Luther Alumni Magazine

The Mandala Kitchens project

Left to right: Mandala Kitchens co-trainer chef Millicent Souris, Andre, Jamel, Daiken Nelson '85, and Leon.
Left to right: Mandala Kitchens co-trainer chef Millicent Souris, Andre, Jamel, Daiken Nelson '85, and Leon.

When Daiken (Craig) Nelson’s father passed away his senior year at Luther, Nelson, who’d been raised as a self-described “lukewarm Methodist,” looked for answers. “I didn’t find any,” he says. “There are no answers, and at that point, nothing would have been the quick fix I was looking for. But that began a search for me for something that had some meaning.” Nelson started exploring various religions. During grad school in Iowa City, where he was pursuing a degree in counseling, a fellow Luther alumnus invited him to a meditation group. As Nelson tells it, “That began the journey”—a journey that would lead him to use his life experiences to help others.

Do no harm. Do good. Do good for others.

Nelson studied with various Zen teachers across the country. He was ordained as a Buddhist priest in 1996. Three years ago, while living in his current home state of New York, he became a Zen teacher himself. “When a person in our tradition is empowered to be a teacher, they’re kind of kicked out of the nest to do what they want to do in the larger world,” the soft-spoken Nelson says. Ideally, this will involve a component of helping people, in keeping with the principles, Nelson says, to “Do no harm. Do good. Do good for others.”

Nelson sat in discernment for a while, and eventually an idea started to form. He’d worked in kitchens from high school through grad school (he worked as a manager in the Peace Dining Room at Luther), and he’d been in charge of the kitchen at dozens of Zen retreats. Why not, he thought, start a community café where all were welcome, regardless of their ability to pay?

“After I started to explore that, it became clear that is a much larger project, involving real estate, equipment, a build-out, plus lots of money,” he says, “so I came up with this idea of a culinary training program. It gives people professional skills that can help them get a job.” And so, in 2014, the Mandala Kitchens project was born.

The Mandala Kitchens

Prior to focusing on Zen, Nelson had been a social worker, so he knew where the need was greatest. He hit the streets in Harlem, where he lives, and reached out to organizations that work with people recently released from prison, homeless people, veterans, those who have dropped out of high school, and undocumented individuals. “Some folks may have had
fast-food experience—production stuff but not necessarily skill-building. So we teach them knife skills, baking, how to butcher and present a chicken—they haven’t learned skills on those levels. That’s our focus,” he says.

Nelson trains about eight people at a time during the six-week program, which is free or low-cost, and he tries to cultivate relationships with local restaurants that are open to hiring Mandala graduates. He recently placed one migrant from the West Indies, who loves to cook food from his homeland, in a West Indian restaurant.

Last year Nelson started Mandala Kitchens Catering, which employs Mandala graduates as well as others and provides an income stream for the program. The catering arm finds clients among social service agencies, churches, meditation and spiritual groups, foundations, and even artist colonies. “I’m finding this niche of allies and other supportive folks,” Nelson says. And people are noticing: the Mandala Kitchens project has been covered by the Harlem Times, MetroNY, and the Huffington Post, among other news outlets.

While Mandala Kitchens currently operates out of the basement of an Episcopal church, the ultimate goal of Nelson’s project is a brick-and-mortar donation-based café that will serve people who aren’t sure where their next meal will come from as well as the general public. The space would also provide another training ground for Mandala Kitchens trainees. In addition, Nelson envisions the café as a community space for meetings, rallies, performances, and an art gallery.

Learn more about the Mandala Kitchens project at mandalacafe.org.