Critics Claim Supreme Master Ching Hai's Followers' Restaurants Featuring Tasty Vegan Fare Front For an Exploitive Movement.

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The Glendale location, for example, offers a vegan take on a Vietnamese-style pâté chaud, a flaky pastry stuffed with a mixture of soy protein, shredded carrots, shiitake mushrooms, and onions, flavored with Loving Hut's proprietary spice mixture.

Each site offers a variety of mock cocktails, appetizers, and desserts. Loving Hut's vegan carrot cake is lighter than traditional carrot cake and is made without milk, butter, or eggs. Loving Hut's slightly chewy, tofu-y take on cheesecake (using "soy cream cheese") won't hoodwink fans of the postprandial classic, but for what it is, it's passable.

Loving Hut USA spokesman Jingwu Zhang told New Times that the company manufactures many of the products it uses in its company factory in Taiwan, allowing ecoVegan to be the exclusive distributor to Loving Hut restaurants, though ecoVegan distributes other companies' foods, as well.

"There are a lot of manufacturers of frozen food, but we're not sure they are purely vegan," Zhang said. "Also we want to use non-GMO ingredients, including the minor ingredients such as soy sauce, in the frozen food. That's why Loving Hut set up a factory in Taiwan to produce pure vegan food."

GMO, which stands for "genetically modified organism," means that the genetic material of the plant or animal has been scientifically altered. Use of GMOs is widespread in the food industry — and controversial, particularly in the vegan/vegetarian world.

Zhang also said Loving Hut operates more like a "homeowners association" than a traditional franchise. There is no standard operating manual and no franchise fee, though the logo and the color scheme is the same in each location.

Owners retain the freedom to alter the menu, as long as it remains vegan. For example, the proprietors of the Indian School Road location in Phoenix owned Vegetarian House restaurant, which preceded Loving Hut in the same space. And certain dishes from the Vegetarian House days still are served.

Vegetarian House "upgraded" to the vegan-style Loving Hut last July, according to Jane Pham, the location's hostess, who acts as a spokeswoman and translator for the owners, sisters Michelle and Darlene Nguyen.

The sisters have been followers of Ching Hai for more than two decades. When Hai announced a new push to turn the planet's inhabitants vegan, they signed on to the project and converted their restaurant into a Loving Hut.

All Loving Hut owners are members of Hai's Association, though Zhang noted that this may not always be the case in the future.

This convergence of spiritual belief with capitalism seems to guarantee a loyal and enthusiastic workforce. Pham, a longtime Association member, said she traveled to Arizona from California to help with the opening of the Glendale Loving Hut before moving on to the Phoenix location.

Another Association member let drop that he sometimes "helps out" when things get busy at the Phoenix restaurant, though he currently has a full-time job. Online, Loving Hut critics maintain that Association members are forced to "volunteer" without remuneration.

But when asked about what seems to be a gray line between religious devotion and labor, Dr. Firzli, a sort-of coordinator within the Phoenix chapter, insisted that everyone who "helps out" at the restaurants gets paid.

There are a few other common characteristics of this non-franchise franchise. The restaurants themselves are well lit and invariably spotless, with a color scheme of white, yellow, and red. Workers often wear shirts or other clothing bearing Hai's unique red SM symbol. Hai's amateurish, impressionistic still-lifes often dot the walls.

Supreme master merchandise is displayed either for sale or perusal, everything from ladies' wallets and Hai-designed lamps to poorly shot photo books by Hai, such as The Birds in My Life or The Dogs in My Life, in which the supreme master's pets express their innermost thoughts on life, love, and grooming.

One such book, The Love of Centuries, offers the supreme master's poetry, sometimes written from the point of view of cows, hens, or pigs headed for slaughter. In "Imagine It's You," one animal victim cries out to humanity in a passage that skirts self-parody.

Oh, if you don't know there is hell

Come and see right here nowhere else!

Dear Human friends, how can this be?

Why, why must you torture and eat me?

But if Hai's no Emily Dickinson, she scores points as a woman with more looks than Lady Gaga and Björk combined.

In the coffee table book Celestial Art, which spotlights her myriad creative endeavors, the diminutive guru's guises change with nearly every turned page, from that of a boyish-looking initiate in starched white pajamas to a bauble-wearing princess in an ornate gold headdress more elaborate than Queen Amidala's in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

Only a squint in Hai's right eye, the result of some paralysis, remains consistent throughout her numerous incarnations.

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons