Vegan restaurants are a dime a dozen in Southern California. They're so commonplace that even us non-vegans wind up at them from time to time and, with each visit, have the recurring epiphany that hey, this stuff ain't half bad! But there's one vegan chain that stands out among the rest: Loving Hut, an international chain of more than 140 restaurants and one hotel, which has been called the fastest-growing vegan franchise in the world. It's also operated by a group that many consider to be a cult.
Loving Hut was created by Supreme Master Ching Hai, a 66-year-old Vietnamese businesswoman. Besides her restaurant empire, Ching Hai—who was once called the "Buddhist Martha" by TIME—is the creator of a jewelry line, a clothing line, and the Quan Yin Method, a pseudo-religious philosophy with as many as 500,000 followers, by some estimates.
You probably haven't heard of Ching Hai, because she's pretty toothless as far as cults of personality go. There have been no mass suicides done in her name, and she's not squeezing her followers for every red cent, a la Scientology. Instead, the Quan Yin Method preaches preservation of life above all else. Other pillars include not telling lies, not taking that which is not offered, not drinking alcohol or doing drugs, and avoiding "sexual misconduct," whatever that means.
Every cult leader needs a vehicle to spread his or her message, and for Ching Hai, that vehicle is food. The Loving Hut chain has locations everywhere from Portland to Pittsburgh to Prague, which are operated less like a traditional franchise and more like a free-for-all, where each location can choose how to run the restaurant, as long as it's in line with Ching Hai's philosophy.
I decided to visit the closest Loving Hut, about an hour's drive from Los Angeles in Claremont, California. It's nestled in a modern shopping plaza next to eateries like Le Pain Quotidien and Yogurtland. The Loving Hut, which has sun-faded, printer-paper photos of various entrées taped on the front windows, is a misfit among the meticulously crafted aesthetics of its neighbors. The word "Lynchian" gets thrown around a lot lately, but there was no other way to describe what it's like to enter the restaurant.
The curtains were drawn to mitigate the hot midday sun, so the only light in the entire room came from a few beams poking through the cracks, catching the dust particles hovering in the air. A white guy with dreads in a polo shirt was feeding his baby in a stroller. At another table, two women sat across from each other, not eating, not talking. Soothing massage parlor ambient music played from speakers around the room.
A wall-mounted television played grainy scenes of nature, like those from a karaoke-music video, while a ticker of affirmations scrolled below. I later learned this was Supreme Master TV, the channel owned by Ching Hai, which broadcasts in most Loving Huts and on 71 cable and IPTV networks, according to its website. The 24-hour channel features shows called things like "Vegetarianism: The Noble Way of Living," "Animal World: Our Co-Inhabitants," and "Words of Wisdom."
After a few moments, the lone front-of-house staff member approached me and led me to my table. The menu was intimidatingly large. Every Loving Hut location chooses its own menu, meaning there is no consistency between the various locations other than the fact that all the food is vegan.
I asked my server what she recommended from the menu, and she suggested the Asian Gyro—a meat substitute wrapped inside homemade scallion bread with lettuce, tomatoes, fresh herbs, and a spicy sauce. I figured I might go the rest of my life without encountering a vegan Asian/Greek fusion dish, so I jumped at this rare opportunity.
While I waited for my food, I noticed a row of celebrity portraits. These were photos of the "vegetarian and vegan elite," which ranged from people I did not recognize to Bill Clinton. The placard next to them explained with unusual capitalization, "These Smart, Beautiful, Talented People are Vegan and Vegetarian. Why aren't you?" It seemed like an odd question to pose in a restaurant where people had come specifically to eat vegan food.
The owner of this Loving Hut, Charles Liang, later told me that he's been a disciple of Ching Hai since 1996. When the first Loving Hut opened in 2008 and the brand rapidly expanded, he jumped at the opportunity to spread the vegan gospel by opening his own location.
"Most important is saving lives. Loving animals, loving others, loving yourself," Liang told me. "Everything connects with one another. Everything has vibrations. Nature is the best magic to maintain everything. That's why my restaurant is organic vegan, and not just vegan."
Liang mentioned that Supreme Master Ching Hai loves to visit her restaurants around the world and has even dropped into the Claremont location a number of times. Deities gotta eat too, after all.
My Asian Gyro came out fast and tasted great. The imitation steak tasted like real cow, and the scallion flatbread added an interesting twist. And rather than proselytizing the merits of vegan living, the servers at the Claremont location pretty much left me to enjoy my meatless meal in peace.
Sure, the Supreme Master TV was still humming in the distance, and the portraits of intelligent, brave, famous, beautiful vegans were staring back at me from nearby wall of fame. But if you can ignore all that for long enough to enjoy a delicious meal, you might even start to feel like a devotee of Ching Hai yourself.
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