Cooking games are…fine. Give a player a few ingredients, season with a few action verbs (shake, toss, stir, etc.) and add a final pinch of urgency in the form of time pressure, unruly physics or the potential for error, and you have the framework for most cooking games. As much as I like games like that, they’re not what I consider the most exciting thing about cooking. What I love are the moments of bravely deviating from a recipe and venturing off into the wilderness of unknown tastes. That’s the approach The Gourmet Makes series of videos on Bon Appetit’s YouTube channel takes. In each episode, pastry chef Claire Saffitz attempts to make a different popular, processed snack such as Snickers or Hot Pockets. While the challenge is ostensibly to create a better version, the show is mostly about finding ways to successfully handmake the very ingredients food companies use machines to create – reintroducing the human element back into foods most of us only eat out of a package.
I’m still looking for a game about cooking that embraces the joy of experimenting in the same way Gourmet Makes does. The trial and error process, the very thing that makes Gourmet Makes joyful for viewers and tolerable to Claire, judging by her loud sighing, makes me wonder how many attempts and possible solutions players would put up with before frustration sets in. Bartending games for example work with limited actions or ingredients in cases where you have to mix a drink from scratch so as to limit the potential for quitting in a huff. But in Gourmet Makes, the solution to cooking and baking challenges not only comes down to the perfect mix of ingredients, but also from methods Claire previously didn’t consider, like, whisking versus kneading or, er, using a miniature rock tumbler to give jelly beans an even coat of wax instead of hand-painting it on.
Watching Gourmet Makes is like watching someone play with a giant chemistry set, and I want that in a game, because it’s the one space I can have the same resources as Claire without the waste. A game like this would have to find a way to emulate the wealth of experience Bon Appetit’s test kitchen cooks have while still being accessible to beginners. If you take each piece of cooking knowledge/ingredient behaviour and view them as a puzzle piece, wouldn’t that do the trick? You’d end up with something like 2017’s Opus Magnum for cooking, a cycle of intricate pieces finally making a satisfying whole.
Or you’d go the route of procedural generation: if there was a way to make the chemistry of cooking accessible enough to let people play around with it to surprising results, you could make a veritable shortbread sandbox. (I’m going to patent that name, just in case.) I want a playable version of all the small crumbs of knowledge you pick up naturally when you cook, from rescuing a sauce that isn’t thick enough to determining the difference between a gooey and crumbly cookie. Games generally excel when you get to leave the rulebook behind and use the skills you’ve acquired in experimental ways, which is exactly what Gourmet Makes has done for cooking.