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CHEF DU JOUR

From Surf to Sweet Potato Pie

January 06, 1994|PATRICK MOTT | Patrick Mott is a frequent contributor to The Times Orange County Edition

It's difficult to know whether to think of Mike Baker as a surfing chef or as a chef who surfs. In either case, he doesn't look the part.

Well beyond six feet and with the build of a defensive lineman, Baker, the chef at Buffalo Ranch restaurant in Mission Viejo, looks as if he couldn't be supported in the water by a surfboard any smaller than a barge and has none of the fussy, precision manner of the mythical temperamental chef.

Nevertheless, the youthfully enthusiastic Baker still lards his conversation with time-honored surfer language (if he's excited, he's "stoked"), and, during the past 12 months, his enthusiasm has been centered on Buffalo Ranch, a family-style steakhouse.

"It's not a quiet dining atmosphere," the San Juan Capistrano resident said, smiling. "We encourage people to get up and dance with the employees every half hour. And if people go away saying 'I'm stuffed!' then I feel like we did our job."

Baker, a graduate of Corona del Mar High School and Golden West College in Huntington Beach (he studied business), began his association with restaurants when he was 12, working in a Belgian waffle restaurant on Balboa Island as a dish washer. ("They'd feed me, and I was making money to buy surfboards.")

"I went through the ranks," he said. "On-the-job training was best for me, and there were really great people along the way who took time to teach me."

After a short time as a kitchen worker at Reuben's in Newport Beach, Baker worked from 1976 to 1984 as a broiler man, waiter and manager at Josh Slocum's restaurant in that city. From 1984 to 1993, he worked as the head waiter and manager of the Chart House in Dana Point.

Today, he is one of his own best customers. He has one of Buffalo Ranch's signature buffalo burgers each day--"less fat," he said.

And occasionally he whips up something off the menu, such as his sweet potato pie.

"I personally don't like pumpkin pie," he said, "but this is fantastic. When I first did this, there was a lot of word of mouth among the employees, and they all sampled it about five or 10 times."

Preparation, Baker said, is fairly simple, but he warned that the home cook should "make sure the sweet potatoes are cooked correctly and cooled down completely, because the puree is the major part of the process."

SWEET POTATO PIE 2 sweet potatoes, cooked 1 cup half and half 3 eggs 1/4 cup maple syrup 3/4 cup sugar 1 tablespoon cinnamon 1 tablespoon allspice 1 teaspoon ginger 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

Puree sweet potatoes and add remaining ingredients. Mix well. Place filling in pie shell and sprinkle with crumb crust (see below). Bake at 300 degrees for one hour. Let cool. Crumb Crust 2/3 cup all-purpose flour 1/3 cup sugar 2/3 cup brown sugar 2/3 cup butter 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg 1 cup oats

Mix all ingredients. Reserving 1/2 cup to sprinkle atop filling, press into a deep 9-inch pie dish.

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