The kitchen can be a wonderful place for creating mouth-watering dishes for friends and family. However, in my rather inept hands, a kitchen can also be a dangerous weapon. More often than not, it’s a realm filled with foul language, foul smells and foul cuisine. Perhaps if I spent as much time actually cooking as I do playing cooking-related videogames, the stomachs in my household would ache out of a desire for seconds instead of an urgent need to expel their contents into the nearest bucket.

My strong dislike of cooking is on par with my love of videogames, yet combining the two yields a strangely satisfying middle ground that has consumed many hours of my free time. Admittedly, I derive a degree of enjoyment from the fact that the cooking game genre lets me skillfully do something I’ve never been particular good at in the real world. Hand me a controller, and I’ll cook a delicious five-course meal without blinking. Give me a stack of recipes, some ingredients, an apron and a stovetop to attempt the same feat in the real world, and you’d better have the fire department and haz-mat team queued up on speed-dial.

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Still, I have to wonder: Has my extensive hands-on experience with cooking in the virtual world over the past few years had any discernable bearing – subconscious or otherwise – on my real-world culinary skills? Myriad hours spent making pixilated goodies would foolishly lead me to believe so.

Demonic Mama

Mama’s eyes don’t burn with hellfire for just anyone. It takes a special kind of incompetence to evoke such an explosive reaction – one I’ve enjoyed on frequent occasion. Don’t be fooled; Mama’s bubbly exterior and delightful personality melt away rather quickly when she catches wind of how badly you’ve fouled up her assigned food preparation task.

In 2006, Cooking Mama all but singlehandedly launched what is now a thriving gaming genre in the U.S. For the uninitiated, the cartoonish cooking title on the Nintendo DS lets you prepare numerous dishes under the watchful eye of Mama. Each step requires you to accurately complete a specific touch-centric task within a set time limit. Doing well earns you a bronze, silver or gold medal, while botching the recipe spurs Mama’s fiery wrath.

Fiddling with the game’s not-so-tight control setup is a pain. Then again, so is using many actual kitchen contraptions. In those early attempts at digital cookery, I found myself quickly addicted to unlocking new recipes to try out. The colorful, pixilated dishes appeared surprisingly delicious. Sadly, I can’t say the same about my first tenuous steps toward making real food in my own kitchen.

Like quite a few of the food games to follow it, Cooking Mama contains no real pretense of actually teaching players anything substantive about cooking. It’s all about minigames, completing challenges and unlocking meals. Take the food theme out of the equation, and you might as well be playing WarioWare. This suited me just fine at the time, but it also set gears turning in my subconscious.

As a residual effect of spending far too many hours immersed in Cooking Mama, I discovered the actual task of cooking was less daunting if I began thinking of food prep as a series of timed minigames. Instead of being crushed by the sheer volume of grunt work required to get everything ready before cooking an evening’s dinner, I’d focus on completing a single task at a time. This helped the minutes pass more smoothly, but it didn’t remedy other problems in the kitchen.

Diagnosis: Culinary ADD

I possess an uncanny knack for destroying cookware. A combination of untreated attention deficit disorder and Cake Mania are solely to blame.

Boiling water shouldn’t be a difficult task. However, I never had much patience for standing around waiting for the heat to do its thing, so I’d often wander off and forget about it completely. It’s a miracle my apartment is still standing. In one incident, I returned hours later to find the water completely evaporated and the pot glowing bright red. My poor tea kettle suffered a similar fate. Attempts to reheat leftovers on the stovetop sometimes result in burnt muck – ironically, I’m typically sitting only several feet away distractedly typing on the computer or playing a portable videogame. In the fine tradition of passing the buck, I’ll point the finger at a game that substantially deteriorated my already weakened attention span in the kitchen.

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Cake Mania is a puzzle game that lives up to its name. Crafting cakes and other goods in Jill’s bakery was my first taste of the fast-paced multitasking required to dish up treats and run a business. Baking a cake for a single person quickly leads to dozens of customers who all want tower cakes of wildly differing design. Making matters worse, they quickly grow impatient with slow service. Frantically flitting about from one station to the next, prepping, icing and decorating tons of cakes as fast as you can click your mouse, it’s easy to get accustomed to a state of near constant stimulation in the kitchen. After hours of keeping up with orders at such a rapid pace, even mere seconds of down time can feel like an agonizing eternity. Unfortunately, this carries over into my actual cooking endeavors. It’s in these dangerous lulls that my attention wanders and bad things happen. Sorry pots and pans. May you rest in peace.

Greasy Spoons and Egomaniacs

Had Order Up! existed many years ago when, as a youth, I reluctantly got a part-time job behind the grill at a major fast food joint, I’d have been far better prepared to face the stresses of serving several busloads of hungry customers smack in the middle of an already busy lunchtime rush. Sweat, grease and adrenaline can be an intoxicating (and disgusting) mixture.

The gameplay in Order Up! is a surprisingly accurate emulation of what it’s like working in such a food prep assembly line. Using the Wii remote to flip virtual burgers, slice tomatoes, drop trays of fries and chicken into the deep fryer and assemble greasy dishes is realistic enough to bring back memories I’d care to leave in the past. Running the kitchen is about as stress free in the virtual world as it is in the real one. It takes a lot of work to placate the picky palates of your churlish customers, who violently shovel food with their bare hands into their open mouths. This is one unusual instance where actual life experience may have given me a boost in the virtual kitchen realm.

Inspiration to strive for culinary perfection can come from unusual sources. Nothing lights a fire under your ass to do a decent job quite like the threat of a good verbal reaming from vitriolic reality TV chef Gordon Ramsay. Hell’s Kitchen builds on the cooking game foundation laid out by Cake Mania and Diner Dash, but ramps up the intensity tenfold – mess up too badly and you’ll embarrassingly find your entire restaurant shutdown. Dealing with the complexities of preparing multiple dishes in the kitchen while Ramsay curses you out for any minor misstep is crazy enough to begin with; simultaneously seating, taking orders, serving meals and busing dirty dishes for a constant influx of impatient diners on top of that borders on insanity. A few hours of head-spinning culinary labor in this pressure cooker will steel your nerves to the point where you won’t flinch at the thought preparing actual food in a crunch. More importantly, Hell’s Kitchen sneakily incorporates actual recipes into the game, something many players will overlook but a few will actually write down and use. It’s been a gradual process, but cooking education is increasingly worming its way into our games.

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Jamie Oliver‘s pretty-boy charm and delicious recipes couldn’t save his convoluted attempt at a half game, half digital cookbook experience from failure, yet the title’s aim is a noble one. What’s Cooking? with Jamie Oliver bridges the gap between games about cooking and software geared towards teaching players how to cook. Though it fails to achieve either with great success, the title marked the next brief phase of the genre’s evolution. It also set the table for Nintendo’s Personal Trainer: Cooking – the holy grail of gaming programs for those of us who truly suck in the kitchen. Having hundreds of recipes, tools and snippets of helpful information at your fingertips is a blessing for the cooking impaired. A few stovetop sessions with the gentle guidance of the title’s digitized chef can yield some tasty dishes. Best of all, the package makes the prospect of slaving over a hot stove considerably less daunting and miserable.

After several solid years of shoveling down byte after byte of cooking oriented videogames, one might presume my abilities in a virtual kitchen would translate to a certain measure of increased skill at the helm of my own stovetop. In reality, certain habits, both good and bad, have crept their way into my food preparation routine. I may set a few less inadvertent fires, ruin a few less meals and occasionally make a dish that’s even considered edible, but my best culinary work is still done with a controller in hand. For everyone else’s sake, that’s they way it should stay.

Nathan Meunier is a freelance writer and game journalist. He still owes his wife a new set of cooking pots.

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