Cooking has sent me to the hospital twice: first for a deep knife wound across my thumb when I tried to rush through deboning a roast, and the second time for my partner, who was dicing onions when her attention slipped, along with the eight-inch chef’s knife in her right hand. We spent a few minutes looking for her fingertip on the kitchen floor before finally finding it, packing it in a container of ice and heading to the ER. The doctor dressed the wound and told us to throw the fingertip away. (Turns out fingers are resilient, and this kind of wound would heal almost as if it had never happened despite its apparent severity.) You never really expect to be tossing a part of your body into the trash on a Wednesday afternoon.
I mention all this because it’s important to understand that people who tell you how easy cooking is are probably lying. In point of fact, I’m not even sure you should go near a kitchen unless you have health insurance, because I could have bought a new TV and a console to go with it for what I spent to get a half-dozen stitches across my thumb. Even without all the minor burns and cuts, cooking is frequently time consuming and enraging. In that respect, it’s just like most of the videogames I love, which may explain how it became a minor obsession. Cooking is absolutely not for everyone, but it’s well-suited to gamers.
To cook well, you have to be a bit of a gamer – a person who focuses on getting really, really good at something relatively trivial. The kind of person who will spend hundreds of hours of life learning the exact right way to play a Counterstrike map, or who reads strategy guides for games he has already mastered on the off chance he could master it even more. The best cooks exhibit a similar restlessness. They are rarely finished with a dish, instead continuing to revise and refine their work throughout their lives. “Good enough” is a meaningless concept, because it is unforgivable to ignore an opportunity to make something better.
In The Perfectionist, a biographical tour of French postwar haute cuisine, Rudolph Chelminski tells a story about Fernand Point. Point was one of the great French chefs of the 20th century and trained many more of them from his legendary La Pyramide restaurant. Those who tried to get a job cooking for him would face his infamous “fried egg” test. Naively, they’d heat the pan, toss in some butter and then crack an egg over it. But inevitably, the butter would start to spatter and hiss, and Point would cry out, “No, no, stop, you unhappy man! You’re making a dog’s breakfast of it!” Then he would demonstrate how Fernand Point fried an egg.
The skills involved in frying an egg are the most basic in cooking, but Point’s method held them to the highest standard. Point had an elaborate recipe – more of a ritual, really – involving two saucers, clarified butter, and only the faintest wisp of heat. The procedure is almost unrecognizable as “frying,” but it produces an egg that is unmarred by even a trace of burnt butter or crispiness.
The world is full of people who can make a few simple dishes, because they only wanted to know the bare minimum required to prevent themselves from starving to death or turning into Mayor McCheese. They grudgingly prepare certain foods, but they never really cook. It’s a utilitarian approach that allows for little enjoyment or surprise in either the outcome or the process. One friend of mine said he refused to make a meal if making it took longer than eating it, and so he subsisted on sandwiches, bagged salads and carry-out. He didn’t need anything else and had other things he wanted to do with his time.
Hardcore gaming involves the same kind of impracticality as hardcore cooking. It’s for people who can get really serious about their own enjoyment and willing to work hard for their fun. Challenges that drive practical people to look for easier options just draw us further down the rabbit hole. Not knowing whether you can do something is reason enough for trying.
That logic has led me to discard convenience after convenience. My grocery store carries dozens of different breads, but I insist on baking my own because I know exactly what I want and exactly what goes into it. I stopped buying ground beef a while ago (partly because “ground beef” has become a terrifyingly inexact phrase with overtones of “mystery meat”) and started grinding my own. When it’s cheeseburger night at my apartment, they really are my burgers, from the bun to the meat to the condiments. (My partner loves making pickles) I can’t go back to letting strangers do the heavy lifting now that I know the pride that comes from producing a great meal from raw ingredients.
That’s not a feeling I get very often. Most things in life have a way of becoming routine. They resist refinement or, if they can be refined, their improvement is so subtle that the difference is undetectable. Improvement, self or otherwise, is rarely that rewarding. Cooking, like gaming, is reassuringly unequivocal – one of those rare activities where it’s easy to know you’re improving. A thousand things tell you, “You’re better at this than you were last month.”
My knife is sharper because I’ve learned how to keep it that way. I do prep faster and more consistently. I know how my oven heats, and I can manage the heat on my range. I know each of my pots and pans, which I should use for what dish and just how I need to treat them. The kitchen is not a place of doubt.
There is one other way in which cooking fills a similar role as videogames: It brings exploration and discovery back into everyday life. Before I cooked, my world sometimes seemed confined to a handful of bars and cafes outside my apartment. Once a week there was the grocery store and the library. The imaginary, ruined cities of Rapture and Lordaeron seemed infinitely more vibrant and alive than the Midwestern college town that I called home.
But as I started cooking, I began to notice shops I’d never seen before, despite passing them a dozen times a week: the Mexican carniceria, the German butcher near my house, the professional kitchen supply store next to the mall and the Italian deli by the gas station. I started talking to people who were really passionate about their small corner of the food world. The butcher who ran the Italian deli made us feel like family as he shared recipes and advice, taking us aside the day he finally got some rapini (a vegetable I had never seen until he shoved it into my bag along with a recipe for rapini and orecchiette). When I moved to Cambridge last year, I spent hours walking through the city, ducking into wine shops and butchers just to find those few who really knew what they were doing and took pride in it.
Since taking up cooking I’ve made friends with bartenders, butchers, cooks and other specialists who love what they do and want to share their expertise and passion with anyone interested enough to ask. There is one butcher shop I frequent because they’re the only people in town who really understand that bacon should be smoked heavily and sliced thick, that good sausage doesn’t require much seasoning and that lard and veal bones are something that should be in every refrigerator. Finding their store was like finding a hidden treasure.
My identity as a gamer has manifested itself in my kitchen, but with one important twist: The fun I have cooking is fun I have with other people. The individual rewards of cooking, all those wonderful sensations and affirming accomplishments, pale next to the pleasure of serving a good meal to guests and loved ones. In gaming, my skills are only useful to myself; I can’t game for anyone else, and playing with other people tends to be too intense to be relaxing. But in the kitchen, both the fun and the rewards are shared.
Except for the dirty dishes. I cooked the meal, after all.
Rob Zacny is a freelance writer and stress-baker living in Cambridge. More of his writing and cooking experiences appear at http://robzacny.com.