So, you’re driving home from work after an especially difficult day. Your boss was all up in your business, you spilled coffee all over your pants just before running into a meeting you were already late for and Geoff from I.T. made you feel like an idiot when helping you set up your new printer, which you swear has a vendetta against you. You are desperate for something to brighten the day and while a drink or 5 might seem like a solution, it’s a school night and you can’t sleep in tomorrow.
Surely then, you can make yourself a nice, tasty dinner. Put on some smooth jazz, dabble with exotic spices and pour a glass of red wine. Ah, now that sounds like a way to exorcize the demons of the day. There’s only 1 problem, it’s the end of the month and your fridge is near empty. So, what can you make with 2 eggs, half an onion and some questionable milk?
Instead of choking to death on a sour, onion omelet, rather sit in front of your computer and launch Chef, a new restaurant tycoon game where you have a Masterchef-level pantry at your disposal and can make just about any dish your imagination can conjure up. It might not fill your stomach, but perhaps a PB & J sandwich will taste better knowing others can at least enjoy your culinary creations.
Chef is still in early access but is available through Steam.
I’ve split the gameplay portion of this preview into 2 sections, management and cooking, because unlike most tycoon games which only focus on the management aspect, Chef also unleashes your creativity by letting you wow the community with your own unique dishes.
Before even thinking about cooking or serving, you first need to decide what your culinary mastermind will look like. The character creator is fairly basic but provides enough options for you to create an avatar which truly reflects the cook buried deep inside you.
Next, it’s off to the realtor’s office to select the hub, out of which your creative juices will flow and entice the world to keep coming back for more. Selecting a restaurant location was surprisingly complex. The rent, and size of the restaurant are the first things to consider but then there’s also location, surrounding buildings and services, and potential customer types. If you’re near factories and docks it means you’ll probably get a lot of blue-collar workers, a theme park should attract families and tourists, and prestigious neighborhoods will undoubtedly be full of vegans.
Before you can design your signature dish, you need to design the interior of the restaurant. Cover the walls and floors in your preferred materials and add a few decorative items on the walls to create a pleasant atmosphere. Your kitchen requires some essential items with more available for later use when you have some cash flow. At the start you have very limited items to work with, each item comes in an assortment of colors but it's only later when signing deals with local companies that your selection will expand. You also need to decide what you'll be serving your customers before you open your doors, but I'll cover this in more detail in the next section.
One of the last things to do before welcoming the public is to look at your available Decisions and Policies. Policies mostly consist of marketing strategies you can use to attract more customers and Decisions make it possible for you to sign those item deals I just mentioned. Most Decisions require your restaurant to have a certain reputation level before they become available.
Despite not really knowing what I was doing, I was off to a good start. I didn't bother with a marketing campaign but it seemed that whenever I added more seating, they would instantly be filled. Whenever someone finishes their meal, they leave you a little review to tell you how their experience was. Reviews are divided into 4 sections, food, service, atmosphere, and pricing. This makes it very easy to see where your restaurant might be lacking and even the slightest tweaks could have phenomenal effects. The one section I found confusing was price, which you can set for each individual dish as you see fit. I wasn't covering costs so increasing my prices was the obvious step. Even after quadrupling the prices of each item on my menu, customers were still giving me a 5-star rating in that regard, until they suddenly decided I was charging too much even though I hadn't made any pricing changes in quite some time.
Staff management is something else that requires your attention. To start, you're avatar will be preparing the dishes himself but as things move along you'll want to hire another chef, and of course, you need someone in the front-of-house to look after the hungry customers. There's a small selection of available employees which can easily be expanded through some of the Decisions, like placing an ad in a local newspaper. You'll need to keep an eye on the skill level of your staff as some will do just enough not to get fired, while others will go above and beyond to ensure your customers have an out-of-this-world experience. Unfortunately, the salary structures for staff members are not well balanced since a low skill waiter can cost $200 a day, and at the same time a waiter with 3 professional skills may cost as little as $80.
The game offers you some statistics so you know what kind of customers you served and how your finances are affected, but the most important section I found was the ratings for each of your dishes. On this page, you'll find which dishes were ordered most often, as well as how each customer found those dishes. If a certain dish only receives 2-star ratings then you might want to use higher quality ingredients or consider scrapping it from your menu altogether.
This section is where Chef stands out from most other management games. While managing your restaurant is satisfying enough, I suspect designing and populating the menu is where most culinary enthusiasts will spend their time.
There are some preset dishes you can add to your menu which are determined by your available ingredients and kitchen equipment but the real attraction comes when you open your pantry and start designing dishes unique to your restaurant. Your starting ingredients are limited but still provide enough variety for you to make your menu stand out. If you're unsure of some ingredients, the game goes a step further by giving you an indication of how your selected ingredients will work in combination to ensure you don't poison the entire neighborhood. You can customize things even further by changing the colors of your designer dishes to make them stand out but be careful as some of the color schemes make your dishes look like they've been eaten before. Of course, before adding them to your menu, you can name them as well, so if you want to call your spaghetti and meatballs, bloody intestines, nothing will stop you. Keep your customer base in mind while building your menu though, as certain customer types only eat certain meals. Vegetarians won't appreciate a good steak as you might, and low-class families won't be interested in snails and caviar. There's not much point in having the most amazing dishes if no one is willing to try them.
At the end of each working day, you'll receive ingredient points and skill points which you can spend to improve things. Chef points are used to purchase new skills for you, the head chef. These come in different categories and varieties but basically comes down to improving the quality of your dishes, reducing cooking time, reducing costs, etc. Some skills are generic in that they affect all meat dishes for example, but have a low effect, while others only affect one specific dish but have a much bigger impact.
The ingredient points can be spent to expand your pantry. This part of the experience will either leave your breathless or overwhelmed with the vast selection of ingredients to choose from. Ingredients are sorted into various categories such as meat, fish, fruit, vegetables, spices and so on, but they also come in different tiers, with the higher tiers costing more ingredient points but producing higher quality dishes.
I found the design to be a hit or miss situation with few things really standing out positively. Visuals are basic and rough, with numerous glitches still present and apart from various customer looks, not much else available in terms of variety. No matter what your customers end up ordering, they always receive the same plate of red goo. And why don't I have a free Wifi option in my decisions list? This is the 21st century, after all, you can't possibly expect your customers to sit and talk to each other, you caveman. Just in case you missed it, that was a millennial joke.
One area which brought a smile to my face was the various item descriptions which came with tongue-in-cheek flair. These descriptions were copied across various different items but were still enough to make me enjoy them.
However, further on things started to fall apart for me. The interface is awkward and finicky, almost like you decided to operate your mouse with your non-dominant hand. Placing items was buggy, sometimes I couldn't place them in a straight line, although there was nothing standing in the way, while other times I could place a table halfway through a wall which ended up freezing the customers who sat down there and forcing me to reload from a save point. The game is littered with other tiny bugs ranging from missing tooltips, broken scrollbars, customers and staff getting stuck for no apparent reason, and a customer counter which doesn't reset. The most frustrating one for me though was the inability to move an item after placing it, forcing you to sell and repurchase it. Luckily, however, this particular issue was resolved with a patch while I was busy testing proving that the developers are still hard at work.
As mentioned before, Chef is still in early access, so anything I've said in this article is subject to change. As a management game, Chef sadly didn't do much for me. After designing my little restaurant, I sped up the game and waited for those customer reviews to roll in so I could make some slight adjustments to keep my customers happy. I suspect things will get more difficult to manage once you purchase your second restaurant but this will take many hours of tedious gameplay to accomplish.
While the management side of things might not have impressed, this is a great game for foodies. Personally, my skills in the kitchen stretch as far as making coffee and omelets so I felt like a deer in headlights when I opened that ingredients screen. My wife, on the other hand, who loves cooking and experimenting with new recipes, lit up like a Christmas tree when she saw this same screen. She's not much into gaming, but I could see the gears in her head grinding to find a way to eliminate me from my desk so she could also have a go.
I feel conflicted by all this because the best aspect of the game is something I couldn't fully appreciate, almost like going to the theatre to watch a ballet when your interests lie more in contact sports. You don't notice all the slight movements of the dancers and therefore can't possibly appreciate the technicality of it all. If you're more like my lovely wife and are looking for a game to appeal to you, then Chef might definitely be something to look at, I would just suggest waiting for the majority of bugs to be fixed first.