Bad Vegan is Good TV If You’re Curious Where Fine Vegan Dining Began
'Bad Vegan' is one of those phrases of dichotomy, like a fallen angel or terrible teacher, as well as the name of a new buzzy Netflix documentary series. People want to see the virtuous fall and the fallen get redeemed and returned to virtue. This story has all that and more. If you're looking for a documentary where vegans eat meat and dairy, aka fall off the vegan wagon, this is not that tale. Although, in the end, our villains are caught red-hot-pizza-handed. But that's not the point of the title, "Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives."
What is? The takeaways are numerous but for anyone interested in why the plant-based movement is all of a sudden everywhere they look, from KFC's Beyond Chicken Nuggets to the McPlant to oat milk lattes at Starbucks and Michelin-starred restaurants like Eleven Madison Park serving an all-plant menu, this story tells where it all began, at an upscale dining experience in lower Manhattan, nearly 20 years ago (yes, the early aughts are that far in the rear-view), at a restaurant called Pure Food and Wine. The location was at 54 Irving Place, in the chic Gramercy neighborhood, which opened in 2004, and closed in 2015.
If that name sounds vaguely familiar, it may be because the restaurant Plant Food and Wine from Chef Matthew Kenney is a direct descendant of Pure Food & Wine. A young Matthew Kenney shows up in the earliest scenes of Bad Vegan as a genius chef and innovator, alongside the story's vixen and star, the brilliant and beautiful Sarma Melngailis, who graduated from Wharton and decided to ditch banking to follow her heart to culinary school. From there, it was a short leap into the restaurant business and her passion was raw vegan food. She linked up with Kenney and together they made beautiful vegan fare that drew the celebrity crowd, including Owen Wilson and Alec Baldwin, who ultimately met his wife there.
But Sarma's troubles began, not when the investors wanted to see more returns, but when a mystery man entered her life and began to press her to pay large sums of money to support his own ventures.
After some fascinating early scenes in the kitchen of Pure Food and Wine, where any foodie will love the glances of "how the magic is made," the documentary devolves into Sarma's long-winded apology and taped conversations with her former tormenter. She sits in a chair and tells stories of being abusively treated, painting herself to be the victim of a controlling relationship that eventually leads her to drain the coffers of the restaurant, writing check after check. Her bad decisions sink the restaurant and her own career and land her behind bars for a short stint.
I won't give away more details, other than the fact that her redemption, like a certain Martha Stewart's, began behind bars – she even cajoles her guards to ditch meat and try eating vegan – and we are torn between rooting for her and wanting her to go away.
The takeaways from Bad Vegan are these:
1. High-end plant-based food didn't happen overnight. There were talented people like Chef Matthew Kenney and others in the kitchen, creating amazing dishes of vegetables, whole grains, fruit, nuts, seeds all gorgeously presented in what can legitimately be called the birth of the vegan fine dining movement.
2. Successful restaurants make a mint. At one point Sarma wrote the equivalent of $1.7 million in checks to her boyfriend (and later husband) and one would be forgiven if the thought process went like this: Wow. Restaurants are a great business. But of course, only some restaurants are and usually only for a short stint, while they're "hot." Owen Wilson would treat Pure Food and Wine like his personal kitchen and walk into the back like he owned the place. This "cool" factor is the magic sauce for any restaurant and its investors. That and honest management by highly skilled people. The keyword is honest. Sarma failed the test.
3. Making good food starts with a vision. That vision is now led by Matthew Kenney, the standard-bearer for fine vegan dining. He has gone on to open over 40 restaurants around the world, and offers plant-based dining in every variety and price point, from Double Zero Pizza and Bar Verde, on New York's Lower East Side, to Sestina, the Italian cuisine fan favorite, to the high-end experiences in Four Seasons, a menu within a menu, called Folia.
Kenney teaches this style of cooking and is eager to get everyone to understand that whether you eat plant-based some of the time or most of the time, the more you shift your eating from meat-based to plant-based the better for you, the environment, and of course animals. The Beet is honored to run his recipes as part of our Guest Chef recipe column, appearing every Wednesday with chefs such as Mark Bittman (author of Vegan Before 6) and Sophia Roe.
Should you watch Bad Vegan? If you enjoy a documentary, scenes of the early evolution of food trends, and New York's restaurant world in the 90s, then yes, it's definitely a fun way to spend a night, binging Netflix on the couch, a pint of Oatly Mint Chocolate Chip in hand.
Post Mates Gets Into the Vegan Kitchen
On the heels of the documentary series being released globally March 16, Netflix is teaming up with Postmates to bring back the iconic vegan cuisine from Pure Food and Wine for a limited time in New York.
Beginning on March 25 through March 27, Postmates users can order for delivery or pickup from The Bad Vegan Kitchen for a free meal in celebration of the Netflix series, made by Chef Nikki Bennett, former head chef of Pure Food and Wine. Bennett will recreate a menu of nostalgic raw dishes from the famed New York restaurant.
Also on board to help bring the meal to life is Chef Missy Maidana, former Pastry Chef of Pure Food and Wine. The meal will include a Starter (Caesar Salad), Main (Signature Raw Lasagna), and Dessert (Mallomar); plus a custom tote. Chef Nikki Bennet is also available for interviews if of interest - she can speak to The Bad Vegan Kitchen menu, what it was like working for Pure Food and Wine in its heyday in NYC, and more.
The Bad Vegan Kitchen will be available to order exclusively on Postmates for free delivery or for pickup starting Friday, March 25 through Sunday, March 27 for lunch and dinner, but it's only while supplies last. So plan your viewing parties like your kitchen's on fire.