The “Brain Magic” of the Culinary Arts

(Editor’s note: This article from a past issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)


Have you ever watched a cooking show on television and found your mouth automatically watering at the sight of an appealing meal being made? Or have you ever eaten a piece of chocolate and found yourself smiling? Regardless of what you are eat (even if it’s bad for you!), you can’t help but notice how food often has the power to create positive feelings, impacting our bodies and our minds.

“There is also a psychological element that is part of the physical benefits that food brings to you,” said Michael Voltaggio, who won season six of Bravo’s “Top Chef” television series and was recently asked to do scripted television on ABC’s “Suburbatory” and TV Land’s “The Exes.” “And you share that experience with other people too, like for anniversaries, birthdays, and dates.”

As a chef, Voltaggio’s role is to help facilitate positive emotions through food. Feeling good throughout the day has a lot to do with diet. Those who make good food choices are likely to be less moody and experience more enjoyable days; it is also a behavior they are more likely to repeat. Voltaggio is happy that food has become such a major part of the media, especially because of how it impacts children.

“Kids at a very young age are going to be exposed to more food instead of being afraid of it,” he said. “It is sparking more of a curiosity to eat better … Growing up, the only food we ever saw commercially were ones that were not very good for us … The reason why I wanted any of this stuff was because it came with a toy or it was cool. Now, all food — including vegetables — is becoming cool, and I feel it is being translated into children’s diets more and more.” Voltaggio was interviewed after a crowded book-signing event held at Universal Appliance & Kitchen Center in Studio City, California.

Noting the many people milling about, Igor Royz, the store’s president, said, “It’s not just cooking that makes people feel good; it seems to be buying an assortment of kitchen appliances too! One of the biggest businesses here are all the cooking tools we sell. So, while meal creation affects our soul and mind, choosing the various appliances seems to add to the pleasure of the experience too. Whether it’s grilling or baking or steaming or broiling, people are really passionate about cooking.”

That passion is evident — there’s a plethora of annual epicurean festivals where patrons pay from $60 to upward of $200 for a ticket to attend. For example, at Los Angeles Times’ four-day event “The Taste,” nearly 10,000 people descended on the Paramount Studios lot to celebrate the joy of cooking and raise a glass to L.A.’s food and cocktail scenes. It was packed with myriad tastings from favorite restaurants, with cooking and mixology demonstrations led by the town’s top talent, as well as cooking panels.

In L.A. alone, the Los Angeles Food & Wine Festival, the Galbani Cheese Italian Feast of San Gennaro, “The Taste of Soul Food,” and Los Angeles Magazine’s “The Food Event” all happened within a few months of one another and were chock full of people eating cuisine from local restaurants.

Food Network celebrity chef Giada De Laurentiis, who hosted Festa Italiana, L.A.’s Food & Wine Festival’s opening night, believes that getting enough rest and having a healthful diet will give you a healthy brain. “And if I can’t get to eat a healthy meal, I will pop some almonds in my mouth all day long. They are my snack and my go-to. They fill you up, give you energy and have lots of protein. They’re easy to put in your bag for days and days, and they don’t need to be refrigerated,” she enthused.

Since her debut in 2002, De Laurentiis has become one of Food Network’s most recognized faces, starring in shows like “Everyday Italian,” “Giada’s Weekend Getaways” and “Giada” at Home, as well as the popular series “Food Network Star.” All six of her cookbooks have charted on The New York Times best-seller list. For instant brain energy, De Laurentiis loves to juice. She likes kale, apples, ginger, lemons, and parsley. The apples give the juices sweetness, while the ginger provides a little spice. Lemons tend to play well with kale by cleaning the palate and erasing its raw flavor, which kale most certainly does leave behind — but it is one of the best things we can and should be eating.

“The old cliché ‘You are what you eat’ is understood and interpreted quite literally in macrobiotics, as it is thought that our food becomes us — our organs, our skin, our bones, and our brains,” said M Café consulting macrobiotic chef Lee Gross. “Fundamental to macrobiotic philosophy is the idea that our food choices, and the way we cook and prepare food, affect us directly — physically, spiritually, and mentally.”

Gross is a former personal chef for Gwyneth Paltrow. He added, “Remember that macrobiotics in the U.S. began as a peace movement, as its early adherents believed — and still do — that there is a physiological prerequisite for a peaceful society. In other words, in order for peace to exist, humanity needs to change the way it thinks, to orient itself toward a peaceful coexistence. In order to change our thinking, we need to first change the composition of our blood, which creates our cells, which become our bodies and our brains — which creates our thoughts.

“Whole cereal grains and vegetables form the core of the macrobiotic diet,” Gross continued. “It is these simple foods that are thought to be the most energetically balanced, and this energy resonates within us when we consume them. Thus, it is these balanced foods that help lay the biological groundwork for a peaceful world, by literally becoming us — creating our very bodies, our brains and, ultimately, our thoughts and our actions.”

Nevertheless, comfort foods like pizza and most fried things seem to have psychological benefits. “If I have a spoonful of Nutella, I go from cranky to happy in seconds!” quipped Rosa Graziano, who owns Rosa’s Bella Cucina, an Italian-deli food truck in Los Angeles and one of the vendors at the Galbani Cheese Italian Feast of San Gennaro.

“I am not a trained chef, but I was raised in the kitchen helping my mother,” Graziano admitted. “It’s a cultural thing; the food is so much a part of that comfort.” Cuisine is often associated with something positive, like a family meal or a significant memory. In this sense, it can be an emotional trigger, making the general experience of eating a meal — not necessarily a healthful one — a fulfilling experience.

“Even on Sundays for me, I crave having Italian food. On some level, I think it’s because my parents and I used to have dinner together each weekend. My parents have their own restaurant in New Jersey, which inspired me to have the truck out here,” Graziano said. Late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel is very involved in the feast and has often mentioned Rosa’s zeppole on his show.

While you might want to go out and eat your favorite comfort food after reading this — hold on just a second! According to studies that were unveiled at Neuroscience 2012, the annual Society for Neuroscience conference, the biological processes of the brain may play a role in serious public-health issues, including diabetes, obesity, binge-eating, and the temptation of high-calorie meals. While using imaging technology to investigate how neurology contributes to dietary disorders, scientists were able to associate the foods people eat with how and what they think.


Paul Kenny, Ph.D., of the Scripps Research Institute in Florida, is a press-conference moderator and expert on addiction and obesity. He noted, “These are fascinating studies because they show the brain is an often overlooked yet significant organ in an array of dietary disorders. Many of these findings have the potential to lead to new interventions that can help reduce the ranks of the obese, helping those who struggle daily with dietary decisions reassert control over what they eat.”

(Editor’s note: This article from a past issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)

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