The Ultimate (Culinary) Multitasker: A Cook’s Brain

My first cookbook, given to me as a hand-me-down at age 6, was a tattered old copy of the 1959 classic “Betty Crocker’s Cook Book for Boys and Girls.” Filled with brightly colored illustrations, it opened up the world of food to me beyond table manners and commands to “Eat your vegetables.” Its message was clear: Cooking is fun! My memories of baking my first batch of oatmeal drop cookies and rolling up pigs in blankets as my family’s chef du jour are as happy as Christmas and trips to Disneyland. For me, cooking was just another way to play.

Like play in general, cooking could be classified as a brain-building activity. Of course, as a 6-year-old, I didn’t think about the myriad ways in which my brain was being challenged. I had to use my developing reading skills and learn about weights and measures as I haltingly followed the recipes. My manual dexterity was challenged as I learned to operate can openers and use knives safely. My process memory was enhanced as I leaned to follow the step-by-step guidance doled out by Ms. Crocker to her young disciples.

When we cook, and as we sharpen our cooking skills through the years, there is almost no brain feature that is not utilized and enhanced. To begin with, all of the senses are fully engaged. Of course, taste and smell, which neuroscientists tell us are inextricably linked, are fully engaged. And as we become more and more experienced, these senses seem to sharpen, and we can detect the slight note of nutmeg in a fine restaurant’s spinach soufflé or identify the difference between Mexican and Greek oregano when used in a dish.

To the casual diner, taste and smell might be the only two senses that matter. Yes, we “eat with our eyes first,” but who really cares if a dish is sloppy if it’s delicious? Well, home cooks and chefs know that the other senses do indeed matter, if not in the final presentation, then definitely in the preparation. Sight, sound, and touch are necessary to get the process right. The sizzle in the pan tells us it’s ready for the steak, and the right shade of caramelization tells us it’s time to flip it. The sound of a finger thumped against the side of a melon indicates whether it’s sweet and delicious or hard and flavorless. A gentle squeeze of an avocado says, “I’ll be ready in a day,” or, “You had better eat me today!”

Putting together a full meal with multiple courses is a feat of gymnastics for the human brain, especially if the meal is prepared for a large group of people. It requires what you could call “multitasking,” although brain scientists tell us that there is no such thing as true multitasking — at least in the sense of the brain focusing on more than one activity at a time. We can only switch very quickly from one thing to another in rapid succession. If you’ve ever burnt the gravy or let the peas boil over while making Thanksgiving dinner, it is because this meal is not easy for the human brain to prepare. For cooks and chefs, every dish is a separate process demanding its own focus. Experienced cooks have developed the ability to do this more ably than beginner cooks who are more likely to become engrossed in one task while another is left unattended. For the experienced cook, the processes of familiar dishes become etched into the brain with practice, so it also becomes easier to focus on a dish while also keeping another on the “back burner” of the working memory.

Cooking, especially at the highest level of accomplishment, is also an art and a true example of the human brain’s creative capacity. The prepared dishes of the world’s top chefs look like masterworks of abstract art, and the chefs’ ability to come up with new, tantalizing combinations of flavor seems limitless. In fact, the creativity that experienced chefs and cooks exhibit is an ideal example of how creativity of any kind works in the brain. It is much more than simply being able to “think outside the box.” If that were all it took, we could throw random ingredients from the pantry in a bowl and call it genius. But, as anyone who has ever tried a peanut butter and bologna sandwich knows, not all foods work together.

True creativity combines the structured world of basic knowledge of a topic. For cooks, it’s knowledge of available ingredients, classic dishes, and time-honored techniques — with an ability to imagine outside the bounds of that knowledge. Great chefs always remember what their predecessors have taught them about standard practice, but they are also always looking to push the culinary envelope forward with refined techniques and new combinations of ingredients. In other words, culinary creativity combines the structured abilities of the left brain with the free-flowing world of the right brain, allowing for new combinations that work well in an established context.

I am by no means a top chef. I have not had the benefit of that kind of training or exposure to diverse ingredients. But as an experienced cook with four decades’ worth of practical home cooking experience, I now find cooking to be as natural as walking and talking. Back in those childhood days, everything was very tentative and mysterious to me. Chopping and measuring was slow and tedious, and I really had no idea what I would get when I put all those ingredients together. The oven might as well have been a magic box that made cookies out of clumps of goo. I just chose the best looking picture in a cookbook and hoped it all amounted to something. Sometimes it did — sometimes it didn’t.

Now, however, I can read a recipe book and have a very good idea of what any recipe will taste like. It is as if, through the imaginative abilities of my brain, I can taste the recipe in my mind. Also, not wanting to bother with a trip to the grocery store, I have on many occasions created tasty new dishes solely from what I had available, again based on how I imagined the various ingredients could combine together. I can also now follow recipes very loosely, ignoring precisely proscribed measurements and adding my own ingredients as I see fit. It is as though the stored memories in my brain of tastes and cooking techniques can be called upon to create new culinary experiences in my imagination, which can then be turned into real-life dishes.

Anthropologists now theorize that the development of cooking was essential for human evolution. Our big brains, they say, were dependent on the nutrients that are freed up for absorption through cooking. We’d likely never have gotten past a chimpanzee-size brain without that. Perhaps our ancestors all got the brain workout we needed, thanks to humanity’s brain-building adventures in cooking.

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