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Chef puts fork in language, gender barriers

PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- Talking to Joanie Hofer and eating her cooking are spiritual experiences. 

The executive chef at The Tides Club is a practicing Buddhist who weaves her heart and soul into every dish she prepares and into helping at least one person daily. 

Joanie has cooked at Patrick AFB since 1988 and recently celebrated her 10th anniversary as the executive chef. She says her religion and life-long affiliation with the military inspire her to help people and serve military families. 

"I was born into a military family in Taiwan and then married an American serviceman," Joanie explained. "While I don't shoot guns or launch rockets, I do my duty by taking care of military families with good food. I also want to set the example for the foreign-born military wife." 

Joanie, who started cooking with her mom while growing up in Taiwan, does that by preparing meals at The Tides. 

"The most critical part of any club is the kitchen and the quality of the food. We're known for great food and Joanie's a big part of that," said Johnnie Rivera, club manager. 

"She's a world-class chef who looks after our Airmen and their families with her cooking." 

The journey to becoming the executive chef at Patrick wasn't an easy one. Joanie's original language was Chinese and she has overcome several barriers going back to her first military cooking job at Robins AFB, Ga. in 1977. "When I first started people didn't believe in me because I'm a woman and English is my second language," said Joanie, who also went on to learn Italian, French, Japanese and Spanish. 

She said that on more than one occasion people said negative things about her in her presence, thinking she couldn't understand. "That hurt, but it also inspired me," Joanie said. 

She believed cooking was her "gift," but she didn't have formal training. So, she set out to prove the naysayers wrong. 

Over about 14 years, while traveling the world with her now-retired Air Force husband Richard, Joanie studied culinary arts at schools in Paris (France, not Texas), Seattle and New York - earning a degree from Seattle University. She also worked for what she calls "slave wages" at a prestigious restaurant in Italy to learn Italian cuisine. 

Recently, she learned ice sculpting here in the States. "I've studied my brains out and I'm still learning," she laughed, brushing her dark, blonde-highlighted hair away from her eyes. 

Her hard work paid off. She's now an accomplished chef who has prepared meals for then-President Bill Clinton and countless other dignitaries who have eaten at Patrick AFB. A few years ago, a Chinese general visited. Joanie studied the cuisines from his region and prepared him a home-cooked meal. 

"He liked it so much, he gave me a gold pin," said Joanie, whose soft-spoken nature and shy smile belie her drive and devotion to Buddhist altruistic principles. 

"Sometimes you can hear her in her office chanting," said Mr. Rivera. "She's so focused. Her work ethic and genuine concern about people set her apart." 

Joanie believes her greatest accomplishment is being a positive role model for military spouses. 

"No matter what color you are, what language you speak or if you're a woman or foreign born ... you can do whatever you set your heart on," she said. "I cook with my heart. Everybody needs to find their unique ability and use it to better themselves and society."