For some people, cooking is a way to relax and forget about the day. But for Rome residents Brad and Diane Pettet, there aren’t enough hours in the day to prepare an evening meal, much less go grocery shopping. Both Brad, owner of Pettet Jewelry in Peoria, and Diane, athletic director for Richwoods High School, work late nights six days a week.

“There are many working couples without children, like us. I just want to go home and eat after work,” Brad said. “Our schedules are hectic and we were eating poorly.

So when they found out about a local personal chef five years ago, they couldn’t wait to see what she could offer.

“(A personal chef) is just a fantastic service for us and helps us quite a bit, we rave about it,” Brad said.

When local personal chef Brenn Anderson travels to the Pettet’s home, she only needs the use of the stove top, oven and kitchen sink to prepare about three weeks worth of meals.

The containers full of pots, pans, thermometers and cooking equipment she brings into the Pettet home, are all part of Anderson’s tri-county personal chef business of almost six years, Signature Cuisine. A red plastic toolbox filled with kitchen utensils, eases some of the burden of the seven trips she’ll make to her car unloading coolers of food and boxes of supplies.

“I’m a recipe follower; I go through about 12 different recipes a day. You learn to multi-task really quickly,” Anderson said with a laugh. “But I love to cook and I love knowing my clients are eating really healthy food and enjoying it.”

Before Anderson was cooking for the couple, pizza and burgers were common staples to their weekly dinner menu. Now, they have pizza about once a month and opt instead for Anderson’s chicken with bar-b-que bourbon sauce, honey-and-spice-glazed pork medallions and four types of meatloaf—the teriyaki is Brad’s favorite. “I think we’re kind of boring for her,” Brad said with a chuckle. “If it were up to me I could have meatloaf every week, even every day.”

Dual-income families are finding they have less time but more disposable income, so having a personal chef can be a life saver, literally. Since most personal chefs grocery shop for their clients, as well as customize menus around taste and nutrition, fresh food is the alternative over commercial, preservative-laden meals. “The first stage is getting to know their likes and dislikes. I give them a survey and find out what herbs and spices they like and what they never want to see,” Anderson said. “I probably wouldn’t cook for someone who wanted a lot of fried food.”

Food allergies aren’t a problem for Brad Pettet, but his selective palate limits the dishes Anderson can prepare. Once she knew the couple’s taste parameters, she accommodated. For example, since Brad dislikes mushrooms and Diane isn’t fond of onions, Anderson will prepare half of a given dish without onions and the other half with mushrooms. But after five years, the chef in Anderson couldn’t help but experiment with unique flavor combinations and Brad actually asks for them now.

“When she offered a peach and poultry sandwich, I said, ‘What the heck?’ It sounded terrible to me,” Brad said. “But it’s delicious and I love it. She also caters to my work situation. I only have a microwave at work.”

Occasionally stirring bean and barley soup on the stove while her “best ever” meatloaf bakes in the oven and also simultaneously chopping up vegetables for the next dish, the rural Bartonville resident buzzes along with her timers so that in about eight hours, five entrées and five side dishes, enough for 20 servings, will be prepared. Before 5 p.m., she packages and labels each entrée and cleans up the kitchen so all that she leaves behind are delicious smells and a stocked freezer. “I use glass or plastic containers to store the food. How it’s presented is entirely up to the client,” Anderson said.

Five large-portioned meals and side dishes cost $300, including groceries, and Brad said it takes about three weeks for them to eat them up.

“For us, the cost is about the same (as not having a personal chef),” Brad said.

The personal chef business is extremely service-based, just ask Bill More of rural Brimfield. More started his area business, Your Secret Chef, in September and has even expanded to include romantic, gourmet dinners for two.

“For more romantic dinners we bring in all the flatware and table cloths and serve all evening long,” More said. “I serve dessert and then I’m out the door.”

More recently added two licensed massage therapists who give clients a one-hour massage prior to their three-course meal. Entrées range from Asian-glazed grilled beef tenderloin to crabstuffed jumbo shrimp in a roasted-garlic tomato sauce. He has even thought about adding murder mystery dinner parties to his services and a crock pot swap for working mothers of young children. More’s romantic dinners run $160 for an entrée only, up to $400 which includes massages. Twenty serving-sized meals, including groceries, are $275 or families can purchase, groceries included, five large-sized meals and five side dishes for $350.

“A personal chef is similar to (paying for) a housecleaner now. So many people are working so hard, this is just ideal to get the food they want without any bother,” More, 58, said.

Anderson leaves a typed sheet for her customers which details oven temperatures and microwave reheating times. Foods with a lot of water in them, like asparagus, don’t freeze and thaw well so you won’t see that vegetable in whole form on many personal chef menus.

“I have to teach new clients how to use the microwave,” Anderson said. “Protein gets tough on full-power heat. They have to heat on 30 percent power, the defrost cycle. It takes longer but food comes out perfectly warmed, not tough.”

Early on, More figured out that if he didn’t want to eat pork and beans every night, he needed to learn how to cook. More toyed with the idea of a drastic career change from the multiple corporate publishing companies he worked at for 30 years. After some intensive cooking lessons from his older sister and 35 years of cooking for friends, the chef in More was ready to come out. As a three-year member of the Personal Chefs Network, More has support through active online forums from working personal chefs across the country.

“They have a great response time,” More said. “If I have a question, usually I have an answer in less than an hour.”

More said that while the Midwest is slow to see the popularity of personal chefs, the industry is cooking up a storm on both the east and west coasts.

For Anderson, the transition to chef was a little more abrupt. “I became a chef after a mid-life crisis,” Anderson said with a laugh. “After 30 years in graphic design, I went into semi-retirement.” Eight years ago, an article in The Wall Street Journal caught her attention and she began practicing her culinary craft on her family and friends before launching her own business.

Anderson is certified with the United States Personal Chef Association and is able to exchange recipes with chefs across the country. In 1992, the United States Personal Chef Institute, a division of the USPCA, was created to standardize the educational requirements needed to earn the title “personal chef.” To be certified by the USPCI, a person must have at least two full years of personal chef experience, with client documentation, take the required food safety training classes and pass the USPCA certification exam.

According to the USPCA, the number of private or household chefs has hovered around 5,000, while the number of personal chef businesses has ballooned to over 5,000 in just 10 years. By 2010, the number of personal chefs in the United States is forecasted to exceed 10,000.

“There’s plenty of room for more personal chefs in Peoria,” Anderson said. “In any big city, there’s a personal chef in every neighborhood.” a&s