Crazy Like a Chef

Professional chefs aren't like regular people. While most people may be happy to putter around the kitchen now and again, many chefs find it almost impossible to tear themselves away from their grill and saucepans. Leaving their home on the range is an almost painful experience.

Some call a chef's fierce dedication to seeking out that perfect baby vegetable the obsession of genius. Others call it nuts. Scientists in Geneva, meanwhile, have discovered a very real, if unsettling, answer to why some people become overpowered by the quest for the best in food.

They've been dropped on their heads.

As humorist Dave Barry would say, I'm not making this up. Some people suffer from a disorder called Gourmand Syndrome, where they develop an intense, consuming passion for food, including addiction-like cravings for superior taste, an inordinate interest in a dish's appearance, a savoring of trips to shop for ingredients, and delight in the memory of particular restaurant experiences. It can happen after sustaining an injury to the right side of the brain, such as a tumor, a concussion, a stroke or severe impact with a blunt instrument like, say, a saxophone.

Not the worst problem to have, maybe, but consider: One of the symptoms of Gourmand Syndrome is that these people lose touch with reality, so powerful is the lust for high cuisine. Scientists report that life becomes one-track, to the point that they can barely speak of anything other than food. Worse, what might have been constructive criticism of someone else's food turns to carping, and they become insufferable.

If you're a chef, this disorder might be a good thing to have. If you're a guest in a restaurant, though, it's best to keep the affliction at home. These gustatory hedonists gone bad are the ones at the table next to me in a fine restaurant recently. When asked by their server how their meal is, they launch into a discourse of how if it were their kitchen, they'd add a splash of olive oil, kick in some more garlic, dash in more oregano, perhaps substitute risotto for the rice. It goes and on and on until they have dismantled every dish on the table. The server politely promises to tell the chef, and I thoroughly doubt that he does. Nothing wrong with the food, you see, just not as wonderful as they would do it.

Helpful to the restaurant? Hardly. If I'd had a saxophone on hand, I'd have used it.