She is an Australian artisanal bread baker trained in New York City. He is a former Manhattan chef and a butcher — a Russian Hungarian Jew from Connecticut who has worked in the city for a dozen years. Together, they are inventing Berkshire barbecue and making a new tradition their own.
All year round, Aaron and Alexandra Oster run A-Ok Barbecue from the gatehouse in the Mass MoCA courtyard in North Adams, with a homemade menu to go.
A-Ok has always been a takeaway restaurant, and in a Covid winter that model has given them room to expand. In warm weather they have a few picnic tables nearby in the courtyard, and the Osters have aimed from the beginning to be flexible and informal. They fire up alongside Bright Ideas Brewery, so locals can pick up a dark stout or malt lager and fresh sausage on a warm baguette, and as sauce drips through their fingers they can watch the trees above them … upside-down.
The Osters came to the Berkshires four years ago, looking to build their own business. They became employees first at Bright Ideas, and they designed AOK in collaboration with owners Orion Howard and Eric Kerns.
Aaron and Alexandra opened A-Ok together in 2018.
“We started looking, and we realized there were not a lot of year-round barbecue places open (here),” Aaron said.
“We wanted a place that blended Bright ideas with food,” Alexandra said. “… not white table cloths and reservations, but families and people talking.”
They wanted a place where people could sit outside on a summer night and have a local beer. They wanted a strong local crowd. They live here, and they want to reach out to the downtown neighborhoods around them and invite the community in.
In the pandemic, they have expanded with online ordering for breakfast and lunch and baked goods, and doughnuts on Sunday mornings. Sourdough doughnuts, chewy and lightly sweet, filled with raspberry or spiced Mexican chocolate.
When the museum re-opened in August, the courtyard became one of the liveliest — and only — gathering places in the northern Berkshires. Outdoor tables filled up, and the Osters made their own dairy-free icecream sandwiches on their own homemade cookies.
Their menu changes with the seasons and the flavors they enjoy. Aaron is making sausage, and Alexandra is kneading baguettes and bagels, rye for Ruebens, pie crust.
“We both know what good food tastes like,” Aaron says. “I’ve smoked meat for 12 years, and she has baked bread for eight. We (wanted) to create something exclusively ours.”
They had held that goal for years, he said, before they came here. Alexandra trained at the French Culinary Institute, now the International Culinary Center, in New York City. Aaron started 20 in the New York food scene years ago, washing dishes. He worked for various chefs, always wanting his own place, and after 12 years in the city he felt he wanted a change. He helped to open a restaurant in Martha’s Vinyard, and then he consulted on a butcher shop and restaurant in Las Vegas, but he felt that wrk was temporary.
Then a friend drew them to the Berkshires, and this place felt different.
“We landed here, and we love it,” he said.
And rather than spending more to support a large and formal place — they focus on the food.
“We know from experience that the traditional model is very expensive to maintain,” Alexandra said, “with staff and … overhead, training and moving parts. Eating good food should be a lot more comfortable and logical.”
They want to support local farms and local food producers whenever they can, they said, and to highlight local flavors — local pork and chicken, locally made pickles, and even local woods to smoke their meats.
At the same time, they want to make the restaurant as accessible as possible. They want to keep a balance, they said. They want to work with farmers who are raising meat humanely, so they know the animals will have a good life — but they do not want to sell $50-a-pound brisket exclusively to tourists.
“We want everyone to come in,” Aaron said. They do offer brisket and sauce for dipping, or open-face sandwiches. Alexandra bakes breads — brioche, baguettes, foccaccio.
Many people have strong associations with barbecue, they said. People can have long memories of flavors and a strong attachment to a kind of barbecue, and different places have their own styles — Texas, Kansas, Louisiana.
The Osters are not pretending to imitate any of these, they said. They want to create their own. And it will have its own local influences.
“In East Texas, ok and mesquite are prominent woods,” Aaron said. “Here we have sugar maple, beech and cherry. That’s what we’re smoking with.”
The Berkshires will show up in the quality of local pork and chicken, he said, and the amount of spice they use, in the eggs for their breakfast sandwiches … and in the sides.
To go along with the main dish, hey always offer a selection of comfort foods, and they change with the seasons. In August, they’ll make BLTs with local tomatoes, corn salad with local sweet corn, bean salads and greens. On a winter afternoon, the offerings are warmer and more robust — baked beans spiked with jalapeño, potato salad golden with mustard, pulled pork, homemade slaw or mac and cheese …