In many ways, cooking for a family differs from running a restaurant, but in some ways it is similar. Restaurants serve several different entrees, and there have been nights when I'm deep into multiple dishes for each member of the family, such as when we have our seafood feast: Nina likes mussels, but Pinta does not. I try to limit the options each night, though. After all, I’m not trying to run a restaurant.
Both professional chefs and parents who cook also have to do more than one thing (or six things) at time. Chefs have training and develop skills to do this well. Take short order cooks. I learned a little bit about how their minds keep track of tasks from reading “The Egg Men,” Burkhard Bilger’s pulse-raising story about short-order breakfast cooks in Las Vegas, which ran in the Sept. 5, 2010 issue of The New Yorker (subscription required for the full article).
"Warren Meck, a neuroscientist at Duke University, has identified the neural circuitry that allows the brain to time several events at once. As it happens, short-order cooks are among his favorite examples. They’re like jugglers, he says, who can keep a dozen balls in the air at the same time. He calls them “the master interval timers.”
Whenever a cook sets a pan on a griddle, Meck says, a burst of dopamine is released in the brain’s frontal cortex. The cortex is full of oscillatory neurons that vibrate at different tempos. The dopamine forces a group of these neurons to fall into synch, which sends a chemical signal to the corpus striatum, at the base of the brain. “We call that the start gun,” Meck says. The striatum recognizes the signal as a time marker and releases a second burst of dopamine, which sends a signal back to the frontal cortex via the thalamus—the stop gun. Every time this neural circuit is completed, the brain gets better at distinguishing that particular interval from the thousands of others that it times during the course of a day. An experienced cook, Meck believes, will have a separate neural circuit set up for every task: an over-easy circuit, an over medium circuit, a sunny-side-up circuit, and so on, each one reinforced through constant repetitive use."
In my case, I had a bit of trouble managing multiple tasks last night. I foolishly tried to roast the potatoes for my quinoa salad while at the same time trying to decide if acquiring a piece of real estate would be good move for my family. The house hunt is one thing that’s not giving me a dopamine rush, and I burned the potatoes.