Temple eatery replaces Nana’s Café, but Asian food tradition continues
Inside the former Main Street home of Nana’s Japanese Cafe in Alfred, Kevin Em has built a culinary temple.
The restaurant, aptly named Temple, draws influence from Buddhist culinary tradition, which Em studied while volunteering as a cook in a monastery on the Southwest coast of South Korea.
“It’s a Temple for me to meditate, for me to find myself, a temple for my own mindfulness and a place for me to center myself in this culinary world that’s been shattered by coronavirus,” he said.
Temple’s menu changes daily, and serves vegetarian and pescatarian meals like Korean seaweed rice rolls, omelet rose with grilled asparagus and vegan curry with fried egg over rice.
Em has built a space in Temple that pays tribute to his time at the monastery. He’s taken lessons he learned there about balance in gut microbiome, how meditation can help push through a lunch rush, and attention to each piece of produce to drive the philosophy at his restaurant.
Journey and a summer of volunteering
Em, 33, of Alfred, grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan and got his start in the restaurant business after being let go from a cybersecurity start-up. After tirelessly working himself up the ranks he eventually landed himself a job at the University of Michigan serving around 6,000 students a day.
Then came summer 2021. Em volunteered at Daeheung-sa, a main temple of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism. The temple is located near the southern limit of South Korea.
Em said he volunteered at the temple as a respite from working in pandemic riddled dining halls.
As a volunteer, Em watched as monks would wolf down their vegetarian meals without a single word of thanks, just grunts and muffled burps and chairs scrapping with the sound of each monk doing their own dishes and stacking them neatly in the UV sanitizer rack.
While working there, Em learned from a woman named Suryang-ji, a chef at the monastery. Together they walked the slopes of the Duryun Mountains in search of mushrooms, herbs and edible shrubs after serving lunch.
Em credits Suryang-ji with teaching him a lot in his time at Daeheung-sa.
“She taught me how to garnish with natural dyes and lichens growing on pines,” Em said. “Her vegan cashew mayo butter was the best thing I had ever tasted, and she paired it with all sorts of squash, fermented roots and dried chilis.”
Arriving in Alfred and putting together a vision
Em arrived in Alfred in June 2021 after his wife accepted a teaching job in the ceramics and arts department at Alfred University.
“It was a hard decision to quit that chef job,” Em said. “It was the first time I felt responsibility over a bunch of cooks and organizing the kitchen I wanted to.”
But as Em has always done, he got to work. He started inviting community members to his home to try out some of his vegan and pescatarian food, based on Buddhist temple food.
What followed was a six-month whirlwind. He sold out at the Alfred Farmer’s Market, Kent Beer and various locations throughout Alfred. That coupled with money raised through a GoFundMe account allowed Em to bring his restaurant to life on Feb. 4.
“It’s really been a ‘pull yourself up by the bootstraps’ kind of grassroots movement,” he said.
The closing of Nana’s Japanese Cafe in 2020 left a gap in the Asian cuisine offerings in Alfred. At Temple, Em looks to close it.
“I was disappointed with the lack of food options in the area,” he recalled. “I’ve just been blown away personally by how much people want an eatery like this in this town.”
The essence of Temple
At his restaurant on 56 Main St. in Alfred, Em says he can apply his commercial kitchen knowledge and construct a menu that’s healthy for the community and his own well-being.
“I can post different galleries inside this space, arts that matters to people of color, elevating people of color to positions of authority and making sure Asian cuisine is again on the map in Western New York,” he said.
On the menu you’ll find curry, kimbap and other meals, with a focus on customers looking for gluten free, vegan or vegetarian options, as well as those nearby students looking for meals Em believes will help them in their studies.
“We wanted to provide an option that is healthy for both academic studies and alleviating gastrointestinal issues related to academic stress,” he said.
Em’s Temple draws inspiration from lessons he learned thousands of miles away, but his focus is securely set on Alfred, and fostering an Asian culinary tradition in Western New York.
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