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Local Chef Heads to Cambodia to Help National Team

By: Jim Cook Posted: January-01-2006 in
Jim Cook

If you like Japanese food, and you live in Dothan, you've probably heard of Joe Cook.

Joe serves up hibachi with a side of fun almost nightly at Mikata Japanese Steakhouse, delighting customers with his culinary skill, witty banter and crowd-pleasing cooking tricks.

But just like the onions he slices, Joe has layers. Underneath the smiles and jokes, there's a deep guy who wants to help make life better for folks in his native Cambodia. Joe chooses to do this through baseball.

For nearly five years, Joe has made regular trips to Cambodia, bringing used bats, gloves, bases - anything he can round up - to the people of his former village. Joe is about to go again, but this time is a little different. This time Cambodia is just the first stop on a journey that will take Joe and a Cambodian baseball team to an international tournament.

Joe will help the Cambodian national team prepare for the SEA Games, a tournament in December involving teams from 11 southeast Asian countries. It's one of the first international sporting events Cambodia has participated in, and is a source of national pride for the country and for Joe.

Some families with students at local schools may accompany Joe to help in his efforts to prepare the team. Mark Dennis, father of Houston Academy student Jackson Dennis, is considering going with his son to Cambodia. The Dennis family has helped Joe raise money and gather equipment to promote baseball among Cambodia's youth.

"I think we see an opportunity to help children who need extra assistance and guidance," Dennis said. "To see this man go through so much and to see him travel so far inspires us."

Joe fled Cambodia in 1975 after the Khmer Rouge killed his father and much of his family during an era of cruel repression. Joe grew up in Chattanooga, Tenn. and became a chef, eventually coming to work in Dothan. In 2002 he returned to Cambodia and reunited with a sister he had believed was killed. While visiting, he introduced children of his former village to baseball. Since then, he's made about 10 trips back, bringing gloves, bats and other equipment every time.

Joe says the game has taught the kids valuable lessons about teamwork, sportsmanship and respect. It's also exposed them to English words and phrases and Western culture. Joe hopes the exposure to the sport will set them on the road to achievement.

Joe is excited about the tournament, and a chance to help Cambodia's team to prepare. His heart remains with the children, however.

"What inspires me to go over and over are the kids' smiles," he said.

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