It’s 8:30 a.m. on a Wednesday. Climbing the steps of Strong Hall, you can hear the laughter coming from the crowd surrounding Paul Baker before you smell what’s cooking in his pan.
“What do you call a mushroom that goes into a bar and buys a drink for everybody?” Baker asks, as steam billows from the lobby floor to the ceiling. “A fungi.”
At the same time the punchline lands, he drops a handful of mushrooms into one of his two sizzling pans.
Chef hat in hand, Baker spends his Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings making omelets for anyone with $4.96 and an appetite. He sets up in Strong Hall on Wednesdays; Tuesdays are spent on the third floor of Anschutz Library and Thursdays at the Engineering building.
“I have a lot of fun. It’s so nice meeting the students and talking to staff,” Baker said. “Everyone is so creative and friendly.”
However, the interactions that occur over omelets are only the start of Baker’s day. After breakfast hours end, Baker, who is “officially” retired, prepares tax returns for H&R Block, ushers at the Lied Center and works security at football games. Preparing tax returns is his second favorite thing to do with his day, Baker said. His first?
“What do you call a cow with no legs?” asks Baker as a new customer approaching his table eyes the chorizo meat. “Ground beef.”
Senior Andrew Avila, a finance and marketing major from Derby, discovered the omelet chef three years ago as a freshman.
Avila said he recognized the scent of the omelets after visiting Anschutz after a class in Strong Hall. “One day I finally figured out where the smell was coming from when I saw him whipping out some omelets in the middle of Strong Hall.”
According to Avila, Baker’s enthusiasm for his interactions with students is mutual.
“He just kind of always comes in clutch if I hadn’t had any breakfast that day,” Avila said. “He always makes conversation with me as he works his magic in the pan.”
As far as Baker’s go-to breakfast? Omelets sometimes get old, he admits, but there’s one omelet in particular that he can’t turn down.
“I’m very plain. I have the Denver Omelet, [a] ham and cheese omelet,” Baker said. “I’m a good midwestern boy.”
The Iowa native’s sense of humor always remains intact despite waking up at 4 a.m., something he has enjoyed for as long as he can remember. He likes the mornings, he says, noting his wife is likely still at home herself in bed as he stands behind his grills, ingredients and hungry fans.
He has been waking up this early to serve breakfast from the table as an employee of KU Catering for the past 11 years. Before that he worked as a certified public accountant and before that he earned a bachelor's and master's degree in physics from Iowa State University, as well as an MBA from Stanford.
“What’s a deer with no eyes?” asks Baker, turning down the grills for the final omelets of the morning. “No eye-dear.”
Regulars hurry by as Baker rattles off their orders without a hitch, checking to see if they want to make any changes to their usual order and making sure they know it will be waiting for them after their meeting or class with a lid on the top to keep it warm.
“Yeah, I have groupies that follow me around,” Baker says as he finishes the last of the 90 eggs he began the morning with. “Just kidding,” he adds humbly with a laugh.
Another joke. However, this one is different than the rest.
The punch line? He’ll bring fresh eggs and new jokes on Thursday, but loyal fans as well as new ones — groupies — will no doubt be waiting.
— Edited by Erin Brock