It’s not there anymore, the original California Café in Phnom Penh. The first place was moved a few years ago by its owner, Jim, and is now perched closer to the muddy Mekong River that flows through Cambodia. The new version is called the California 2. But I remember the first restaurant very well. Though I didn’t know it at the time, the cozy California Café changed my destiny in so many ways.
Time travel back 15 years or so to December 1998. I was on a major overseas shoot for FEBC (Far East Broadcasting) in Cambodia as a director-cameraman. With ace writer Eileen Marek in tow, our jobs were to feature the great radio work of FEBC in-country.
One extremely hot, dusty December day our little camera crew pulled into the California Café for lunch. Thirsty, hungry, the place was perfect for expatriates like Eileen and I to grab some food in an air-conditioned restaurant. We dropped our gear, sat down and ordered a tasty meal. While we were sitting at our table and talking in English a voice from across the aisle spoke up.
“Are you Americans?” a man asked.
“Yes,” I said, as I turned his way.
“Where from?” he said.
“California,” was my quick response.
The man at that table across from us introduced himself as Ted Olbrich. He was a Foursquare missionary to Cambodia and explained he was in town for a few days to find a house for his wife, Sou, and their family, who were living back in the States. Talking some more, he mentioned that since I was based in Los Angeles I should contact his home office, Foursquare Missions International based near Echo Park, to pitch my services as a director-cameraman.
“Contact Jim Tolle,” he suggested.
We had a short, pleasant conversation, then went our separate ways. I never saw Ted again. But that simple exchange of information changed my life in many ways. Back in California a few weeks later, I contacted FMI and Jim Tolle. One thing lead to another, and just 5 months later I was sling-shotted across the world on a series of video shoots and projects for Foursquare Missions. That first trip included Germany, Spain, South Africa, Uganda and Thailand.
Over 5 years, I shot in 22 countries and on 5 continents for FMI – so many inspiring stories and great, dedicated people, especially out in the field. From that first (and only) talk with Ted there developed four very important relationships, lasting friendships that later propelled me beyond those 5 years of off-and-on travel, great people who remain influential in my life even to this day.
First, I met up with Chris & Laura Dakas, who are based in Tirana, Albania and run the Stephen Center – part restaurant, conference center, little hotel and non-profit organization. Chris is a former police detective from Massachusetts who later transitioned into ministry and missions. Armed with a deprecating sense of humor, he and the lovely Laura soon became life-long friends. I have returned to Albania two more times to conduct intensive media workshops for the Stephen Center. Josif and Tonet, who run the center, are great friends too.
On a production stop in Uganda, I bumped into Greg and Margaret Fisher. Twice while I was there they took me out for sumptuous French dinners in Kampala. Right there, I knew I liked these two already. (The trendy restaurant was located smack next to a slaughterhouse. Talk about fresh steak!) Greg knew East Africa like the back of his hand. A few years later, he & I teamed-up to shoot an inspiring, award-winning short documentary in Burundi, East Africa. The Fishers later would head back to the US to retire, but remain dear friends. Even now, I can still hear Greg’s resounding laughter in my ears.
In 2000, I spent some time in France with Dan and Martine Lucero, who were then pastoring in the eastern French city of Nancy. Today, the Lucero’s are dearest friends, as close as family, their children considered by Rebecca and I as adopted nephews and nieces. Martine and my Rebecca are like sisters…especially when it comes to food & shopping! I later traveled with Dan on video projects to West Africa and South America. Been to his home in Lyon 2-3 times, he to ours in California as well. In was on a lengthy, rattling car drive across the length of the tiny African nation of Benin that Dan and I prayed together for my future wife.
From this strong relationship with the Lucero’s I was introduced to Kingdom Seminary in Virginia. At this small college I would eventually study for and be conferred with my Doctor of Fine Arts degree in Redemptive Filmmaking in 2013.
Finally, I adopted a grand-uncle along the way, Ron Williams. Based in Echo Park, Ron was the director of communications for the Foursquare Church. I traveled 77,000 air miles with Ron in 2001. Together we hit exotic stops like Sri Lanka, Nigeria, Greece, Honduras and Argentina. We got to know each other very well, both of us armed with a cantankerous sense of humor.
What I noticed about Ron is that wherever we traveled pastors and missionaries seemed to befriend Ron immediately, then pour out their hearts and troubles to him over shared meals. They trusted Ron; he listened graciously and loved them back. Their secrets were safe with him.
A big panda bear of a man, he had previously served for 16 years as a missionary to Hong Kong. Ron spoke fluent Cantonese, and it was a true treat to sit with him during our faraway travels and watch him order delicacies not normally listed on any Chinese restaurant menu.
Even though I eventually stopped shooting FMI projects after 2003, Ron and I always stayed in touch, even taking in a Kings hockey game one night. He served as marital counselor for Rebecca and I before we married in 2004. As I write this, he has passed away just one day ago. Uncle Ron will be missed…a lot.
Looking back, that’s four deep, surprising relationships (and a doctorate) all flowing from just one simple lunch time conversation in Cambodia many years ago.
God bless Ted Olbrich.
And the California Café!