two years before), it was watched for nearly 30 million hours in its first five days. The show depicted the years Melngailis, spent under the control of her con man ex-husband, Anthony Strangis. He’d promised her and her pit bull, Leon, immortality in exchange for hundreds of thousands of dollars, leading them to dupe investors in the restaurant, leave workers unpaid, and finally bankrupt the place. The couple were eventually arrested at a hotel outside Dollywood in 2016 when he ordered pizza using his real name and were sentenced to pay $844,000 restitution to investors and serve time at Rikers — her four months, him a year.

By the time the show came out, I’d been covering Melngailis for years. I first wrote about her in 2006 — chronicling the (unrelated) intermittent financial problems of her business partner and ex-boyfriend, Matthew Kenney. Then again after her 2016 arrest with Strangis. Then came a magazine series about their case, focused on allegations that he had brainwashed and abused Melngailis. I was a talking head in Bad Vegan, too, and after that came out, Peacock began developing a series based on one of my articles. When I posted the news on Instagram, Melngailis commented with a line of vomit-face emoji. This managed to make the Daily Mail with the headline: “Bad Vegan Sarma Melngailis SLAMS Vanity Fair Writer Who Featured in Her Netflix Doc, Claiming He Used His Original Article for Financial Gain.”

Still, and even though we hadn’t spoken for nearly a year, when I saw a gossip item in the New York Post this summer saying Melngailis might be in the process of reopening Pure Food and Wine, I called her. And she picked up.

The couple’s downfall, which began in early 2016, was covered incessantly. Each chapter, and there were many, spawned dozens of tabloid headlines. Their unpaid employees were protesting. They were on the lam. They were thought to be hiding out in Vegas, gambling away all of the money they were not paying employees. (Even the Daily Pennsylvanian covered the news — Melngailis was a Wharton graduate.) By the time she was released from Rikers, several documentary-makers had already reached out, eager for access. But she chose to work with an old friend, a Pure Food customer named Mark Emms. He had little experience, but she figured he could help her make what she wanted: something that could be useful to others in manipulative relationships. So she gave the filmmakers access to her journals, videos, and records of her time with Strangis, plus she encouraged her family and former employees to speak with him. At the start of filming, she agreed to record a phone call with Strangis, whom she hadn’t had much contact with for a year. Smith ended up using that footage to start and end the series. She was kind to Strangis on the call, she says, in order to keep him talking — he wasn’t aware he was being taped. They laughed a little. She hated how it made her look — like she was sharing a joke with her abuser or like they were still in cahoots. When she saw the series for the first time — a week or two before its release — she was immediately furious. “I blurted out, ‘What the fuck, I fucking hate that ending,’” she says. The marketing upset her, too — she was incensed to spot a spoof promotional reel for a fake wellness product called “Perpetual Pup,” promising canine immortality and warning “excessive wire transfers may occur.” “To be made fun of by people who are profiting by mocking the story is a kick in the face,” she says. Comments on her social-media posts didn’t help. “You’re a piece of work lady,” wrote someone on a picture of her dog. “I’m sure you and Anthony are back together scheming your next attack on the uninformed!”

For much of the past five years, since she got out of prison, Melngailis has lived in Somerville, Massachusetts, with Leon, in debt. She received only about $75,000 for her participation in the show, she says, just enough to pay back wages to her employees. She still owes millions — $1.5 million for New York State taxes and more to former investors in Pure Food and Wine, including Jeffrey Chodorow. Which is why, when Emms got back in touch with her in the summer of 2022, and though she was still furious over her portrayal in the show, she agreed to talk. He suggested she come into the city and that they get together — with Chodorow, too, at one of his still-under-construction restaurants on Lafayette Street. He also suggested they film the meeting. So during the summer of 2022, she drove with Leon into the city and slid into a seat across from Chodorow at the empty restaurant. “It was awkward,” she says. This was the first time she’d seen him in person since her arrest, and she didn’t know what he was thinking. They sat for an hour in front of a film crew, and Chodorow laid out their proposition. Nothing had ever moved into the former Pure Food and Wine space. So, he suggested — why don’t they reopen it? And film the process for a follow-up documentary?

It had taken some convincing to get Chodorow onboard with this plan. When Emms first came to him with it, “my first reaction was I didn’t want her involved,” he says. He figured it would cost $2.5 million to reopen — plus, the last time they’d spoken, she’d still been involved with Strangis, who’d lied to Chodorow about who he was. “Mark was the one who said to do this the right way and make it interesting; it has to be about her and her comeback. I told him I was willing to have a conversation about it.”

Despite Chodorow’s initial reservations, the meeting went well. Melngailis felt Emms was amenable to making a documentary that hewed more closely to what she’d hoped for the first time around. She wanted this to be “an opportunity to correct what Bad Vegan got wrong and show bringing the restaurant back to life, too” — though, she says she told them, she never wanted her face on Netflix ever again. Chodorow also offered to pay for her to see a psychologist. More specifically, he suggested she see his brother-in-law, because, he says, “his specialty was Holocaust survivors who suffered from PTSD and trauma. I thought this was a perfect match for her.” Once back in Massachusetts, she emailed Emms and Chodorow how grateful she was for this offer. They wrote back with a “proposed starting package” in which they would cover her Somerville rent until the lease ended, then a “corporate one-bedroom apartment” in New York starting in February 2023, including utilities, health care, and an $8,000-per-month salary. What she was to provide in exchange was not spelled out, but she says she understood she’d be a partner in reopening the restaurant and would participate in the documentary. Chodorow signed a lease for the restaurant’s original Irving Place location in October 2022, putting down $200,000 for a security deposit and four months rent. He gave Melngailis a set of keys, and she filmed the video of herself in the space. She felt cautiously optimistic.

Melngailis really wanted the restaurant to open again. It was the last thing she’d done independently before Strangis took control of her life, and she believed in the mission — showing people plant-based food could be both healthy and fun. In an old journal, she once wrote a promise to the restaurant: “I will save and protect you.” On her shoulder is a tattoo of the logo of her vegan-products brand One Lucky Duck. Still, after her years with Strangis, she was unsteady. She didn’t trust easily. And there were Chodorow and Emms asking for her trust. Which Chodorow, for one, felt he deserved. Yes, he saw a business opportunity, he says, and a chance to get back some of the money he’d lost, but mostly he says he actually wanted to help her. He’d also been to prison for fraud — in the mid-1990s, a few years after he’d opened China Grill. He also knew what it was like to feel misrepresented by producers. In 2003, he’d agreed to appear on a reality-TV show called The Restaurant, chronicling the rise of celebrity chef Rocco DiSpirito. Chodorow was his financier, and the entire second season ended up revolving around the pair’s petty fighting. “They cut it in a way that I looked like a greedy businessman,” he says.

Melngailis at the restaurant before it closed. Photo: Courtesy of Sarma Melngailis

By the end of January, Melngailis was still in Somerville, working remotely as an executive assistant, writing her memoir. And waiting for Chodorow to sign the lease for the new apartment. Finally, on the 31st — the day before she’d planned to move — he emailed. But with a caveat: He asked her to sign a letter of intent that would give him a significant share of rights to her now-dormant, but once-popular, line of One Lucky Duck products. She was upset. She needed the lease signed — all her things were packed — but felt like Chodorow was slipping this in at the last minute. He texted her: “we’re not going to hurt you.” He promised the terms could be changed later if there was a real issue. So she signed. And by February, she was living in an apartment near the old restaurant. She liked it. It was quiet, and comfortable, and it was the first time in years she’d had a home of her own in New York. But though the rent was paid, her promised salary and health insurance did not materialize. She didn’t know why. Chodorow and Emms say there was an easy explanation for this: There were delays with the restaurant space, which had to be resolved before they could move forward on the project. They assumed she knew she would start getting paid when they were actually in the lead up to opening. (And Emms says he left this stage of the process to Chodorow entirely: “Jeffrey set up the restaurant business, signed the restaurant and Sarma’s apartment lease with the landlords, and was working on employment contracts with Sarma,” he says.) Melngailis, meanwhile, thought she was in the lead-up to opening. And whenever she asked about payment, she said they would just tell her to be patient. So she bided her time: walking Leon and scheduling meetings with her former employees and business associates of Chodorow’s. She went to the Greenmarket often, where word had got out that she might be reopening. “People would say congratulations on the restaurant,” she said, and she didn’t know how to respond. No one was filming anything. And the money still wasn’t coming in.

While she was single-mindedly focused on the restaurant, Emms was busy with other things. For one, he and Chodorow were simultaneously working on another documentary, about the MMA fighter Derrick Lewis, a.k.a. the Black Beast. Plus he’d recently become engaged to the actress Bella Thorne, and the two were on what seemed like an endless series of vacations. He was swept up in her life — “She does extremely well financially and is ultragenerous,” said an acquaintance of Emm’s. “She was showering the guy with gifts. Every time I see him, he’s wearing new clothes and he’s saying ‘Bella got this for me.’ And she was also very time consuming. It was, ‘Hey, get on a plane and come to L.A. with me, and let’s spend two weeks nonstop together.’ He was in London; all of a sudden, he’s in L.A.” Still, in February, he called Melngailis to ask that they talk through things in person — he said he and Bella would be coming to New York. “Then he set a time on Valentine’s Day to meet me.” Melngailis says. “I remember thinking Bella’s here; she’s not going to want him to meet me on Valentine’s Day. Then he texted saying something like ‘Bella surprised me with a spa date, can we move it from 2 to 4?’ Then like 3:55 he texts me, ‘actually I’m not going to make it back in time. I think we’re going to have to do this on the phone with Jeffrey.’” Melngailis emailed Chodorow to express her concern; he suggested a group-therapy session on Zoom with his brother-in-law. During the session, Emms seemed surprisingly empathetic. “He says, ‘You must feel abandoned there,’” Melngailis recalls. “‘You don’t know what’s going on, and you’re not getting a salary.’ I said ‘Yep!’” She hung up feeling a bit more hopeful but still confused. In May, the three met in person at the Bowery Hotel. It didn’t go as well. Emms tried to hug Melngailis hello, and she jolted back. He got angry. “Mark called me nasty,” she says. “I was staring into my lap saying nothing, taking deep breaths, like when I was at Rikers and somebody tried to start a fight with me. I would not react and just breathe. Part of me was disappointed at Jeffrey for not defending me.” After that meeting, she started to routinely remind the pair that no matter what happened, she was not willing to work with Netflix again. This perplexed Chodorow and Emms, who didn’t remember her saying that to them in the first place. She’d always known Emms had a contractual obligation with Netflix, Chodorow says. He never heard her say outright that she wouldn’t work with the platform.

Over the past few years, there have been two Candy Montgomery shows, two Fyre Festival documentaries, and two about NXIVM. Which is to say it’s not surprising that producers have never stopped calling Melngailis, hoping for new angles on the story. Soon after the meeting at the Bowery, Peter Lenkov, the Hollywood showrunner behind recent reboots of Magnum P.I, Hawaii Five-O, and MacGyver, got in touch, interested in investing in Pure Food reopening. Like Chodorow, Lenkov seemed to relate to Melngailis’s troubles — he’d recently been fired by CBS after an investigation into claims that he created a toxic work environment. “I had my own trip up,” Lenkov says. “I love underdog stories. I love comeback stories.” Lenkov introduced her to the producer Elisabeth Röhm, who, with her producing partner Kara Feifer, negotiated a shopping agreement for a scripted film or TV project based on Melngailis’s still-unpublished memoir. Soon after, she met with another documentary team (whose names she wasn’t willing to share). She liked them — they seemed dedicated to collaborating closely with her. She wondered, since nothing seemed to be happening with Emms, if they could make the documentary about this new phase of her life.

She called Chodorow to try to get him onboard with this change of plan. Though he initially seemed open to it, by June he let her know he was, in fact, not. It could only be Emms, he’d decided. It had been Emms’s concept in the first place. They were working together on the Black Beast project. Plus, he said, he thought Netflix was the right platform for this thing. “If it’s a redemption story, you want the same people who saw the fall to see the redemption,” he said. Plus, he warned her — if she tried to make a series with someone else, Chris Smith and Netflix could file a notice of intent to sue and stop her. He brought up his brother-in-law’s therapy bills and the thousands of dollars he’d spent on a lawyer seeking to reduce her tax debts. If she didn’t stick with him and Emms, he said, he’d pull the plug on the entire project. He’d open another restaurant in the space instead. Or another Pure Food and Wine without her. (“I said I talked to a managing partner of Superiority Burger about doing something else in the space,” says Chodorow. “My idea was a vegan version of the beloved old Manhattan ice-creamery Serendipity.”)

Chodorow said he’d need her to decide what she wanted to do by the middle of July. In response, she sat down at her desk and wrote him a long letter. “Please know that I am not someone that’s clinging to her own victimhood,” she wrote. “I am very aware that it’s an energy of the past, best kept in the past. However, these past few weeks, this last one in particular, have been heavy. Suddenly feeling like I’m losing the restaurant, like I may have to scramble to save it.”

Melngailis has been visiting the old space often recently, just to sit. “I visualize reopening it. I just sit there and think on everything. The way it was before. That place was a home.” She and Chodorow have been in discussions to figure out how much it would take to buy him out and take over the restaurant lease. He threw out $1 million. Melngailis tried $250,000. No one has agreed on anything, yet.

But he doesn’t seem sure the restaurant can work anymore — too much has happened. In the meantime, he’s started looking into other options. “There’s only a chance with a major mea culpa,” he says. Melngailis doesn’t seem so sure about the project anymore, either. “I want the people who make money from this going forward to give a shit about what this is all about, creating a positive impact in the world, helping people eat clean food,” she says. Chodorow and Emms “don’t give a shit about any of that. Seriously, if I was like, Well, okay, I’ll do it with them after all, I would be doing precisely the thing that somebody might accuse me of, which is having bad judgment when it comes to people.”

In the meantime, Melngailis has started paying her own rent, selling her belongings, and depending on credit cards to make it work. She recently found a few pairs of expensive men’s dress shoes Strangis bought when he was staying at her mother’s farm in New Hampshire and decided to hold onto them because “some weirdos might want to buy them,” she said. “True weirdos.” (They’re size 10½.) She’s still working on her memoir, too. At this point, “it’s longer than Ulysses,” she says. She wants to self-publish. “I don’t want somebody else to control the story, the marketing, the process, the whole thing,” she says. At the same time, she’s let that new documentary team into her life, unconcerned about the threat of the lawsuit. They’re filming almost everything. There’s a story to be told, she says, even if the restaurant project stalls again. In fact, she asked if they could film one of the conversations we had for this article. “They’re here,” she said, by way of explanation. “We film what’s happening.”