In Isolation with David Matthews

Location: Sydney, Australia

I’m on a snow-capped peak, wind whipping around me, the air biting, cloud pressing in. I draw my bowstring and loose an arrow into the night sky. It whistles through the air and strikes its target: an eagle, riding the updrafts. The bird plummets. I scramble down the cliff-face and slip what I find into my pouch: dinner.

Eating in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is foremost about survival. Gathering wild plants or hunting wild animals is as much a part of the game as plot or exploration. Apples, mushrooms, deer, fish—all of these literally restore your life force. If you don’t eat, you perish.

Outside the game, in lockdown, I spend part of my days scrolling through cut-price pieces of meat on Vic’s Meat online, wishing they sold sweetbreads or tongues or something more interesting than dry-aged primal cuts. Parts are spent ordering (cut-price) premium fish and crustacea from Nicholas Seafood, ticking a box for whether I want scales on or off (on), guts in or out (in), lobster dead or kicking (kicking).

Other times I’m immersed in The Wild. By day I stalk boar through the forest and spirit eggs from birds’ nests. I snatch at fish schooling just under the surface of creeks and rivers, pick wild herbs and gather mushrooms growing in the shadow of a cliff hang. Come nightfall I fend off deadly skeletons and swarms of bats, frantically swallowing mushroom skewers and tree nuts to replenish my health. I kill and eat a fox.

Here on The Great Plateau the world is sparse. There are no people, just a maleficent spectre swirling around a far-off castle, tribes of Bokoblins—big, kinda stupid beasty things—the spirit of an old man that keeps appearing, and me. Everywhere there are hints of a once-thriving civilisation: I chance upon a lake and see a wharf collapsed by the swirling current. I find a recipe journal in a dilapidated hut. I find an axe lodged squarely in the trunk of a tree.

I wander the wilderness searching for triggers for my shattered memories, and eating, always eating. I find rice in the verdant fields near Hateno, bushels of wheat in the Tabantha highlands, voltfruit and hydromelons in the Gerudo Desert.

IRL I make fish-fragrant eggplant. I feed Fernando, my sourdough starter. I cook and peel two beef tongues and fuse them into a loaf for sandwiches, and I poach a whole Murray cod and cover it in a herb dressing whisked together with fish stock. I cook dhal and temper it with coconut oil and cupboard spices that have lost their potency.

Cooking in restaurants ruined home cooking for me—there are no stakes, no urgency, no post-service comedown.

Food and cooking, and thinking about food and cooking, mark my days more than usual. I try to find cooking pleasurable, and sometimes I do, but mainly it’s a chore, even if I can’t stop. Cooking in restaurants ruined home cooking for me—there are no stakes, no urgency, no post-service comedown. Mainly, there’s just the thought that if I’d given it more time, or had better equipment, or been more precise, then what I’d made could be more delicious. My time as a restaurant critic has taught me to seek the good in things, but the chef in me knows better.

On screen the dishes pop with cartoonish appeal, in the same way the best cell-shaded soups and stews always manage to look like how you wish every stew tasted. (Watch this supercut of food scenes from Studio Ghibli films and tell me soup has ever looked more sustaining than stirred over live flame in Princess Mononoke, noodles more appealing than in Ponyo, or eggs and bacon better than fried in a cast-iron pan fuelled by Calcifer, the fire demon, in Howl’s Moving Castle.)

In Breath of the Wild a pat of butter melts gently over fluffy crêpes, layers of pure white whipped cream break up rows of wildberries in the centre of a layer cake, pumpkin pies are pert and neatly sliced, stews gleam and steam enticingly, salmon meunière—garnished sparingly with greens and what looks like tomato—is a handsomely darned piece of fish, skin on, with a buttery herb-flecked sauce spilling down onto the plate, and the omelettes are topped generously with tomato sauce like the finest omurice. Presentation, even if you’re eating for one, counts.

Dishes, too, are firmly grounded in Japan. The meunières and the soups nod to Japan’s French-style fine dining restaurants as much as to France itself, the flawless desserts, sweets and fruits—so esteemed in the country’s food culture—are staples, as are curry rice and rice balls. If my childhood was one where 4KIDS so heavily whitewashed the food in the Pokémon anime, it’s refreshing to know that 20 years later, kids, wherever they’re from, can grow up calling an onigiri an onigiri.

In the game, I stuff my onigiri with fish and mushrooms. I sweeten fruit with honeycomb. I steam fish in wild greens, glaze pigeons in salt and butter, and toss crab through rice and omelettes. I wonder if restaurant reviewing will return in the future, and what it’ll look like. Whether I care. The sun rises and sets, stars fall from the sky, the moon shines blood red. I keep eating.

By David Matthews