Although Wii Fit, the interactive system that’s designed to turn the nation’s dens into workout studios, is the darling of the video-game media this summer, lotus poses and shoulder presses aren’t the only skills measurable by Nintendo. On the other end of the health spectrum, there’s Major League Eating, in which players compete to down the most pizza between digital belches, and Cooking Mama, a virtual-cooking game that tests players’ chopping, peeling and boiling abilities.
We decided to find out how well some of Asheville’s top chefs could cook using just a Wii wand (a situation that, to be fair, is unlikely ever to occur, even in the area’s least-equipped kitchens). George Ettwein of Black Forest Restaurant, Jason Sellers of Laughing Seed Cafe, Tres Hundertmark of The Lobster Trap and Damian Cavicchi of Sugo bravely agreed to join us for a two-on-two Cooking Mama tournament at Virtual Ambush, the video-gaming lounge on New Leicester Highway.
“It’s like a teenager’s bedroom in here,” Cavicchi marveled.
Apparently, very few of Virtual Ambush’s customers request Cooking Mama, preferring to play games in which they’re armed with guitars or guns. Cultural critics fret about kids playing Grand Theft Auto, but rarely wonder what drove them to the game in the first place: Perhaps it was the frustration of virtually stirring a pot with a remote held at a precise 65-degree angle.
Cooking Mama isn’t easy, even for a group of accomplished chefs who all happen to excel at Galaga, the classic alien-assault arcade game. Sellers, the most practiced gamer—“instead of writing my thesis, I played video games for three months,” he admits—declared Galaga his favorite game “hands down, without a doubt.”
“I’m great at Galaga,” Hundertmark said.
Cavicchi also admitted a familiarity with a game he called Dress Your Barbie, a favorite of his young daughter. But there’s no call for creativity in Cooking Mama, in which players are—in Cavicchi’s words—“prep bitches.”
Cooking Mama requires its players to select one of two-dozen ethnic dishes and prepare it by completing a series of scripted steps. To ready a hot dog—one of the available American specialties—players are asked to boil water, split a bun and squeeze mustard by waving their wands in the right spot at the right speed. Efforts are rated according to an indecipherable system and announced by an unseen Japanese woman with a high-pitched voice, whose vocabulary is apparently limited to “Very good!” and “Try harder!”
“I wonder if there are people who think they’re actually learning to cook,” grumbled Ettwein, who drew knives to team up with Hundertmark for the contest.
The teams first tackled minestrone, which hinged on peeling vegetables in short, quick strokes. “This peeler’s dull,” Cavicchi complained as he edged ahead of Ettwein. “Dude, you’re unstoppable,” Sellers cried.
Cavicchi and Sellers took the opening round, but professed discomfort with the strange-seeming Wii device, a skinny remote with a safety strap that Virtual Ambush staffers insisted the chefs keep looped around their wrists. “Now I know why controllers go through the screen,” Sellers said after inadvertently overcooking the pasta for the minestrone.
“Can we get a joystick over here?” Cavicchi added.
Still, Sellers seemed to have the wand mastered for a popcorn cook-off. “This is going to require some violent movement,” he predicted, jutting the wand forward and back as though it was a pan handle.
“Looks like it’s going to be awfully salty,” Ettwein said skeptically as Cavicchi repeatedly flicked his wrist, mimicking a saltshaker.
“That’s Hawaiian salt,” Sellers said, as the shaking continued to the game soundtrack of tinny carousel music. “Where’s the MSG? We could get this over with right now.”
Sellers and Cavicchi narrowly claimed the popcorn win, giving them the right to choose the next dish. Cavicchi, schooled in Italian cuisine, pointed the wand at black squid-ink pasta. Much to Ettwein’s chagrin, he couldn’t get the sensor to acknowledge his repeated attempts to roll the dough.
“C’mon, we open in an hour,” Cavicchi teased.
“OK, we still have to chop,” Hundertmark counseled his teammate. “We’re good at chopping.”
Ettwein’s next task was stir-frying the dish’s various components.
“Oh, no!” he said. “Stir fry is my nemesis.”
“No,” Hundertmark said, “stirring is your nemesis.”
Hundertmark’s favorite skill was peeling, which he put to use on potatoes for the fourth dish: pierogies. He found his rhythm early, and stuck to the same compulsive knee-bending pattern till every tater was clean. “You’re the peeling master,” Ettwein said. “We’re seeing the Hundertmark waltz here.”
After kneading, meat grinding and shaping, Ettwein was back at the wand for stir-frying, a task he was determined to complete before Sellers. “Your veins are popping out,” Cavicchi said. Ettwein eked out the win, helped by Sellers charring his dumplings before he could find the off switch for his virtual stove.
“I’m thinking black’s done,” Hundertmark said.
“We’ll kill it with sauce,” Cavicchi offered.
“I want to see that evaluation,” Hundertmark said. “Jason’s a great chef, he just doesn’t know how to turn off the stove.”
Ettwein shook his head: “I’ve never seen anything fry to blacken in four seconds.”
The setback wasn’t enough to vault Hundertmark and Ettwein into the lead: As the top point-getters, Cavicchi and Sellers faced each other in the final showdown. Sellers—who as a chef in an all-veg kitchen rarely has the chance to work with meat, real or virtual—won the Cooking Mama crown.
“What makes the difference?” Sellers mused when asked what accounted for his victory.
“A controller that works,” Cavicchi suggested.
Although more than 300,000 copies of Cooking Mama have been sold nationwide, none of the tourney participants seemed eager to play again.
“I doubt I’ll buy one,” Hundertmark said.
Sellers nodded: “It owns us.”