Cooking and LARP. Chef Val is no newcomer to either game. She started in both fields 22 years ago and has been making an impact ever since. I had a chance to catch up with her and get her thoughts about overlapping what seem like two very disparate pastimes.
CGG: What is your background in food preparation?
Chef Val: Like every teenaged kid, I started in fast food, and that’s where I learned the importance of speed, sanitation, and consistency. I then moved on to working at a resort in Lake Geneva WI in a fancy restaurant where I learned about food prepping in volume for both restaurant service and banquets. They even paid for half my culinary tuition in exchange for a two-year commitment. I decided to do the school and stick in the profession. I was quite good at it and the field was filled with my kind of people: everyone swore, had tattoos, and partied every night. It was high pressure and high stress, but simultaneously an art form that insisted on precision, camaraderie, and an attention to many details. A professional kitchen allowed me the perfect balance of being a rogue, an artist, and a mastermind.
CGG: What would you say are your greatest professional accomplishments?
Chef Val: I was the first executive level female chef in the world famous Palmer House hotel and started a trend of chefs doing rooftop gardens and beehives in Chicago. I got a lot of media attention for that, which allowed me to relaunch a campaign for Midwestern food and old world cooking methods such as preservation, pickling, wildcrafting, etc. I worked with the National Honey Board and had a number of internationally published articles on my work with honey and Midwestern ingredients. Having multiple television shows trying to cast me on shows was kind of fun. Despite the fact I chose not to; I considered that sign I had done made significant impact in the field.
CGG: Let’s talk about your history of LARPing. When did you first start? What attracted you to the hobby?
Chef Val: I started LARPing 22 years ago in a Vampire game. My friends talked me into going. I was hooked and have been LARPing consistently ever since. I have always loved the escapism, costuming, and epic storytelling.
CGG: How did the two interests start to merge?
Chef Val: The first time I cooked for a LARP was a one-shot 10 course dinner commemorating the 100th anniversary of sinking of the Titanic. That was insane but a blast.
When I started playing Dystopia Rising I wasn’t sure I was going to like it. I made the character creation easy by playing a cook. I made genre appropriate meals for our crew and all the other players totally dug what we were doing. Soon after, I started doing the meal plan for the whole game on top of cooking for our ever-growing apocalyptic crew.
In my grand finale at the Indiana Chapter, I cooked 250 meals for the game, 100 meals for my crew, and a 5 course fine-dining meal for a fancy scene. That weekend was pure insanity, but it went off without too many hitches. Now that I ST for the Wisconsin chapter of Dystopia Rising, I make the menus, delegate the cooking tasks, and cook about a fourth of the meal plan (on top of cooking for my crew). It may not sound like it, but it is less work than I was doing before.
CGG: How did you get roped into Last Dinner on the Titanic?
Chef Val: Well, all those years of making custom menus for weddings, parties, etc made for an easy transition. Dig & Gail (of Fete Fatale and Castle Whately fame) wanted to do the one-shot LARP and we all researched the meals together. I modernized it for our palates and ease of service.
I like my LARPs to be highly immersive, and food really helps with that. If done correctly, it can really add to the overall experience.
CGG: How does approaching a menu for a LARP differ from say, a wedding?
Chef Val: Not as much as you would think. When approaching a wedding menu, you take into consideration the cultures and traditions of the client, as well as the theme and setting of the event. I also think about the logistics of making easily portable hors d’ oeuvres that won’t ruin someone’s tuxedo.
When cooking for a LARP, it’s about genre (culture), ambience (setting), and how portable the food can be without ruining someone’s costume.
They’re not really that different at all. They’re both performance pieces where food can be an expression of culture and enhance the ambience of the event.
CGG: Can you describe an event where you absolutely nailed it?
Chef Val: I’m my own worst critic, so that’s a rough one. Probably the last time I “nailed it” was the post-apocalyptic 5 course meal for a bunch of fancy muckety-mucks at Dystopia Rising. We had a gorgeous table setting, mismatched china, and 5 beautifully executed courses, all served by a caravan of rovers armed to the teeth with boffer weapons (in case things went south). In-character, I “hired” combat waiters and guards to protect the diners from zombies and other dystopian threats. The food was timed and plated perfectly and I brought a lot of players into the scene to help it go off without a hitch. I think that’s the best way to measure LARP-catering success: immersion is never broken, lots of characters get involved, and the food is precisely genre. Oh, and everyone said it was delicious and they had fun!