There’s an old proverb that says, “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”
The Mandala Kitchens Project is a new program in Harlem that aims to do just that by offering free or low-cost culinary training to anyone wishing to work in the food service industry.
The six-week program was founded by the Rev. Daiken Nelson, a Buddhist priest and former social worker from Iowa,
“I decided to weave together my interests of food, service, social work and teaching to create a program which would teach people how to cook in order to help them get a job,” he said.
The program, which began earlier this month, is part of the Mandala Café, a nonprofit organization. The training is open to everyone, but targets individuals who are unemployed, underemployed, homeless or formerly incarcerated. Undocumented immigrants and youths are also welcome.
Nelson worked on and off in restaurants before becoming a social worker, and said that given his background, it made sense to start the culinary project, which began earlier this month,
The program delves into the practice and theory of culinary arts, with an emphasis on the development of practical skills to help job seekers.
Areas covered during the training include such food prep basics as chopping vegetables and braising meats, but also includes such topics as sanitation and food safety, dining room management and working with a team.
Nelson began his Zen practice 27 years ago and was ordained in 1996. It seemed logical to him to incorporate aspects of Buddhism, specifically meditation and mindfulness into the culinary training.
“We begin our sessions with sitting quiet,” he said. “This is good for the stressful food service/kitchen environment, plus it’s good in general.”
Graduates of the training can take the exam for a city Department of Health food handler's certificate and get job placement assistance.
Nelson, who came to Harlem in 2010, says that his vision is to help Harlem and other city residents beyond the culinary training.
“The ultimate goal of the project is to create a community based, pay-what-you-will café,” Nelson said, explaining that trainees prepare food for the Mandala Café.
In May, the café began to co-sponsor weekly free meals in Harlem. The goal is to offer meals at a suggested price of $15-$18, but allow diners to pay what they can afford or work at the café to earn a meal.
An interfaith effort, the weekly meals are co-hosted with The Satya Sai Baba Community of Manhattan with men from a Muslim group, members of a neighborhood synagogue and two Mormon missionaries helping to serve residents.
The meals are served to an average of 75 people each week, with no questions asked, Nelson said.
“We see the same people each week and the number increases as the month progresses as people run low on their assistance (if they receive any),” he said.
Mandala Kitchens has also begun to cater small to moderate-size events, which helps finance the culinary training. Catering and its food prep business have also created jobs, Nelson said.
“We have been able to offer part-time employment to individuals who are formerly homeless, incarcerated or political refugees,” he said.
Leon Baptiste, a recent immigrant from the Caribbean nation of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, became one of the first three culinary trainees in the program and said his goal is to become a chef.
“Cooking has always been my passion and I have been in pursuit of it since I was a child,” said Baptiste, who was introduced to the Mandala Kitchens Project through a pastor at his church in Harlem.
Baptiste said he is grateful for the opportunity.
“I hope to walk away from this program as an experienced chef,” he said.
“I would advise anyone who is interested in a profession in culinary arts to attend Mandala’s Culinary Institute because the skills I have garnered are tremendous and rewarding.”
For more information about the program or the weekly meal, visit www.mandalacafe.org.