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

1 comment

  1. Hi Cuz, enjoyed reading this blog…I know your dad’s penchant for Hunky pizza and admit nutritionally, it’s scary. Didn’t know you had that job in college or how you met your wife. Good story. The dining halls at IUP were equally gross when I think about it. I wonder if different now.

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