Allow me to shock you: of all the fast food chains, Taco Bell comes the closest to representing actual cooking. To prove this, I need to establish the difference between cooking and baking. Baking is chemistry- there is a formula you must follow, and while some deviation can occur, if you don’t follow the recipe pretty closely, the end result is wrong. You’re dealing with chemical reactions, and you can’t convince them to react differently. The rules are the rules. Cooking, on the other hand, is more like painting. You likely start with an end in mind, but along the way, there is much room for adjustment and personalization. Cooking is all about what you do differently from another cook. This is what makes Taco Bell so like cooking: it’s so full of improvisation and adjustment.
Look at the Taco Bell menu, take the most iconic item on it. A hard taco is a hard taco shell with seasoned beef, lettuce, and cheese. What if it was a tortilla instead of a hard shell? That’s a soft taco. What if you wrapped a tortilla around the hard shell, and filled the gap with nacho cheese? That’s a Double Stacked Taco, of course. Oh, shit, you broke one of the taco shells in half. Well, just add beans instead of beef then drizzle with sauce. Tada, it’s a tostada. When you see through the facade, you realize that this is the logic behind the entire menu. The Taco Bell test kitchen is a collection of ingredients- beef, cheese, sour cream, chips- and finding as many engaging combinations of them as possible. At the same time it’s not Subway, who simply displays every ingredient they offer and asks you what you want. Taco Bell DOES come up with its own combinations, and recommends them to you. This is the balance that makes their food cooking: a freewheeling creativity that defies strict recipes, but still offers a clear vision and intent for your eating experience.
It was only after six years of working in the food service industry that I discovered this balance for myself, and through it the joy of cooking. Growing up, I cooked for the family sometimes, but it was one extreme or the other. Either I strictly followed a recipe due to a lack of confidence and experience, or I did an artless “make your own burrito” or somesuch- preparing various ingredients and setting them out in bowls, inviting others to combine as they wished. There’s nothing wrong with either of these methods, but there’s no joy or art in them. After that I worked basic food service, where I followed instructions without room for my own vision. And then I became friends with Rick, one of the servers at my job and an all-around cool guy.
Like all the servers, on his lunch break Rick would punch in an order for himself through the registers. We’d get the order ticket in the back, and get to work. But one day when business was slow, Rick sent back his order, and it read “Misc. $8.00.”
I headed to the window, and quirked my head. “Hey Rick, what’s this?”
Rick shrugged. “I dunno. You know what I like, and I’m bored of the menu. Make something up!”
This sparked a little fire: not just in me, but in the rest of the servers as well. For the first time I understood the joy of cooking, as I looked around the kitchen and wondered what I could create using the plethora of ingredients and no recipe. Rick was so satisfied with his creation that he began asking me to improvise for him on the regular. His meals caught the eyes of his fellow servers, who then also began asking me for custom meals. Finally, word of this reached the boss, one thing led to another, and now if you go to Seven Saints in Champaign, Illinois you’ll find several items on the menu that are my creations.
As much as I love to cook, in the years since I’ve left food service behind. The pay and benefits were simply untenable- literally, as I sank further and further into debt every month I lived on my own working in a restaurant. To this day, I’m still gradually digging my way out of that hole. So now, all my cooking happens in my own kitchen, serving up dishes for others in my own time. It’s a very different atmosphere, but I still love to lose myself in the joy of cooking.
When I’m cooking, the whole world falls away. Any attention I have to spare gets diverted to the consideration of possibilities. What if I used olive oil instead of butter? I bet toasted pine nuts would add a nice dimension to this dish. Maybe if I marinated this beforehand the flavor would be more assertive. Sometimes I make these adjustments on the fly, other times I file them away for next time, and often I end up happy enough with the finished product that I discard them entirely. Still, for that time in the kitchen, the possibility space of cooking fills my mind, and I forget my worries. And these days, I have a lot of worries.
Cooking games rarely achieve this same presence. Your Diner Dashes or Cooking Mamas offer a “soothing” experience that lacks the attention-demanding pressure that distracts me from the world’s woes. Cook Serve Delicious is the exception: its WarioWare-esque pace demands constant engagement to a point that you achieve a zen often associated with puzzle games like Tetris. It doesn’t offer the creative possibility of real cooking, but its frenetic tempo captures all the energy of the last scramble to throw a dish together. And with each entry, CSD is increasingly framing your work as a distraction from the unsolvable problems around you.
Many were surprised when Cook Serve Delicious 3’s first trailer showed the cooking experience taking to the roads of a crumbling America, with rival food trucks opening fire on you, and a map of the USA where several states are straight up gone. The first game in the series had none of this, focusing simply on your attempt to start your own restaurant, and climb the ranks of the culinary world. Cook Serve Delicious 2 later released in early access, with a similarly simple premise. However, as the game was fleshed out, players began to notice strange bits of writing being added.
At first, food descriptions merely hinted at a wacky alternate history. Funnel cakes were invented to smuggle spiders into a secure treaty signing? Tiramisu was made to unite a divided Italy? How wacky! But as you read more, you realize that for its absurdity, this world is facing real consequences. Virginia and Florida have been swallowed by the ocean. California is an irradiated wasteland following nuclear warfare. Japan is just gone, and Texas has seceded and walled itself off, afraid of the rest of the world. The world of Cook Serve Delicious is doing badly, and you can’t fix that. All you can do is keep your head down and keep cooking.
Even your attempt to hide from the world’s pain is met with rude interruptions. CSD2 begins with the restaurant you started in 1 closing because of corrupt landlords, forcing you to start over. CSD3 drops with an even bigger bombshell: your building has literally been struck by errant artillery fire. The Blue War, mere flavor text in 2, has come to your doorstep, and subsequently destroyed said doorstep. From the rubble, you rise, and start a food truck, driving across a war torn America to unite people with cooking.
Don’t worry: none of this is taken too seriously. This is still the world where British spies can be detected by the baked potato they always keep in their pockets. We’re all having fun here, and the bright art and peppy music are there to remind you that this is all a goof, and you can just lose yourself in the cooking. Still, it’s hard not to feel a kinship with the Cook Serve Delicious chef. Even if it is absurd, this is a world torn by global warming, incompetent politicians, and unnecessary wars. Don’t look out the window now, but I think this might be some sort of commentary.
In our world, we wake up every day to news of decay. Corrupt politicians excuse each other for crimes, the planet’s climate takes more and more irreparable damage, creative voices are snuffed out by oblivious venture capitalists and soulless megacorps. And on a smaller scale, in your own life, you are hurting. I would never tell you to give up: this world is worth fighting for. But you can’t take every fight that comes your way. Burnout will claim you long before you make a dent in the world’s problems. So find respite in cooking: make someone a nice meal. And take joy in the power fantasy of being a master chef while you’re at it. I’m terrible at making pasta: lasagna intimidates me. But I can smash PSCR PSCR PSCR with the best of them, and while I’m doing so, it’s all I’m thinking about. Don’t tell me you couldn’t use that escape.