Interview With Rev. Daiken Nelson, Founder of Mandala Café

by Marissa Sheldon, MPH
Mandala Cafe

Reverend Daiken Nelson is the founder of Mandala Café, a nonprofit based in Harlem and dedicated to providing food and fellowship for disenfranchised individuals. He is also a Buddhist Priest (ordained in 1996) and Sensei and works as the Guiding Teacher at Pamsula Zen Center. Independently, he provides religious and spiritual counseling and is a yoga teacher, Reiki master, and photographer. He previously worked as a social worker with the homeless and individuals with mental illness and substance use issues. 

He received a bachelor’s degree in English and philosophy from Luther College and a master’s degree in counselor education from the University of Iowa.  

Food Policy Center: I appreciate you taking the time to talk with me about your work and experiences. Could you please tell me about your background and what influenced your decision to start Mandala Café? 

Daiken Nelson: A few experiences led to my work at Mandala Café:

  • I began to work in restaurants during high school: from dish-washer to server to cook to eventually manager.
  • I did social work as my graduate study.
  • Since beginning my Zen career, I have led the kitchen service on numerous retreats, feeding 50+ people three times a day for 30 days. 
  • And, I have been involved in several Buddhist social service efforts.

When the time came for me to begin leading my own Buddhist group, I decided to weave together all these threads of my life.

And, a long time ago, I heard a story: In the 80s, when the federal government cut funding for mental institutions, it gave rise to a population of the homeless mentally ill. According to the story I heard, restaurants then began pouring bleach on food they had thrown in dumpsters behind the restaurants in order to discourage people from picking through the trash to feed themselves.

I thought, how can one human treat another human as vermin? And what can/should be done by those of us who view the situation differently?

FPC: Please tell me more about the café and its projects. Who does it serve, and what services do you provide? How are the principles of Buddhism woven into the cafe’s mission and work? 

DN: Currently, the café has three projects:

Culinary Training: Mandala Kitchens provides a 12-week culinary job development training program for those with challenges finding or maintaining employment. We have worked with those who were formerly homeless or in the shelter system, individuals re-entering the community following incarceration or a justice diversion program, veterans, youth, those lacking legal employment documentation, the unemployed or underemployed, those who have substance use and/or mental health issues, and asylees.

We introduce trainees to the basics of culinary work: foods, cooking techniques, cuisines, equipment, and practical functions (invoices, recipes, and scaling). We also teach them meditation, yoga, T’ai Chi, relaxation, nutrition, and herbal alternatives to help them function on the job and in their daily lives.

Catering: Mandala Kitchens also serves as a catering company staffed by trainees and graduates of the culinary training program and others from the local community. It provides part-time employment plus on-the-job training. And we have found a niche providing catering to other nonprofits, educational and religious groups, as well as other social service agencies.

Community Meals: Since 2016, we have been providing a free weekly community meal in Harlem. Each Wednesday, we hand out meals to anyone who would like one. We began this service in May 2020 to help those struggling with food insecurity and unemployment during the COVID-19 pandemic. In October 2020, we added a second community meal on two Sundays per month. Since then, we have bagged and handed out more than 55,000 meals and have also provided more than 7,600 hours of volunteer opportunities.

A basic teaching of Buddhism is that every being (human, animal, plant, mineral, air, light, time) is interrelated to every other. When we people become aware of that interrelatedness, we can no longer subscribe to the illusory idea of “self” and “other.” This gives rise to compassion. We commit to doing no harm, doing good, and doing good for others, who are no longer perceived as separate from our “self” or our experience of being. Both the Zen group and the culinary offerings teach people to have that insight and act to benefit themselves and others.

FPC: You have worked in restaurants in various capacities intermittently for the past 40+ years. What drew you to the culinary field?  

DN: Culinary work is one of the few fields where one can start with an entry-level job and acquire the skills and experience required to move up to higher levels of responsibility. It engages one’s creative energies. It is a great way to connect our individuality to earning a living. And, it is usually a landing place for unusual, creative, iconoclastic, interesting people who often wind up forming a strong bond of community.

FPC: What are your hopes for Mandala Café in the future? How do you envision its growth?

DN: We see the café now as a training space (both front of house and back of house), as well as a place where everyone, all our neighbors, can come to eat together. In the future, it could also be a community meeting space, an art and performance space, and a place where social work interns can reach out to those in need. We hope that it will be an equalizing space; where all neighbors can come to eat and share together.

The requirements for this ideal space are the bigger fish to fry, so to speak: it involves real estate, equipment, construction, and capital. I have looked at a couple of spaces, which were feasible, but ultimately not a good fit (location and capital issues). We are hoping that we might meet a property owner who would be willing to sponsor/subsidize a start-up phase. There are so many empty storefronts and retail spaces that, rather than providing tax write-offs for the owners, could make a difference in the lives of many others.

FPC: In an interview with Edible Manhattan, you said that you believe there are enough resources to go around, especially in terms of food. And, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the amount of food that is wasted worldwide could feed 1.26 billion hungry individuals. How do you think NYC as a whole can reduce (or ideally, eliminate) food insecurity? What are the biggest obstacles standing in the way of universal access to healthy food, and how can we overcome them? 

DN: Two of the biggest problems are communication and distribution. There have to be ways for food organizations to communicate to other groups that there is food available, find a way to deliver it to them, and then for those receiving groups to then distribute it to those in need. The large organizations (e.g. City Harvest, NYC Food Bank) are well-known, and they already receive and distribute food in large quantities. There needs to be an initiative that works with smaller organizations (such as restaurants, bodegas, businesses, and houses of worship) that produce smaller amounts of food. It would also be helpful to start a movement to educate people about the overall need for food in NYC and help people find a place for their surplus food. 

Another issue is that people need to earn a living wage in order to have agency in the food choices they make. New York has been leading on this by increasing the minimum wage.

FPC: From your experience working with underserved community members, what do you think needs to be done at the local policy level to improve food access and economic justice? Do you think such a policy solution is feasible in the near future? If not, what needs to be done first to make it a realistic goal?

DN: I do not hold much hope for local, state, or federal policy change, although France recently enacted a law mandating food organizations to find a place for extra food. 

For me, this is an existential/moral issue: as long as individuals see themselves as separate from everyone else, there will continue to be the disparity we are now experiencing. Until individuals recognize themselves as part of a larger whole (individuals, affinity groups, racial groups, identity groups, neighbors, colleagues, people of faith, citizens, voters, politicians), there can be no substantial change.

FPC: Any final thoughts?

DN: There is a saying of which I am fond: When you have more than enough, build a longer table, not a higher wall.


Grew up in: Cedar Rapids, IA

City or town you call home: NYC (Washington Heights, though I work in Harlem) 

Job title: Founder, Mandala Café; Guiding Teacher, Pamsula Zen Center

Background and education: Bachelor’s degree in English and philosophy, master’s degree in counselor education 

One word you would use to describe our food system: Messy

Food policy hero: Karen Washington

Your breakfast this morning: Coffee and homemade sfouf (Middle Eastern turmeric and anise cake)

Favorite foods: Italian/Indian/Middle Eastern

Favorite last meal on Earth: Thali at Ayurveda Café with a friend

Favorite food hangout: Bustan, Upper West Side

Food policy social media must follow: Too many to name – @mandalacafenyc 

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