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Over a decade after he graduated college with a chemistry major, Bryan Connor's life went in an unexpected direction. Rather than his imagined plan of "standing in a lab all day," Connor has created his own delectably weird career track involving glow-in-the-dark brownies, sticking Pop Rocks in caramels, and turning burgers inside out. And it's all because of video games.
It began when he was still in school and watching a lot of Food Network—specifically Good Eats, which Connor describes as "like Bill Nye the Science Guy for food." Post-graduation, he honed his culinary prowess by working in a dozen restaurants over 13 years, all while also participating actively in the online Earthbound fan community. Over time, a desire to contribute more fully to the community led to him pitching the idea of an Earthbound cookbook to Fangamer. It took a few years of percolating (during which time Connor also built up a broader video game food blog, Level 1 Chef), but the project eventually came to fruition in the form of a successful Kickstarter for Mother's Cookbook.
Why video game food? For Connor, his passion for video game food revolves around the challenge of making something fantastical into something real.
"A lot of times when anyone cooks, it involves looking in a book or going online to find a recipe that already exists, and then replicating that," he says. "For video game food, there's a lot more imagination. The food items are often dreamt up without any kind of basis in reality. Taking these outlandish items and figuring out what flavors go together, or what you can add to tie it together, or trying to bring those things that were never meant to be in real life to real life is a fun puzzle."
Along with Connor, I spoke to the chefs, writers, and culinary masterminds behind several popular video game cookbooks about their work transforming digital universes into mouth-watering dishes. One thing everyone I spoke to had in common? None of them started their video game food adventures with any formal culinary training.
The team behind the Zelda-inspired Legend's Cookbook, for instance, is a group that puts together all kinds of fan projects such as calendars, posters, and now cookbooks. Their experiences are equally varied: sous-chef and artist Alyssa Browning is now pursuing her baking and culinary certificate thanks to her involvement in the team's cookbook projects; writer and editor Casey Corrigan was a journalist who fell into writing cookbooks by chance; head chef Peter Abreu is a pilot who has traveled the world and is passionate about global cuisine.
Victoria Rosenthal and Chelsea Monroe-Cassel landed on cookbook writing after running successful blogs for years, Rosenthal with video game-focused Pixelated Provisions and Monroe-Cassel with the broader fantastical and historical lens of Inn at the Crossroads. Both of them were offered licensed video game cookbook opportunities based on the strength of their past work with fictional food. Rosenthal has already tackled Fallout and just recently announced a Destiny cookbook.
Monroe-Cassel's video game-specific credits are on cookbooks for World of Warcraft, Hearthstone, Overwatch, and The Elder Scrolls. But her passion, like Connor's, translates more broadly in the translation of fictional universes into reality.
"Cooking is a core part of what I do, but my real interest is in the process of translating something fictional into something real," Monroe-Cassel tells me. "Encompassed in that is all this crazy research and prop building and creative photography and all of that that makes a single recipe really feel like it's a part of that bigger world."
How does that translation work? Every chef has a slightly different process. Monroe-Cassel loves making lists; she already had a list of 70 potential recipes ready when she was first approached for the World of Warcraft Official Cookbook. And her lists aren't limited to just food. She'll also catalog interesting visual items she can use for props in food photos, interesting backdrops, and lists of individual ingredients that can be found in the fictional world. This is especially helpful in worlds like Skyrim that have lots of singular ingredients (think big cheese wheels) but few full dishes.
"Whenever I'm working on a book project, I start with a really deep dive into everything related to that," she says. "I listen to the soundtracks while I'm researching. If it's a video game, I play the heck out of it. Related comics, related novels, anything I can get my hands on that gives me a better sense of that world, of why it is fans love whatever the IP is. I think it's essential to love what it is that I work on. Even if I'm not familiar with it when I go into the project, I think fans can tell if you're faking it, and that's unfair to the fanbase."
Rosenthal also does lots of research, and says she relied heavily on the Wiki communities for Fallout and Destiny to piece together the food lore for each book. For her, one of the most important starting points for a cookbook is deciding what the proteins are—a particularly important decision when your universe contains things like Fallout's brahmin and mirelurk instead of real-world animals like cows and crabs.
"A lot of developers do a good job of allowing food to be close to home," she says. "Outer Worlds is an example. I've been looking at all the food in that game, and they have the Saltuna. Obviously there's no Saltuna in the world, and the way they describe it in the game is weird, because it's like, wood and rat. But there is a creature called the Saltuna in there, so it has to be like a salmon-tuna hybrid, and I ended up making this good canned Saltuna. Who would have thought salmon and tuna would play nicely together?"
One theme that came up across all of my conversations with cookbook creators is the vast differences in food detail across different video game universes. For example, Breath of the Wild includes food names, images, descriptions, and ingredients that Link actually cooks with. World of Warcraft includes recipes with and without ingredients depending on whether the food is a part of the game's Cooking skill or not. Earthbound has no images or ingredients at all—just item names and descriptions. Meanwhile, games like Overwatch and Destiny don't even have food, though Rosenthal and Monroe-Cassel still put together recipes for those universes based on the game lore alone.
"A lot of people have come out and gone, 'Destiny, why would you do that?,'" says Rosenthal. "I was in that same boat. There's spicy ramen that's mentioned, but there's not a lot of food. So there was a lot of creating unique recipes that would fit in the style of specific characters. It's an in-lore book written by Eva Levante who's a character in the game, she has the knowledge and she's whipping up recipes. And for those doubting it: Guardians do eat. If you look through the lore, they don't have to, but I think starving several times would drive them insane. Sure you're going to get revived, but dying from starvation would not be fun."
Still, Rosenthal says she prefers when a game has a good food "backbone" to base things on, and she's not alone. Browning agrees that it's easier when you can see the ingredients being dropped into a pot, but tells me about a recipe she made for The Legend's Cookbook based on a single comment Tingle makes about mushrooms growing on his pillow when he's in prison. Monroe-Cassel based recipes in the Overwatch Official Cookbook on the game's characters: where they're from, their personalities, and family histories.
Connor is an outlier. He's the only one I spoke with who prefers the challenge of making food for a game that's vague about what its food actually is—fitting, given how weird some of the food in Earthbound can be.
"To use Peanut Cheese Bar as an example, it's just peanut, cheese, and bar. Those are the three parameters you have, and then you take them and you make something that tastes good with those flavors and in this case, a shape. It gives you a lot of free reign to experiment with different ideas. Peanut Cheese Bars had been done several times before I took a crack at it, and it's been interesting to see the different interpretations people had for that item."
Not every item in a game makes it into that game's cookbook, though. There are some that are too weird, too challenging or, in some cases, too dull. For example, Connor excluded "Plain Yogurt" from Mother's Cookbook because it's just that: plain yogurt. Rosenthal rejected the complex and relatively untasty Wasteland Omelette from the Fallout Official Cookbook, but did post it on her blog. Browning is less discerning, with her rule of thumb being, "How realistic is it to make, and can I put it in my mouth?"
But even with a willingness to reject recipes that just don't work, some fairly challenging and unusual cuisine has made it into all their cookbooks. One specific hurdle Connor ran into involved Earthbound's localization.
"Food is something that's very tied to culture, so a lot of times food is one of the main things that gets changed a lot," says Connor. "In Earthbound, 'Piggy Jelly' in the original Japanese was 'Pig Youkan,' which is a dessert made with red bean paste and gelled with agar. It's somewhere between a fruit snack and a Jello jiggler. But 'Piggy Jelly' gives you a little more wiggle room.
"I ended up going back to '60s and '70s cookbooks where they would make giant Jello moulds full of meat and olives. It took four different tries...using all these old recipes that were just horrific. Like a Jello mould that looked just like a fuzzy pink blob that you were supposed to dip chips in. Piggy Jelly ended up being an aspic with ham stock, and thick-cut ham inside with a half hard-boiled eggs inside and parsley. It's not the tastiest, but it's definitely food that totally exists, and very appropriate for Mr. Saturn."
Between cookbooks, food blogs, and YouTube channels, video game food is beginning to see a surge of popularity across fan communities. The cookbook creators have different theories about why that is—Connor suspects it has to do with more cooking mechanics appearing in video games themselves. Corrigan thinks it's simply a matter of cookbooks being unique as fan merchandise, serving as collectible, artbook, poster, and functional cookbook all in one.
Rosenthal's theory is simply that gamers collectively are getting older, with more and more fans of big gaming IP also at an age where they have to think more seriously about providing food for themselves.
"Eating out every day is expensive; it's cheaper to cook at home, but the kitchen can be intimidating," she says. "With the connection to food and games, that convinces them to say, 'I've seen this in this game, that recipe doesn't look too hard, I guess I could start cooking.' Then a lot of content creators are saying, 'I play games, there's interesting food in there, let me make that so other people can be convinced to cook.' And game developers are in that age range where they're interested in cooking, and working at game studios and putting food in games. I think that's the biggest reason cooking and video games has exploded with cookbooks and all that. Foodies are in the games industry now."
Rosenthal's view that people who may not necessarily be experienced at cooking would gravitate toward a video game cookbook is one the others share. The Legend's Cookbook team specifically made their book to teach budding new chefs even the most basic of basics. It includes sections on how to sharpen knives, information on meat cuts, and even how to boil water.
"I don't want people to be intimidated by cooking, because it's a necessary skill," Abreu says. "If you play Breath of the Wild, you realize how important cooking is, because it helps you stay alive. Hopefully, you see something that's yummy and it's something you absolutely love and it will get you in the kitchen to cook, and starting with step one, how to boil water, you'll move to baking one of the cakes or making homemade ice cream."
Corrigan adds, "This is where the writing and the art really come in to help. We can get illustrations of things like making rice balls in order to help someone who's never done this before, but they can be completely ignored if you don't need them. I can do a lot of research and do some writing to make sure that in as few words as possible, you know how to make these rice balls by the end of the page.
"We're really trying to make sure you can cook everything that's in this book. The intention is not to give you a book you can only use 20% of due to your skill level. That's not helpful for anybody."
For all of the creators, cookbook projects are a swinging kitchen door. Love for a particular game or fandom invites their audiences to explore food in a manner tailored to their passions. But they gain much more than a few quirky recipes to show off at a dinner party. Gaming cookbooks can inspire a broader, deeper appreciation for cuisine in general, serving as a springboard to new skills, a more curious palette, and a hunger for even more recipes to try.
"In the society we live in, it's so easy to get food made for you," Connor says. "Cooking's becoming more of a niche hobby, less of a necessity. But I thought people might actually get into cooking if they have a video game framework that makes it interesting to them. Maybe some people who have never been in a kitchen before will realize, by doing a recipe or two, that the hobby of cooking is interesting and can use these cookbooks as a jumping-off point to be more comfortable or learn more about it. Not everyone that gets a cookbook needs to go on to be a chef, but being comfortable in the kitchen is something that's pretty impressive."