The Reward System. Cooking with Master Chef Adam Dahlberg

The Reward System

By Antonia Nessen

For the print edition of our Head Piece issue, we wanted to cook lamb’s brain and teamed up with the master chef Adam Dahlberg. He agreed to meet us in his restaurant kitchen in Stockholm. This was the first time cooking lamb’s brain for Adam Dahlberg. The organ is tiny, and resembles an oval ping pong ball. “Brain is reminiscent of sweetbread, and the key to such a food is to achieve a crunchy surface and a creamy inside,” he said.

Adam Dahlberg had been working for the two-star chef Mathias Dahlgren for about ten years, when he and Albin Wessman decided to do something on their own and open their own restaurant and catering business. This year Adam Dahlberg was in the Bocuse d’Or. “For me, there has always been something magical about the Bocuse d’Or. It’s like an extreme sport, like bungee jumping, something you want to do before you die because it’s so crazy,” Adam Dahlberg explained, “the fun thing about the Bocuse d’Or is that it’s about who cooks the best food. But what also characterizes the competition are the epic dishes and it’s very spectacular for the audience to sit in the stands and get to see these creations.”

One of the reasons why Adam Dahlberg works as a chef is that cooking is a wonderfully simple way to satisfy people. “In order to experience the taste you have to go through the process of making it smell nice, look good and have the right temperature. All the senses get to work and start assessing the food before you actually experience the flavor,” Adam Dahlberg said.

Food is a path to pleasure and our eyes are the final outposts of the brain. The retina of the eye is a form of brain tissue that connects to the rest of the brain via a strand of white brain substance, the optic nerve. But is the human brain created for us to be happy? From one perspective, it is.

“Just like all other vertebrates, our brains have a reward system. The reward system ensures that you enjoy doing things that are necessary for you as an individual and for the survival of your species,” says Anna Josephson, a specialist in neurosurgery and professor of neuroscience at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. When you enjoy food, exercise and sex, the reward system makes sure that you will continue engaging in these activities in the future, as more nerve fibers connect and the memories of the pleasures are stored in large cerebral cortex. The reward system and the rest of the brain reorganizes, and develops an ‘addiction’ to vital activities.

If you ask a brain specialist like Anna Josephson, it is obvious that humans ARE their brains. Nowadays no fundamental differences are perceived between brain research from a neurological, physiological or psychological perspective, because all three perspectives are based on molecular biology. “The different angles are important for explaining the environmental influences on the brain, and thereby on humans,” Anna Josephson explains.

When speaking about our reward system, Freud’s ideas from the early 20th century are unexpectedly making a comeback in modern research – this time neuroscientists are bringing together biology and psychoanalysis. A pioneer in the field of neuro-psychoanalysis is psychoanalyst Mark Solms. According to Solms, Freud’s idea that our dreams are a window to the subconscious corresponds with the discoveries about the reward system. When we are awake our frontal lobes suppress our reward system, but when we are asleep it is in full swing. In the article Freud Returns, Mark Solms states that: “according to Freud, the libidinal or sexual drive is a pleasure-seeking system that energizes most of our goal-directed interactions with the world. Modern research shows that its neural equivalent is heavily implicated in almost all forms of craving and addiction. It is interesting to note that Freud’s early experiments with cocaine—mainly on himself—convinced him that the libido must have a specific neurochemical foundation.”

Without our frontal lobes we would give in to the pursuit of pleasure. The fact that adolescents are more impulsive than adults is because the frontal lobes are not fully developed until in their 20s, according to Anna Josephson, who says that the most dangerous thing we can subject our brains to on a daily basis is the hijacking of the reward system. “When you enjoy a drug, or a game, large amounts of dopamine are released in the brain’s reward system. The release is many times greater than that from natural enjoyment. The problem is that the reward system adapts in the direction that is associated with the greatest release of dopamine in the brain. In the end, the brain becomes hijacked by the drug”, says Anna Josephson. “The reward system short-circuits, so you have to have the drug and can only enjoy the drug”.

Back to Adam Dahlberg’s restaurant kitchen: “I think people have this image of this lumpy brain, they see it in front of them and freak out. But this is perhaps the case with organ meats in general: that you’re afraid of it because of the way it looks.”

But maybe we’ll be eating more organ meats such as lamb’s brain in the future. There are warnings about a future world food shortage and maybe we are all going down the same path as the Icelandic population of 320 000 people: when the economy crashed back in 2008 and food prices rocketed, sales of offal increased dramatically. The Icelanders started eating intestines again.

Adam Dahlberg decided to deep fry the lamb brain. “I made a tempura batter with raw sourdough and beer, to get a really crisp and tart exterior, and with that we had mustard mayonnaise and various types of cabbage. There’s something in the cabbage that makes me associate it with brain, visually. It’s all different kinds of cabbage really, broccoli is also a type of cabbage, cauliflower, savoy cabbage, Brussels sprouts and rocket.”

For Adam Dahlberg the brain dish was an exciting challenge. And how it tasted? Well, together with the taste of healthy cabbage and tempura it was very cool; brain food indeed. The brain thrives when it is allowed to increase skills and knowledge, according to Anna Josephson. “Then the brain functions as intended and rewards us so that we feel good. Our own universe is filled up and gets bigger.” Adam Dahlberg agrees:

“It’s important to have an element of novelty in what you cook as well, and it is also about providing inspiration and seeing new things – that you don’t cook the same things all the time, but develop as a chef.”