Cooking is something I have a bit of a torrid love affair with. Sometimes I absolutely adore it; generally when it’s all going my way and things are delicious. Other times I truly despise it; like when I have done something the same way I always have, but it’s turned out completely wrong or just tastes awful. Clearly, cooking is RNG.

This being said, there’s surprisingly few cooking games. I don’t mean tiny minigames as side content, or even just mashing a few ingredients together and magically having something appear. I want the real meat and potatoes, if you’ll excuse the turn of phrase. When I think about cooking I think about a few things; restaurant management, ingredients, and the food itself.

Stoking the fires of creativity.

You’ve got your Cooking Mama games, and I’ve played a few and they’re fine, but they never really scratched the itch for me. There are also games like Diner Dash and others that rely on heavy time mechanics, but I feel there’s so little focus on the actual food in those games, so I’ve come to just discount them as “not cooking”. Even Overcooked, which I truly love even as it causes all of my interpersonal relationships to dangle on a knife’s edge based on how we do in the level. It doesn’t really celebrate food itself, merely the sheer chaos of a kitchen dialled up to 11.

Two games in my eyes really nail this. The combination of these two games actually led me through a bit of a renaissance of cooking for myself, to the stage where between my wife and I, most meals in our house are made at least 70-80% from scratch. We both love cooking and in turn, tend to love cooking games. The two games are Chef and Cook, Serve, Delicious!. CSD is actually a very fine line. Yes, it’s a time management game (and a very stressful one) but there’s a love and respect for food there too. The entire game feels like a celebration of restaurant culture. The menu is set, but you make slight tweaks to it to make it more appealing to you. This is a temple where you don’t get a hot dog on its own. You want a pretzel bun, mustard, ketchup and onions. Maybe hold the onions and ketchup. The food has its base, but everything inside is a tapestry upon which the chef grants your desires.

It was Cook, Serve, Delicious that sparked inspiration in me to try new things; to not accept that a burger, or that a pasta dish, or even ice cream is this “set” thing but instead a canvas upon which flavour is painted. It’s led me to eat some truly wonderful (and also some much less wonderful) things; even food I just plain hadn’t tried before. Hot dogs with sauerkraut and mustard, roast beef rolls with hot sauce and gravy, tinkering with a recipe to make some of my own tomato relish. I’m by no means a pioneer in tastes, but coming from a very conservative family of fussy eaters, where garlic was “too spicy” and tomato sauce was about the only condiment I would be offered. Breaking those shackles was incredibly difficult, so anything that can ease that process was a much welcome respite.

Chef on the other hand taught me the concept of free-style cooking. Again, with a fussy eating childhood brings a few things: a reliance on ready-made packet mixes and an absolute adherence to the law of a recipe. It planted a seed in me I won’t soon forget, and that is all about the balance of food. In Chef, you build a menu from scratch. You set a baseline of say, “pasta”, but from there you build and add ingredients, balancing out dishes with sweetness, spiciness, acidity and the like. It taught me a recipe is not gospel, and inspired me not to start reading cookbooks, but cooking theory books. To cook from taste and sight, not from someone else’s recipe. Since then, I’ve made plenty of my own sauces, relishes, jams and many many dinners. I’ve created dishes whose recipes I stupidly did not write down notes on, but they were tasty. I’ve also created google docs filled with manic scrawlings of “what if’s” and base recipes I think I can improve upon, or styles of food I want to try.

Yes, all of this stuff could have been done on my own through some other means. These two games though, they were the base of my own recipe for cooking inspiration. I actually asked my wife and a few of my friends if they felt similarly: if games had inspired them to make dishes, or do other hobbies. Unfortunately I found I kind of stand alone here. That’s ok though. The fact they sparked this burning passion inside me is something really beautiful that I’ll cherish.

Who knows, maybe one day I’ll get a hot dog in the game named after me.