That kitchen life: casual dining, fine dining, fine science, casual gaming

Grad school was rough on my psyche. I was somehow making less money than when I worked a part-time food service job. The university hadn’t increased the grad student stipends in 30 years, and almost every grad student in my program was on food stamps.  Without shame or hesitation, I put that government assistance to work. I was finally able to buy fresh produce regularly, and had the ability to buy enough food to prepare meals ahead of time to accommodate my crazy schedule. Fun fact: I wasn’t used to preparing food in small quantities. I lived alone in a 5 bedroom apartment, so I didn’t have to compete for pantry or fridge space. I was often sitting on gallons of chicken stock, marinara sauce, and mirepoix (you know, just in case).

I hit many low points during my time in grad school, and I almost quit on several occasions. I stuck it out despite the financial and mental abuse. As I moved through the autumn years of my academic training, I began to notice how kitchen work had etched deep groves into in my personality. Despite my best efforts to connect with other students, I rarely gained traction. Instead of talking about ideas or telling interesting stories, graduate social gatherings were spent boasting about lack of sleep, lack of money, or time logged in the lab. Replace “lab” with “kitchen”, and the brutal working conditions were no different than a kitchen. Why couldn’t I connect?

Teamwork. Teamwork was the reason I couldn’t find common ground. Most of these students were suffering in isolation instead of taking care of each other. On the line, you support your teammates for eight hours a day for (at least) five days a week. The team wins or the team loses. I saw very little collaboration among students, as if the system wasn’t designed to foster it. Even if students were working in the same lab (same faculty advisor, same system of study), most projects were so highly specialized that collaboration was extremely difficult.  I don’t care if this is an artifact of degree specialization, or part of some grand, academic design, encouraging isolation and competition. Neither explanation was (or is) acceptable, and I should have taken the hint.

My time in grad school wasn’t a total loss. Experimental design and writing were my creative outlets, which made the grind of field-work and analysis tolerable.  I bonded with a few people… former cooks, musicians, heavy drinkers, or all of the above. At the very least, we had good stories to share. The people with whom I am still close were the most collaborative: we helped each other with field-work, processing samples, and helped each other prepare for comprehensive exams. Maybe this is part of my personality…I must have a deep desire to collaborate, to learn together, and succeed together. Maybe THIS is why I love collaborative games!

Around the same time, I also started dating that nice young lady who ordered a buffalo chicken wrap from my meager sandwich station (a year earlier). We ran into each other at a party, and the rest is history. For our first date, of course I decided to cook for her. This is a kitchen tale worth revisiting.

I called in some favors, and Sean Ehland rescued me. On his day off, we went grocery shopping, indulged in wine and pasta making, Pantera and Aqua Teen Hunger Force. Sean taught me how to make dough and use traditional pasta machine, and how to make pasta carbonara without turning the dish into a mess of scrambled eggs. The day was perfect, and the food fantastic.  When it came time to cook for my special lady , I borrowed a pasta machine and made a huge mess in her kitchen. I cooked my ass off and must have won her favor (for a second time). Every time I use a pasta machine, I think about that meal. I can’t wait to tell our kids about it.

She and I were engaged within a year, and married within two years. During that time and for some damn reason, I decided to pursue a PhD. It didn’t work out.  I decided to quit on the tail end of the Great Recession…not the best time to find gainful employment as a conservation biologist.  Even in the best of times, getting a job in science is a real pain in the ass.  Grad school isn’t real work experience doesn’t count for much, unless the job you are seeking is “more school”.  With a lack of employment opportunities, I naturally drifted back into the kitchen.  But no institutional kitchens this time… I wanted to see what the line was really like.

It didn’t take me long to find kitchen work, which started with a job at an Italian restaurant in the south hills of Pittsburgh. I was working dinner shift, and pretty much every station on a rotating basis (grill, saute, prep). I also picked up a second job cooking breakfast and lunch in the east end of town.  Neither employer was happy that I was working two job. They were ESPECIALLY unhappy when I added a 3rd job. I started a weekend dish-shift at Kaya, a Caribbean fusion restaurant in the Strip District. My schedule was about to explode, but the opportunity was too good to pass up. I would be working under Executive Chef Sean Ehland (ooo la la). For better or worse, things were about to stabilize for me. I put in my notice at the Italian restaurant, and was fired from the breakfast spot shortly thereafter. My termination was justified: closing dish at 1 a.m. and trying to open for breakfast at 5 a.m. wasn’t a good idea. I was late for my breakfast shift, and that was unacceptable. Almost immediately, I started training at the garde manger (garmo) station at Kaya.  I was making cold apps, sides, plating some entrees, and making desserts. The pace and complexity were unlike anything I had experienced in any other kitchen.

Kaya was a small restaurant with a small kitchen, but served an inordinate number of guests. During spring and summer, things got very interesting. The restaurant would add a large number of tables on the sidewalk along the building. This would almost double the restaurant’s capacity, adding significant tension to a hot line that was already stretched thin.  The kitchen ventilation was also interesting . The hood system worked as well as it could, but dinner shift temperatures in peak summer reminded me of the dish room sauna of yesteryear. There was one small window (about 18 in. x 18 in.), positioned at about chest height that was located near the hot line. Saute was positioned closest to the window, and from my sweaty position at the far end of the line, it felt like it was miles away. The window would have been at eye-level for customers sitting at the seasonal tables, and I can only imagine the filthy language they got to experience during their meal.

The personal relationships were as interesting as the physical setting. I could probably describe each person I worked with at Kaya, but some are not worth describing.  Like any other profession, there are many spiritually broken people in the culinary world. If you find the right restaurant, the team will self-regulate, and the bad attitudes will fade away. What’s left will be a cohesive team, a happy family that probably see each other more than their blood relatives.

We have already talked about Sean, but this was not the boy I met many years ago. Kaya was one of many specialty restaurants owned by a single, parent company. Sean was the youngest executive chef in the entire company, and he caught a lot of attention in a city with immense culinary potential. Sean had become a leader, and our relationship that had been founded on speed metal and booze was about to take an abrupt turn. Very quickly, we established a professional working relationship. I had nearly failed my master’s program, and I failed to earn a PhD. I was tired of failing.  Now I was working for one of my best friends, and I absolutely would not allow myself to fail again.

Over the next few weeks, Sean’s trust in me began to grow, and I was offered a spot on the hot line during Sunday brunch service. I suspect the other grill cooks didn’t want this shift: anyone who closed the night before wouldn’t have left the restaurant until 1 a.m., and brunch staff clocked in by 8 a.m. . That didn’t leave much time to sleep off the booze. It was an extremely busy shift, and in addition to normal lunch menu items, you had to run support for the brunch menu. I was still closing garmo on Saturday nights, but I was all-in.  I was about to work the hot line with one of my best friends, who could say no?

The hot line was usually run by two cooks (grill and sauté) during lunch and dinner services. The line consisted of a two 6-burner stoves, two ovens, and a salamander grill that lived above the stoves. Sauté handled the most technical menu items, which at the time included appetizers like seared scallops, mussels and chorizo, salmon-crab cakes with tropical tartar sauce, and entrees like paella, tropical green curry, and seared ahi tuna.  Grill managed (surprise) a small grill and cast-iron flat top, a pair of deep fryers, and a sandwich press. Grill wasn’t challenging from a perspective of technique but was very technical in terms of volume and timing. Many appetizers and entrees, or elements of other station’s entrees, originated at grill, and the station would engage with nearly every ticket that came through the restaurant. The most technical aspect of grill related to course timing. All grilled meats and burgers had to hit the window at the same time as sauté, and the temperatures had to be perfect. And folks ordered a lot of burgers…

Each station had its own reach-in cooler but shared a common hot well. The well contained a common pool of utensils, chicken stock, pulled pork, black beans, conch and corn chowder, and a rotating cast of seasonal soups. During brunch, a third station (simply called ‘Middle’) was added to the line: they usually set up shop next to the wells and took over most of the available real estate at adjacent grill and sauté. It’s important to note that space was already very limited on the line, even without a 3rd cook. Middle needed to use burners from sauté, and needed access to the flat top and deep friers at the grill station.  On top of that, plating space was at a premium. Middle station didn’t have their own plating surface, so they plated wherever they could.  My brother, who came to work at Kaya after me, said that “if you could still be pals with the middle cook after brunch service, you can get along with anyone.” Truer words have never been spoken.

Brunch was chaos, and we swam in the fever dreams in the thick, humid air, drifting between the ethereal plane and the line.  Our only anchor to reality was the ticket machine, that chirped and sang for the eternity of service. God help you if you were hung-over.

Perhaps the most brutal part of working brunch was “the flip”. In some fine dining establishments, the restaurant will close for a few hours after lunch as the kitchen and front-of-the-house prepare for dinner service. Not at Kaya.  On most days, the flip would be casual. Dinner cooks would bring their mise to the station one sheet-pan at a time, refilling containers at their station top-side and adding backups in their cooler below.  The dinner menu added several entrees and appetizers, but in general, the mise was the same for lunch and dinner service. But not at brunch.

The brunch menu changed often, but added many items and ingredients that were not native any station: mountains of eggs, omelet mise en place, chorizo patties, towers of cornbread for eggs benedict, spicey hollandaise sauce, and a huge pile of breakfast potatoes (prepared and unprepared).  There was also the normal lunch mise en place that needed to leave the station.  The poaching station, managed by the line cook working middle, required a wide, shallow pan that functionally consumed most of a six-burner stove. This poaching liquid needed to be changed regularly, and eventually left the line during the flip: a lucky cook had to transport the vat of boiling water, egg whites, and vinegar through a maze of line cooks and front-of-the-house staff, stepping carefully on a floor littered with eggs shells and (now) smashed potatoes.   The pass (where the chef working expo calls out orders, and calls servers to the kitchen to pick up food) was also a disaster, a Pollock-like smattering of items transitioning from the hot well to the other side of the line, dieing brunch orders and dinner orders that were being fired simultaneously.

A line that felt cramped with three cooks was now clogged with six. Without fail, I would stammer through the flip, plating a row of burgers, each topped with their own sunny side up egg, as the garmo cook clogged my fryer space with plantain chips for their (dinner) Tuna Poke appetizer. Sometimes they would have the audacity to make small talk as I died on my feet under the last wave of tickets.  The brunch cooks also had to prepare staff meal, which was usually a huge bowl of scrambled eggs, and a mix of sautéed vegetables and breakfast potatoes that would otherwise be thrown away. As a champion of the fryers, I also had to fry bins of malanga and yucca chips, replenishing what was consumed during brunch service.  On most days, I was last off the line. A sweaty shell of a human, I tucked myself in the hot corner next to a trash can. I would prop myself against the stainless steel wall on a carpet of egg shells, as steam bellowed from the fryers and dinner tickets started to pile up.

I worked full-time at kaya for about six months total.  Despite my short time there, the experience occupies an inordinate amount of space in my memory. Over the next five years, I was able to drift in an out of Kaya on a part-time basis (1-2 shifts a week), focusing on brunch and dinner shifts. I decided to hang it up in 2016 after my son was born. This is about the same time I became extremely motivated to focus on game design.

Now that I have woven a tapestry of kitchen nightma….. er, memories, I can dig into the nitty gritty of game design for Chef’s Table.  This exercise of storytelling has been fun and functional for a number of reasons: I can now see how specific kitchen experiences have influenced the design of Chef’s Table, and this feels like a meta-analysis of our work. We will start this journey soon. Thank you so much for reading!

Posted Under: Chef's Table, Game Design

That kitchen life: Institutional advancement, academics, and filling up the corners.

Tolkien tells us that ‘filling up the corners’ is the phase of eating that follows a large meal. From the moment I got a taste working the line, I was ‘filling up the corners’ of my life with food work. I got to organize my station my way and I loved the fast pace. I started reading about food and watching more shows about food. Embracing the raw, unpolished lifestyle of food service was easy, and the cigarettes, late nights, and boozing came naturally to me. I got addicted to instability and adrenaline, and became skilled in burying emotional problems with work and other distractions. I still deal with a lot of these issues today, but I have found healthier outlets and lead a much healthier life.  Board game design is one of those outlets.

As I tried to balance my academic and personal life, I was still playing games in the background. Magic the Gathering was huge, as was Dungeons and Dragons second edition. I was a few hours away from my game design friends (Leo and Dave, now fellow designers at Tunnel Monster Collective) but we had already laid the groundwork for our own role-playing game and could peck away at it when we met for holiday break. In retrospect, the game was more of a story module and rules supplement for 2nd Edition DND, but at the time it felt like we were creating a map to an undiscovered country. For the past 18 years, we have created, destroyed, and re-created this RPG system again and again. Only now are we starting to realize the full potential of our game’s mechanics, and the stories we want to tell with this game system (known as CAST).

At that stage in my life (22 years old), I was staring down the barrel of adulthood, trying to prepare myself for life after college. I appeared to have two options: the dirt-bag life of a musician or a slightly less honest career in academia.  In the meantime, more kitchen work…

I left the salad bar and moved into the main kitchen of the food service facilities, where I started running food and helping on dish. I also learned the fine art of changing bag-in-the-boxes for the massive, pressurized soda system that fed the cafeteria. I learned how to sneak outside for cigarettes without my supervisors noticing. I developed stronger knife skills, as I started to inherit more prep responsibilities. I learned how frequently the complacent, tenured, non-student staff exploited the vigor of student employees… my first dose of kitchen hierarchy. I learned to find my voice and speak truth within that hierarchy.

I also started catering. You could make decent money (above your normal pay) by working special events, as long as you wore a neatly pressed, white shirt with a fancy lapel and a fake bow-tie, and kept your mouth shut when you interacted with event guests. Chef Syl (short for Sylvester), one of the executive chefs, saw me as a kitchen asset for catering events, so my time in a bow tie was short lived. With my filthy mouth, I was almost certainly a front-of-the-house liability, so this was a win for everyone.  Chef Syl was a mountain of a man. I vividly remember him calling me into his office after service where he thanked me and said “I like the way you move around the kitchen. I got my start just like you, keep it up”. Rarely had I received such encouragement from the academic world, despite my trajectory to graduate from the honors program.  Syl helped me improve my knife technique and gave me special tasks whenever he could. Often, it was dicing a huge sack of onions, or peeling and dicing carrots. But those are the tasks I needed at the time. I needed repetitive knife-work to improve my technique.

My last semester in college went by quickly.  Between my honors thesis, working nights, partying, and playing music, I barely had time to think about life-plans.  I managed to squeeze in a few applications to graduate programs and, despite my shitty GRE scores, had some interest from some schools. I was still clinging to friendships and punk rock aspirations and didn’t want to sacrifice either for a long-distance commute, so I accepted a teaching assistantship at a small school in western Maryland.

One of those personal relationships was with a scrappy rhythm guitar player, Sean Ehland. Sean was younger than me but with way more tattoos. We shared a cynical world view, and a taste for music and whiskey. He was a line cook at the time, fresh out of culinary school but already doing well in Pittsburgh’s restaurant scene. He could also SHRED on rhythm guitar. We played in a metal band for about 6 months, but the project was short lived: because of his kitchen schedule, Sean was rarely available to practice and the band wasn’t the same without him. We stayed in touch for many years (we are still good friends), and when my academic journey ended, he was integral in helping me to find work in kitchens. More on this in my next blog post.

Once I graduated, I had to pass the time before grad school started in August. For the next 3 months, I was focused on food and music, and it was one of the most productive and memorable summers of my entire life. I was able to land a job working for the college, assisting with residence life logistics for summer camps, and I got to live on campus (for free). The work was so sporadic that I had plenty of time to work in the kitchen. We were feeding about 600 students per meal, 5 to 6 days a week. The food service crew was extra lean, as most students had either graduated or left for summer. At this point, I was no longer working one station; I was working everywhere. Oh, that sweet, sweet overtime.

Because of the size of the camps, the college used a much older, larger dining hall and kitchen to support the large number of students. To this day, when I watch the scene in The Shining when Dick Halloran (head Chef of the Overlook Hotel) gives the Torrance’s a tour of the kitchen and storage facilities, I get butterflies in my stomach: the tile-work in the kitchen and equipment feel like they are being projected from my memory.  The kitchen was the size of a warehouse, and most of this equipment was only used between May and August.  The entire front of the kitchen was lined with heated holding cabinets, so the back-of-the-house staff could transfer food to the serving lines without leaving the kitchen. There were hundreds of feet of stainless-steel prep tables, a massive revolving oven, a row of industrial soup kettles, two huge walk-in coolers, a walk-in freezer, a separate kitchen area just for the bakery staff, and a gloomy, damp dish-cave that I grew to hate.

The dish-cave was the home of a monster: a massive stainless-steel beast with a 20-foot conveyor belt that ran continuously until clean dishes piled up and triggered the automatic shut-off on the far side of the machine. It was old, it regularly malfunctioned, and was in a room with zero ventilation (natural or otherwise). The building had very high ceilings, but like any cave, the entrance to the dish area was small. The room quickly filled with steam and you would bath in it for the entire service. Within minutes, you were absolutely soaked with sweat and over-spray from the malfunctioning dish machine. My friend Rus and I would walk into each service with 3 L of ice water. We would consume it all, and I don’t ever remember using the bathroom.

This job could have easily kept three people busy, but we had to manage it with two. We would make a game out of it: the goal was to never let the dish machine stop running. This made the steam and filth tolerable for a two-hour service. One of us would keep the window clear (where people dropped off plates/cups), scrape plates into trash cans, and sprayed and stacked plates near the machine. The other would feed dishes into the machine, run down to the other end, and stack clean dishes on tables and carts. If one of us got slammed, the other ran (or slid) over to bail them out. Anytime we got a free moment, we scrubbed nasty hotel pans, sheet pans, cambros, and other storage containers before we fed them into the machine. We repeated this task three times a day (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) for at least 5 days a week for 3 months. Frank, another very close friend and manager, would often join us on the loading dock in-between services. A quick cigarette or 3, then back inside to finish scrubbing pans and putting dishes away. By then, it was time to fetch more water and get ready for the next round. On the hottest days, we would stop by the walk-in freezer and stand in front of the cooling fans, and stuff our mouths full of frozen cookie dough pucks.

Most camps ended on Fridays, so I could get away for the weekend to play music. My hands were so raw from full-strength pan degreaser, sanitizer, and scalding hot water that playing bass was often painful. But this was my routine. The summer passed quickly, and I soon found myself all alone in the hills of western Maryland.  The transition from dirtball kitchen employee and musician to professional student was rough.   Over the next few years, I would be faced with personal and mental challenges that were alleviated by game design and (wait for it) more kitchen work. I would start to learn why creative outlets were important to me, and met so many interesting people along the way. Without a doubt, my kitchen family helped to shape my worldview and work ethic, and I can’t wait to share the next part of this story with you.

Cheers everyone!

Posted Under: Chef's Table, Game Design, Uncategorized

That kitchen life: The early years, falling in love on the line

We were ecstatic to be interviewed recently by Off about Regenerate!. During the interview Off also asked us about two upcoming TMC games which are both themed around kitchen work: Chef’s Table and Brigade. We will soon be launching a Gamefound campaign for Chef’s Table, so it’s the perfect time to talk about the inspiration and history of the game! The interview with Off Shelf is available here.

At TMC, each member of our team is free to lead game design projects. Other members support development and testing, and we decide on development priorities as a team: this is what makes us a Collective. Occasionally we land game projects with Land Art Generator (like Regenerate! and Kleingarten), and this is where our collective approach to design begins to shine. We each share an equal voice in the design trajectory of these project. While challenging at times, it helps us grow as a team. With each new project we find new design efficiencies that bleed into other game projects.

When we first started to get serious about game design (ca. 2019), I knew I wanted to make a game about kitchen work. Brigade was the original working title, and the goal was to build a mid-weight Euro-style game that replicated the experience of working in a fine dining establishment. I wanted the game to emphasize kitchen station specialization, cooking techniques, organization, and course timing. I also wanted to capture the importance of the customer experience: how do customers experience the entire restaurant, not just the food?  After months of testing, Brigade was so broken that we decided to split the project into two games: a mid-weight dice game called Chef’s Table, and a heavy-weight Euro game that will be called Brigade.

So why am I so obsessed with food and restaurants?

I started cooking and baking at a very young age, and my family (immediate and extended) were very food-forward. My parents were more adventurous than the average, rural Pennsylvania family, and new foods were always on the menu. Tradition was also very important in our cooking. I am of Eastern European descent, and certain, new world interpretations of Polish food were family favorites. Classic food like pizza caught a rural twist: white pizza made with extra sharp cheddar cheese, topped with butter, salt, and black pepper, or pizza with red sauce topped with American cheese and slices of kielbasa. The latter will DESTROY your mouth with molten cheese if you aren’t careful, and continued consumption will contribute to heart disease…proceed with caution.

I regularly helped with kitchen tasks from elementary through high school and learned to appreciate home cooking. When I moved away to college, food quality/quantity was the hardest transition to manage. College cafeterias aren’t known for their quality, and my waistline and mental health suffered as a result of institutional cooking and lack of portion control. Sadly, by the time I was escaping the dorm and cafeteria, I was broke. I went through another rough, dietary transition as I moved into my first apartment: frozen waffles, frozen spinach, canned peas, and spaghetti formed the basis of my diet. I ate a lot of white bread and peanut butter, too.

In my last semester of school, I got a job working for a company that managed the university’s foodservice. Nearly all my friends were working in the cafeteria, and I needed cash for beer and music equipment. Plus, I got free food. My first job was stocking the coolers in the convenience store in the student union. Around 5pm each night, I would move upstairs to the cafeteria to re-stock the salad bar and dessert station during dinner service. One of my responsibilities was to load a cart with cakes and pies and move them from a bakery display case in the convenience store to the cafeteria’s buffet line. College is a time for learning, and as we continue this story, I will describe many valuable kitchen lessons that I learned.  The first lesson, however, was how many cookies and icing-flowers I could shove in my mouth during a 10 second elevator ride (without choking and spitting confections on the elevator walls). How dare they trust me with this task?

At first, I worked out of a small room on a lonely side of the dining hall, isolated from the rest of the kitchen and my besties (they worked dish room and ran food to the buffet line). My station was obviously a closet that was converted to a small prep room: a few coolers to store crudely stacked hotel pans of lettuce, veggies, and cambros of cheese and macaroni salad. I had no work table.  The room was too small to accommodate the coolers and a prep surface, so I had to use my grungy kitchen cart for all prep tasks. Since I rarely worked consecutive days, let alone back-to-back lunch and dinner shifts, my first 30 minutes were always spent organizing the station. Only after things were clean and organized would I think about re-stocking the station or re-filling the salad bar.

Once I was satisfied with the state of the coolers, I immediately ran to dry storage, where I loaded my squeaky cart with croutons and salad dressing.  College students consume a LOT of Ranch dressing. In a typical weekday dinner service, I would go through approximately 4 gallons of Ranch, compared to less than a gallon of any other dressing type. To this day, I get angry when I see, smell, or taste cheap Ranch dressing.  Other station prep was straightforward. The full-time (non-student) kitchen employees took care of most of my bulk vegetable prep, all I had to do was package these items into smaller containers that could easily be transferred to the salad bar.   The hard part was scrounging enough pans to be prepared for service. Lucky for me, my boys in the dish room would keep my station well supplied.  This happened for 2 reasons: 1) solidarity among student employees, and 2) the sooner I could flip all of the pans at my station at the end of the night, the sooner dish could close, we could clock-out, and get hammered (flipping: removing the contents of an old container to a clean, new container).

After the mad rush to flip pans and wrap the contents of the salad bar, I could start the process of deep cleaning and organizing the station. In case you were wondering, a butterknife is the best way to clean parmesan cheese out of the cracks and crevices of a cold-well.  As I moved into other kitchens in my adult life, I learned that leaving your station in good condition was the most important step to earning favor with fellow line cooks. Even if I went down in flames during service, I would make sure my station had plenty of prep, pans were wrapped as tight as possible, and cutting boards were cleaned and ready for work. Also…. always, ALWAYS leave clean towels for the next shift.

My salad bar performance paid off, and I was quickly re-assigned from the convenience store to a sandwich shop. This was my first experience working a hot line. I learned how to work a fryer station (6 fryers rolling at a time) and built sandwiches and wraps. As simple as it sounds, I enjoyed the challenge of making low quality food look appetizing. Marla was my supervisor, an older woman in her mid 60’s who had obviously seem some shit. She was a great teacher. Marla taught me how to communicate on the line, how to break-balls, and how to laugh at the absurdity of it all. She would move gracefully on the line and bail me out when I got buried. The busiest times were the best. I burned the hell out of my hands and arms, and Marla was always (lovingly?) talking shit on my work, especially if she had to bail me out. I started to get addicted to the adrenaline and camaraderie. I miss Marla…I assume she is no longer with us.

One day, after a particularly rough dinner rush, a young woman and her friend wandered up to the counter to order a buffalo chicken wrap. In my short tenure at the sandwich station, I must have made a thousand buffalo chicken wraps. They were particularly annoying because the low-quality popcorn chicken was usually rock-hard when it came out of the fryer. If you weren’t careful about volume, the cheap flour tortillas would tear when you tried to roll things up. I got pretty good at this task, so good that Marla would ask me to assemble wraps for her. In retrospect, I think she was just taking advantage of me.

When this young woman walked into my life, my station was in shambles and my hands were smoked. I begrudgingly gloved-up and started building the element of my demise: I was Sisyphus, and my boulder was made of popcorn chicken and coated in ranch dressing. After handing off the plate, this woman was so grateful that she invited me to a party. Maybe she knew she was about to eat the best wrap of her life. Maybe I said something off-color and clever (which would be on-brand for me).  I never did make it to that party.  And though I didn’t know it at the time, I had just met my life-partner and mother of my three beautiful children.

Try hard, even on the shittiest of tasks, because you never know who you might impress.

Posted Under: Chef's Table, Game Design

What the hell is a Tunnel Monster Collective?

After a brutally busy 2020, and an extremely productive start to 2021, we have finally caught our breath! We have spent the past few months finalizing our first game project with the Land Art Generator, and working with our beautiful partners at Natural Selection Design, Studio Lithe, and Twothirty Media on logos, branding, social media, and our new website.

I have been looking forward to this post for a long time: a chance to connect with friends and family, and to reach out to future friends as we begin to tell our story. We hope to regularly create content that provides insight into our creative process. It’s a horrifying prospect, but I think this is how we grow as a company. This is how we become the monsters we were spawned to be!
Let’s start with a little background on our company. From there, we can begin our deep dive into ongoing game projects.

Tunnel Monster Collective was established in 2019, but our roots run much deeper than that. Leo, Dave, and I attended the same high school in middle-of-nowhere Pennsylvania. Leo and Dave were/are lifelong friends…they are such good friends that its really annoying sometimes…I am definitely not jealous or bitter. I met Leo during my senior year, and Dave shortly thereafter. At the time the school was overrun by an (local) internet phenomenon known as the Dragon World Federation (DWF): a message board e-federation for professional wrestling roleplaying. Trust me, it was more fun than it sounds. Prior to my engagement in the DWF, I had never played a role-playing game. Evidently, donning a professional wrestling persona and reading line-by-line output from a text-based wrestling simulator was something I needed in my life. I have been chasing the excitement of that experience ever since; I interacted with more people in a few months than I had in the previous 4 years of high school. I didn’t have home internet access at the time, and I still remember waiting to log onto a public library computer to sign up for fight cards.

I was the photography editor of the school paper, and had free reign to choose my assignments. Leo was one of the architects of the DWF, and feature story about the DWF was the perfect excuse to dodge school sports leads, or editing photos of a random FHA-event. The DWF only lasted a few months, but its impact on my friendships (and apparently my career trajectory) were significant. I stayed in touch with Leo and Dave in the years to come.

I got my first dose of Dungeons and Dragons a few years later. There was something special about mining through those 2nd edition manuals, building my first character, rolling terribly in my first quest…I can still smell the musty, secondhand books, eraser dust, and damp basement where I fought ninjas in fictitious taverns. Fast forward a few years, and we were building the foundation of what would become CAST, our roleplaying system that is currently in development.

CAST Roleplaying System was our hobby for the next 15 years. During this time, we learned a few valuable lessons. 1) It’s probably not wise to begin your game design journey with your magnum opus. 2) Part-time game design is tough… careers, families, personal triumphs, and tragedies can all complicate the creative process. Thankfully, Ian joined the team in 2017, and injected new life into CAST and our desire to build a game company. Ian was a friendly face at many game tables, and had the drive and creativity to complement to our own.

Even with the fresh perspective, creating an entire game universe, complete with flora, fauna, geography, geology, ethereal physics, and mechanical infrastructure, was a daunting task. Early in 2020, we began to expand our focus to include tabletop board games. Unfortunately, the pandemic quickly drove a stake through the heart of our playtesting. Like everyone else, we retreated to virtual tabletops and conference calls as we dodged COVID. After a few months we were able to start meeting in person… just in time for a huge partnership opportunity!

In the summer of 2020, we were approached by the Land Art Generator with a partnership opportunity to create an educational game to compliment the LAGI 2020 Fly Ranch design contest. We immediately signed on. The focus of the project (a game rooted in science education and sustainability) was a theme perfectly matched to our team’s skillset; I had worked in conservation for almost a decade, and had designed a handful of education programs. Leo and Ian had also had relevant professional experience that was extremely important as we created content for the game, having worked in renewable energy for many years. Paired with the design expertise of Land Art Generator, this was a match made in…the Nevada high-desert.

A story for another day. Thank you all for your continued encouragement. We will see you in the tunnels!

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