by Kristi Willis • Photography by Kate LeSueur
As the owners of Antonelli’s Cheese Shop prepared to ring in the New Year in 2013, there was no question that they had much to celebrate. But with a 3-year-old business and an 8-month-old son, John and Kendall Antonelli were, quite naturally, too tired for an evening out on the town. Instead, they invited friends and family over for a New Year’s Day brunch. “Our friends, who had been instrumental in listening to us form our plans for a cheese business, had given up on calling us, knowing we were unavailable—either working or catching up on rest with the baby,” says Kendall. “Despite being exhausted, we recognized the need to ground ourselves and be surrounded by friends to greet the New Year.”
Not surprisingly, the Antonellis celebrated with meats and cheeses, and among the dishes at that brunch was a Monte Cristo strata that has become a mainstay for their growing family. “The strata is an easy way for us to use the leftovers from the night before,” says John. “And it’s the kind of cooking that doesn’t take away from the quality time with the kids.”
The Antonellis have worked hard to create a balance between growing their popular business and having ample time for their (now) two young kids, Everett and Elia. “It’s almost like we have three kids: A four-year-old business, a two-year-old boy and a six-month-old girl,” says John. “Each one has its own stages and requires different skill sets, some of which we have and some of which we don’t. We learn more than we give every day.”
Like most small business owners, the Antonellis used to shoulder the extra hours it took for special events or big projects. Slowly, though, they’ve been able to expand and train their team to take on some of the weightier duties so that they could cut back their hours to a more reasonable 40 per week—giving the Antonellis more time in the evenings and on weekends with the kids.
Even with the dedicated family time, though, getting dinner to the table can be a challenge—particularly with a hungry two-year-old underfoot. “It took Everett a long time to learn that dinner isn’t ready when we start cooking,” says Kendall. “If you take noodles out of the cabinet, he wants them on the plate.”
To avoid dinnertime misunderstandings, the Antonellis often prepare ingredients in the morning, or use the slow cooker or smoker to get dinner ready more quickly. They also share the cooking responsibilities: one of them takes on dinner while the other entertains the kids.
The versatile strata recipe fits perfectly into these weeknight dinners; it’s easy to make, and the ingredients can be substituted with whatever’s on hand. Also, it’s a recipe that everyone in the family can help prepare—an important factor now that Everett wants in on the act.
When the toddler sees Mom starting to assemble the dish, he exclaims, “I help!” and crawls up on the stool to assist. Kendall shows him how to layer the bread, cheese and meat. She then gently coaches him, “Sprinkle, sprinkle, sprinkle,” as he tosses the pepper across the top of the dish.
While John is preparing ingredients, deftly navigating the kitchen with daughter Elia attached to him in her Baby Björn, Everett practices his knife skills with a toy culinary kit—sawing away at the wooden bread with a wooden knife while Mom again guides, “Cut, cut, cut.”
Once the strata goes into the oven, the family has a solid 45 minutes of playtime together before dinner—cherished time with the kids. “The first time I knew I was a real dad was when we’d given Everett a banana on a plane and he was smashing it between his fingers,” says John. “We didn’t have quick access to a napkin and I realized the only rational thing to do was lick it off his hands. It was nasty, but I had to do it. Kendall looked at me and said, ‘I love you.’”
Balancing their roles as business owners and parents isn’t always easy, but John and Kendall approach life like they do the family dinner: Prepare early and improvise along the way.