“E-24. Egg replacer 24. G-5. Gluten-free 5. Did someone say 'vegan'? I think we have a winner!”
On the third Sunday of every month, you’ll see and hear Ai Kusuhara, founder and co-high priestess of the Church of Seitan, presiding over “Vegan Bingo” in the patio at Verdugo Bar in Glassell Park. Having fallen in love with bingo in 2013 while on a family trip to Morongo Casino Resort & Bar, Kusuhara says, “I thought it would be fun to put on events that brought together what I loved — vegan food and bingo. Verdugo Bar was super into it, and the Church of Seitan was born.”
By day, Kusuhara is a freelance media producer and marriage and family therapist. By night, she's a rock and roller, playing in several bands, including Old Toy Trains and Cannibals Alley. Known as The Vegan Cannibal, she's also no stranger to food.
“I grew up in a restaurant environment and ate lots of sushi. My dad, Nobi, is the owner of Sushi Sasabune, who's known for his omakase edomae sushi style.”
In fact, he's among a few sushi chefs in Los Angeles who was called a “sushi nazi” for, among other things, openly refusing requests for spicy tuna or California rolls. Sushi Sasabune, opened in 1993 on Sawtelle Boulevard, has expanded beyond West L.A. to Beverly Hills, New York and Honolulu. Kusuhara has even made a documentary, Trust Me, about her father's thoughts on fish, rice and sushi.
On what inspired her to become vegan, Kusuhara says:
“I developed an affinity for all kinds of food. It wasn't about animal rights for me. It was more about how much water it took to raise cattle. The environmental impact of the food we ate. This awareness brought a whole new understanding and my impact on the environment and food's impact on the environment. My dad is really concerned about that — environmental impact. He really passed that to me. I can't go back anymore, at least for now. …
My parents, who both cooked, were at first shocked. My dad would make funny stories and said he grew up on a farm in Japan and didn't want to eat the pigs. They're very supportive, and my mom makes incredible vegan food. When I visit Sasabune, my dad makes me sushi with Japanese pickles, takuan, shiso and sesame seeds. This is not on the menu. The secret menu, maybe.”
When creating Church of Seitan with co-producer Cindy Larimore, who works at Auntie Em’s Kitchen in Eagle Rock, Kusuhara explains that one of their ideas was, “It doesn't have to be allergy-focused or about animal rights. I want to share that we can all just hang out and have a great time — eat amazing food and introduce people to vegan culture … and, play bingo. Bingo is hot and it's at every casino now. Those senior centers were really onto something. We're just catching on.”
Kusuhara continues, “People win prizes, too! Unicorn Chopsticks was one of the prizes as well as beer glasses, T-shirts, cupcakes and granola donated from vendors. Some people even won a bottle of Oh Alaska! vegan chocolate syrup.”
In addition to vegan bingo, the bar serves up a wide selection of craft beers and cocktails. Highland Park’s Plant Food for People offers several selections of glorious plant-based tacos with “meaty” jackfruit and heavenly salsas. Other vendors — offering animal-free and cruelty-free cupcakes, nut-based and nut-free confections, granola, gluten-free cookies and other sin-free sweets — include Peace of Cake, The Living Confectionary, Nutmeg Granola and The Shugah Mama.
Kusuhara’s seitanic congregation meets the third Sunday of every month. You may just find yourself leaving with a bag of local, sustainable and bio-dynamic granola. Vegan and gluten-free, of course. Hallelujah!
NEXT BINGO: Sunday, November 16, 3-7 p.m.; Church of Seitan at Verdugo Bar, 3408 N. Verdugo Rd., Los Angeles. For more information, see: facebook.com/churchofseitanbythevegancannibal
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