Cook, Serve, Delicious! 3?! Gets Something Right About Food in Calamity

Comfort is comfort, but sometimes it's more than that.

Cook, Serve, Delicious! 3?! is a game about the joy of food (and an audacious use of punctuation). In a fractured, violent America, the player chef takes their restaurant and its frenetic typing-based order fulfillment on the road. Customer requests pile in one on top of the other, everyone craving something that will nourish and sustain them.

The game doesn’t explicitly say that people are flocking to the comfort of food trucks due to the stress of living in a broken, breaking society… But it’s hard not to associate it with the pandemic run on sourdough. CSD released into early access in January, before COVID had spread to much of the world, but it correctly noted that when things get tough, humans typically want to eat.

Before tearing off to serve orders, the first thing you do is to select your menu. There might be a theme — maybe people in this area really like salad. There might be a difficulty requirement, meaning you have to select dishes that require multiple mini-game steps to prepare, woven in among each other for maximum efficiency. But there’s always a wide variety of options.

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Every dish is presented in bright color and clean, cartoonish appeal. All the while, poppy, upbeat a capella is plays over your timed ingredient stacking. You can investigate any food for information about its origins. You’ll be greeted with a snapshot of life (possibly with additional lore bringing it up to date for this game’s 2040s future setting). There’s no classism or fatphobia lending the food as any kind of moral judgement — just dishes from all around the world, leaning heavily on the dopamine-inducing carbs and sugar and salt and oil no matter where they’re from.

The food writer Ruby Tandoh once made a Twitter thread of glorious everyday food experiences. She correctly identified that meals can be an incredibly stressful thing. At the same time, she noted that food has so much worth celebrating. Every CSD3 menu item sparks similar sensory memories.

For example, not so long ago in the before-times, I went to a food truck in Korea. Between the hectic schedule of press events and not wanting my vegetarianism getting in the way of the group trip to KBBQ, I had mostly survived on snacks for three whole days. And, look, snacks are great and all. Protein bars have fueled every work event I’ve ever been to. Yet I wanted to get a pizza from this food truck approximately more than I had ever wanted anything else in my entire life. As the crowning cherry on top, I managed to order in my extremely middling Korean. It wasn’t a complicated conversation, but the pride still made the pizza taste better. It was, put another way, the greatest bad pizza I’ve ever eaten.

That one meal was so good that I have some sympathy for the impatient customers of Cook, Serve, Delicious! 3?! In standard mode, they won’t wait long for your preparations, so you have to constantly juggle each customer. Every dish has keyboard shortcuts for ingredients and actions, like loading donuts into the fryer with O and dunking them with D. A complicated ramen bowl takes two stages: Ramen (R) and Oil (O) plus some sort of meat (maybe P for Pork) to cook. Then be sure to take it off the heat before it burns! Not before you add a cascade of ingredients: U for Butter, N for Nori, E for Egg… and not hitting M for mussel.

All these letters appear onscreen, but to be quick enough to keep everyone happy you must develop a muscle memory that, once practiced, makes you feel like both an accomplished chef and some sort of food-based hacker whizkid in a movie. You can also use a controller, including on Switch, but it loses some of the tactile intensity. Plus you don’t get the inherently pleasing ability to type SNDWCH to layer up a grilled cheese.

Cinnamon rolls can only be made by the batch, so stick on a bunch to make sure they’re there when someone wants one. Ayam Gorong can be made to order, in a pinch, but it’s just better to do it batch. Bunny Chow is special order, so you can spend the drive cooking up the meat and veggies, but it might need to cook until you arrive. You’ll need to cram it into the bread while other people wait for sugar on their beignets. And don’t forget to pay attention to whether that person wants avocado, or mushrooms, or onions in their salad.

With all these overlapping demands, no two menus have the same rhythm. You might stack it in advance to be as friendly as possible, requiring tasks at different times, but it’s always going to be hectic. Oh and, technically, you’re on a post-apocalyptic road trip to the ultimate cook-off. Sometimes rival raider trucks will show up and break your stuff.

 

Cook, Serve, Delicious! 3?! feels Utopian by comparison in “chill mode.” Without truck attacks, it’s easy to forget the game’s apocalyptic flair, but moreso the customers’ infinite patience speaks to an inherently kinder world.

Regardless of mode, the game fits neatly alongside The Great British Bake Off in the center of the food media spectrum. It has some pressure to do well, but the pressure isn’t what’s compelling. It’s not like the intricacies of MasterChef. It has failure, but failure isn’t all part of the joke, as it is in Nailed It. Running out of time or making mistakes might draw some fairly harsh criticism from the Paul Hollywood-esque robot companion, Cleaver, but doesn’t detract from the inherent joy of getting your hands (or typing fingers) stuck into a gooey quiche. (Though, Cleaver presumably doesn’t get to eat any of the food, so I can forgive them their grumpiness. Paul Hollywood does not have this excuse.)

The first time I watched Bake Off was in the communal room while I waited for an interview to get into university. I was immensely stressed and an older student split her Twix with me. The sugar onscreen and the sugar in my blood suddenly made everything feel so much better…

Almost a decade later, with a pandemic and the ongoing teeth of capitalism gnawing on our bones, comfort food is still comfort food. Cook, Serve, Delicious! 3?! seizes on this constant. It offers food up as something more than a lifeline. It’s something to be genuinely happy about, if you want, no matter what else is going wrong.

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