I'm so into this chef sim I've got mushrooms tattooed on my arm

When you're a chef, attractively plating a meal is almost as important as how the meal itself tastes. Is that true? I have no idea: I am not a chef and I should definitely not be allowed to plate meals. The first time I tried it in Chef Life: A Restaurant Simulator it was a disaster. The cooking and restaurant management sim lets you not only prepare meals but place every last thing on the plate manually before you serve them: meat, vegetables, sides, garnish, even the sauces.

You be the judge. In the gif below, can you tell which order of steak with shallots and homemade french fries I plated manually, and which is the default plating the game suggests?

Yeah, I'm pretty sure I'm not gonna earn that Michelin star shown in the trailer above.

But untalented as I may be, I'm dedicated to this Chef Life game, which launches on Steam and the Epic Store today. My chef even has mushrooms tattooed on one arm and pasta on the other, that's how into this kitchen lifestyle I am. And I'm having fun, which is really all that matters. To me. To my customers, what matters is that I don't ignore their special instructions, that I don't botch their meals, and that I don't leave them waiting too long as I dash around the kitchen desperately recooking the meals I've botched. I often do all of these things on the same night.

I begin each day at my restaurant by deciding what's on the menu, which early on is just a few dishes: caprese salad with basil, sole meunière with green beans, the steak and fries you saw earlier. Serving customers properly gives me XP to unlock new recipes like consommé (veggie soup), cacio e pepe (pasta), and meatballs (balls of meat). I order the ingredients from one of several grocery stores, and when they arrive I stock my kitchen for the night's menu.

Then I immediately begin panicking because the clock is quickly counting down until opening time and I need to get ahead of the evening rush by prepping the meals. I can chop veggies in advance, shred cheese, cube beef, slice fish, and store it all in the fridge. I can even cook a few items like sauces and green beans which I can keep heated at a warming station. Most of this business is done with a quick little minigame where I press the arrow keys, or maybe a mouse movement to stir a saucepan with a spoon so the hot goop of whatever I'm cooking doesn't stick to the sides.

The food all looks delicious in Chef Life (except when I burn it, or plate it) and the animations are all nicely done, too. It's a real pleasure to cook, except when hungry people are getting impatient and I realize I've forgotten to prep something in advance, or more typically that I've forgotten to prep several things, or that the stuff I've prepped (sliced onions) is wrong (I need diced onions).

Luckily I've got some help, sort of. An employee named Kassim was originally helping clean the kitchen but now that I've limped along for a week without plunging the restaurant into ruin, I can actually assign him some simple tasks like cutting up a fish filet or doing some of my prep-work. It's not always that helpful: telling Kassim to make carrot juice in the blender because I forgot to do it earlier doesn't really save time because we both just wind up standing there, side-by-side, staring at the blender while it slowly turns carrots into liquid. But that's not Kassim's fault, or even the blender's. It's my fault for forgetting to do it earlier in the first place. As Kassim works, he gains experience, like me, and can do more complex things in the kitchen.

Eventually, maybe, I'll have an entire kitchen staff to handle certain meals while I cook more complicated dishes. Though as it stands, I wouldn't mind Kassim taking over and doing all the stressful stuff while I help out by slowly making carrot juice and washing the dishes. Unfortunately, I suspect I will have to remain in charge for the rest of the game. That's what this Chef Life is all about.

Did I mention I have a "Chef Sense," which is what Spider-Man would have if he were bitten by a radioactive chef? While boiling pasta or cooking green beans or rapidly searing beef in a frying pan, I can sense how much seasoning is needed. My Chef Sense, unfortunately, doesn't remind me to actually pick up the salt, pepper, basil, or oregano from the spice rack before every shift, and I always wind up having to leave my boiling/frying/nearly-burning food to go grab them, then hastily throw in handfuls of seasoning before the cooking has finished.

You can even toggle a setting that ensures your meals will never burn or get ruined.

Chef Life also has a nice range (haha) of difficulty options. You can set them so customers will never grow impatient waiting for their meals, giving you all the time in the world to get things just right. You can toggle a setting for fewer customers, so you'll never feel overwhelmed by getting too many orders at once. You can even toggle a setting that ensures your meals will never burn or get ruined, if you really want to relax and just enjoy the cooking. I feel like I should turn on all of these settings, twice if possible, but for now I'm sticking with the full chef experience, even though it can be pretty stressful.

When I'm not tensely cooking meals, there's other stuff to manage. I can improve the decor of the restaurant and buy new equipment for the kitchen (I added a third stovetop, and I'm saving up for a second fridge). There are challenges for extra Chef XP, like cooking and serving a specific meal a certain number of times, or gaining a certain amount of loyal customers. People drop by during the day, like the chef of another restaurant or, in one case, a guy who works at City Hall, and they might have a new challenge for me or just a bit of dialogue to deliver.

I did have a couple of bugs while playing Chef Life this week—my blending station refused to work one night, which made it impossible for me to create meatballs, though that only happened once (I had to quit and begin the night over). And don't stop in the middle of prepping some ingredients to go open the restaurant for customers. There's a cutscene between opening the doors for the evening and the dinner rush beginning, and any half-finished prep work seems to be sucked into that cutscene black hole. I'm also a little disappointed to see that a pizza oven DLC is an extra $5 on top of the base game's $35 price tag. Pizza feels like a pretty standard restaurant meal.

I feel like I'm getting better at some recipes just in time to learn entirely new ones.

But I'm still really loving Chef Life (and truthfully I'm probably gonna buy that dang pizza DLC, too). Playing takes a lot of muscle memory—most cooking tasks are controlled with WASD, E and F, spacebar, the arrow keys, and sometimes the number keys, and some actions require a tap while others need a long press. It's tricky to learn it all while stressing out over burnt fish filets, but I feel like I'm getting better at some recipes just in time to learn entirely new ones. 

It doesn't look like I'll get to create my own recipes from scratch, like I did in Recipe for Disaster when I deep-fried 30 ingredients into a single meal, but it does say on the Steam page that you can improve recipes and add your own personal touches, so that's something. I might just become a real chef yet, as long as I stop plating meals myself.

Christopher Livingston
Senior Editor

Chris started playing PC games in the 1980s, started writing about them in the early 2000s, and (finally) started getting paid to write about them in the late 2000s. Following a few years as a regular freelancer, PC Gamer hired him in 2014, probably so he'd stop emailing them asking for more work. Chris has a love-hate relationship with survival games and an unhealthy fascination with the inner lives of NPCs. He's also a fan of offbeat simulation games, mods, and ignoring storylines in RPGs so he can make up his own.