Back in 2008, before internet food writing reached its absolute zenith and Nintendo was just starting to get experimental with appealing to casual gamers, the company quietly released an English language port of a Japanese cooking trainer game for the Nintendo DS. It released in America as Personal Trainer: Cooking in summer 2008, a few years after Brain Age and ruin-your-TV-by-bowling-a-controller-into-it had proven the success of luring in casual and nontraditional gamers.
The iPhone was a ways off from world domination, and online recipes still consisted of (sometimes poorly) transcribed versions of whatever smile-and-stir dishes were on Food Network at a given time (what up, Rachael Ray’s Late Night Bacon!). And for just a moment, my favourite digital cooking aide in the world was a cartridge. Let’s head back in.
Note: I’d have loved to get more background on the creation of the game, but apparently nobody from the development team remained. I couldn’t even get the original release assets, as they were memory-holed at some point. That was disappointing, but now we can all just mythologize how this delightful artefact came to be. Game development is usually more interesting in your head anyhow.
Flip on your dual-screen portable and a mustached chef with a freaky-soothing voice welcomes you (“Good evening/morning” based on the time of day — I was impressed by this at the time) and says “Let’s Get Cooking.” Yes sir.
The menu music will stick with you for days. It’s that very 2000s Nintendo sound, like you’re waiting to board a cartoon tram. Upbeat, peppy, slightly meditative, and kinda otherworldly. Like, if you owned a store that sold magical hats for turtles, this would be the music bleeding in from the mall concourse.
Now, there are several ways to navigate the bounty of our disembodied Chef head (alphabetically, by number of times cooked, by the ingredients, by difficulty, by time, and more), but there’s really only one best way to do it: You click on the globe and see what that big tasty bastard has in store for you today. Use your very 2008 stylus to tap on a map of the globe (a portion of it, anyway; more on that later) and see where it gets you. Hit Japan and learn to make sushi, tempura, or katsu? Souvlaki or moussaka in Greece? Or empanadas and chimichurri steak from Argentina? The mind reels. You can (and I did) spend way too much time flicking from country to country while trying to remember what exactly is available in the pantry.
But once you do, it becomes a (2008-era) futuristic adventure! Remember that 2012 commercial where Samuel L. Jackson has what looks like a ton of fun cooking in his kitchen with Siri hands-free? Thanks to the built-in microphone on the DS, you could command our disembodied Chef to “CONTINUE” and hit the next step without having to put down the knife. You could also blow into the mic, but the stentorian acceptance of your current progress seemed a lot more futuristic. And if you rage quit (I used to rage quit a lot back then), it’ll save your place without judgment. The chef doesn’t even show up to give me that look that Ms. McDonnell used to in junior high with every maths test she handed back. People might not get you, but Personal Trainer: Cooking does.
Once you’re finished with a dish, the game claps and cheers for you. Considering the tastefully muted presentation of the rest of the game (if we can consider this a “game”), the applause is tantamount to this game losing its shit. For a moment, the Chef has a whole body (or at least a torso) and he is over the friggin’ moon at your success. When you mark the recipe as done, it irises out like a completed Mario level, but not before he tells you “well done” and bows to you. It’s the exact opposite of when my kids scream in my face for serving them the same chicken they really liked the other week. I think you’ll find it similarly affirming. I bet this is how a CrossFit person feels when a coach screams “YEAH” to their face at a volume louder than the Papa Roach on the speakers. The Personal Trainer Chef is my hype man and I love him with all my heart.
Get stuck on a step? There are a ton of PBS-looking but detailed and informative videos built in. They’ll show up as optional viewing once you hit the right step in a recipe, or you can hop out to the main menu and watch all of them to your heart’s content. I took a lot of those expensive cooking store classes as a younger person, and basically everything you learn there is encapsulated here. Frankly, the dumpling instructions were worth the price of admission alone at the time. And as a certified Pizzadad, I can tell you the kneading video does a great job with the storage limitations of a DS cartridge. Want to prepare squid? Roll some sushi? Clean a rainbow trout? They gotcha. Chef doesn’t even tell you to mash the like and subscribe button.
The customisation is really kind of brilliant for its time. You can exclude allergens or items on the settings menu and they would be forever banished. You can make the Chef talk really quick and clipped, or slow him down so much he sounds like you’ve been downing recreational cough syrup in Twin Peaks, Washington. The thing will spit out a shopping list for you, or suggest recipes based on the list of what you’ve got. You can customise portion size and the ingredients will auto-adjust before you begin. It’s just incredibly helpful.
There’s also a “Homemade Ingredients” section that could be a whole different article. But suffice to say, it’s chock full of gold: Bolognese, two kinds of dumpling wrappers, tortillas, and the aforementioned pizza dough. There’s a lot of basics to dig into here after you master a few of the recipes.
Personal Trainer: Cooking is not a perfect representation of the food world. Africa is noticeably shorted, with Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt lumped together as “North Africa” and given all of four dishes (not a tajine in sight). The Western Hemisphere is likewise represented entirely by Mexico, Peru, Argentina, and the United States. [Sighs in Canadian.] Even where some countries are represented, they get short shrift. Portugal gets two dishes, Turkey five, and India seven. I’m in no way an expert on the food of China, but more than a few of the dishes assigned to that part of the map look suspiciously familiar.
At the time, it still seemed like a lot to explore. This was legitimately the first time I ever tried Vietnamese food aside from what the banh mi place across the street served, and the first time I noticed how many delicious Korean dishes hit all my buttons at once. Heck, my current-day borscht recipe is just an evolved version of the one in here.
But it wasn’t a true a dive back into this pool of nostalgia until I fired it back up and made some of my old favourites. I’d have loved to give you recipes here, but Nintendo advised me that I’d need to retain an attorney to explore reprinting a recipe. And it may shock you, but the compensation I receive for these enjoyable articles puts me just below “eccentrically wealthy” in the general scheme of things. So a quick rundown.
- Chicken Tikka Masala is still a tasty standard-bearer for the UK mashup. It’s flavorful, spice-forward, and a good foot in the door of marinating with yogurt. I probably wouldn’t recommend knocking it down to the two-serving version (you’ll end up scorching a little bit of spices in a little bit of oil as converted), but it’s a solid dinner and an even better microwaved leftover work lunch.
- Gnocchi with Gorgonzola hits different now that I became a Stinky Cheese Boy like I always swore I’d never do. I used to just make the dumplings and fling another sauce on top. But revisiting, this is one of the best beginner guides to what can be a frustrating dish. And the bite of white wine and sharp cheese I ignored for years taunts ignorant younger me.
- Prawn and Pate Open-Faced Sandwiches were basically smørrebrød years before I knew what the heck that was, and remain a dynamite way to eat 26 of something in different teeny portions. This time around I snuck some pickled shallots in with the rich liver and salami and ooooh baby. I’m making a tray of them the next time I can host people without the existential terror of being the final guest.
- Welsh Rarebit is melted cheese on toast. Who (aside from the lactose intolerant and avoidant) can’t love that? I wasn’t a monster then and I’m not a monster now. Thanks, Wales!
- Kimchi Fried Rice was not only still tasty (it was one of the first fried-rice dishes I learned) but also functioned as my breakfast for an entire week.
- Australian Meat Pie was a weird one. In the middle of the recipe, I met a man from Belgium. He was huge. Nearly seven feet tall. Full of muscles. I didn’t know if he spoke English or just French or Flemish Dutch, or something else. He just handed be me a Vegemite sandwich with a weird grin. So I never got to eat the meat pie, but 11/10, would definitely recommend it.
I suspect this game did fairly well, because years later an American-developed spiritual sequel came out with the official imprimatur of America’s Test Kitchen. But the map was gone and the fun was gone. Things were classified, boringly, as soups/appetizers/meat/etc. and it felt much less like a hangry game of Carmen Sandiego. The same steps were all there, but it was fairly anodyne.
Eventually I stopped playing with the Nintendo DS around the third playthrough of Chrono Trigger and got a lot further into my own cooking journey. I did some books and some articles and more than a few popups. Personal Trainer didn’t see daylight for years, but survived three moves because I am a godless packrat.
I was worried that maybe it wouldn’t be as fun and weird and interesting as I remembered. I shouldn’t have worried. Dig out that old DS (they’re absolute tanks — mine was only a few dead pixels worse for the wear), scrounge up a copy, and get your retro grub on. Let’s get cooking!