The Elements of Virtual Cooking

Video games that offer all the cooking and none of the food

Namco's <i>BurgerTime Delight</i>, revived from the steam tables of the Eighties, lives on in cell phones. As chef Peter Pepper, make burgers by stacking ingredients from elevated ladders; paralyze your enemies – hot dogs and eggs – with a shake of pepper or a flying bun.
Namco's BurgerTime Delight, revived from the steam tables of the Eighties, lives on in cell phones. As chef Peter Pepper, make burgers by stacking ingredients from elevated ladders; paralyze your enemies – hot dogs and eggs – with a shake of pepper or a flying bun.

"What is the element of good cooking?" Len­ny Henry's tyrannical chef, Gareth Black­stock, in the early-Nineties British TV show Chef! repeatedly barks at his kitchen staff. His answer fluctuates with his temper, but ingredients, timing, and restraint rank as Chef!'s Top 3 essential elements to good cooking.

Ten years after the savory sitcom simmered down to reruns, the phenomenon of food-related video games swept the nation's virtual kitchens in the form of Japanese game-developer Office Create's Cooking Mama (Majesco Enter­tainment Co., $19.99) and, in 2007, Cooking Mama 2: Dinner With Friends ($29.99), in which players "cook" dishes based on simple recipes. Dishes are assembled step-by-step, each step timed and individually scored. The popularity of these Nintendo DS games prompted the March 2007 release of Cooking Mama: Cook Off ($29.99) for the Nintendo Wii.

Having spent a week marinating on the possible relevance of tedious cooking video games to either cooking or gaming, I sought insight from three students enrolled in chef Richard Winemiller's culinary program at James Bowie High School. Placed in front of the Wii, young cuisiniers Malcolm Goler, Michael Grimm, and Nicole Nguyen used their arms to imitate stirring, chopping, and kneading, eventually sparring against one another in the player-on-player chapter of the game. "If only cooking were really this easy" was a popular sentiment among the high school seniors. That is, until they came upon the task of peeling a potato for minestrone, struggling to steady the cursor to erase every spec of peel. "Man, we would have been finished by now if this were real cooking," Nguyen grumbled with a giggle. They were having fun and agreed the game appealed to young people interested in the technicalities of cooking. "You've got to portion correctly; [you have to] add stuff at the right time," Grimm said, but he added that it only mimicked actual cooking on a very basic level. "I like that it's interactive," Goler offered. "It's like you're actually cooking. ... I don't like that it's a little too fast."

Unlike chef Blackstock, in Mama's fiery eyes, the only important element to good cooking is timing, and, to her, timing means speed, as it does to Jill, the busty baker in Sandlot Games' 2007 Cake Mania 2 (Elephant Entertainment, $19.99, downloadable for Windows 2000/XP), who makes cakes as fast as she can for impatient customers.

Of all the foodie games I sampled, Oberon Games' Go-Go Gourmet ($19.95) offers the most relevance to the professional cooking industry. In this downloadable Windows 2000/XP game, Ginger has to advance to master chef by cooking in various kitchens, juggling orders, and actually cooking – chopping, boiling, seasoning – as opposed to Jill's method of pressing a button on a magic cake machine and dumping it into a magic froster.

Craig Long, proprietor of Austin catering kitchen Go Go Gourmet (now located in the Texas Municipal League building, 1821 Rutherford, 589-6063), upon cursory inspection of the eponymous game, did not glean the same pleasure from combining the elements of cooking and gaming that chef Winemiller's students did. "You don't do any sort of cooking or culinary skills," Long said. "I never saw her wash a dish; I never saw her cover a no-show." Describ­ing the hectic atmosphere in a real kitchen, Long admitted to having no interest in playing a video game that resembles that "in the weeds" mania. "I don't want to ever think that our future is being based on how applicable games are to reality. How about the game Smell This, and See If It's Fresh or Is This Milk Still Good?"

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