Stepping into the kitchen of Alison Katz and Fritz Beckmann the first thing you notice is the vanilla. Not those dinky 4-ounce bottles they sell at the grocery store, but rows of gallon jars each holding a fistful of vanilla beans steeping in several inches of vodka or bourbon.
It’s homemade vanilla extract and Katz says she’ll go through four jars this summer to flavor the birthday cakes, peanut butter chocolate chip cookies and lemon pound cakes that come out of her very productive oven.
While the vanilla beans came to Katz from a friend who spent a lot of time in Indonesia, where vanilla grows, Katz and Beckmann are best known for turning relationships with local farmers into the ingredients of magical meals.
“When Michele, a farmer at Deep Roots brought us 50 pounds of pork fat, [Fritz] rendered it and turned it into lard,” Katz said. “When Carrie Wood managed the farm stand at Sylvester Manor, we made soups from their extra vegetables.”
Making their own vanilla? Rendering 50 pounds of leftover pork fat? Katz and Beckmann take the pursuit of flavor as seriously as the pursuit of happiness, and their wholesale and retail customers are pretty happy about it, too.
Katz followed up a career in fashion merchandising, studying at the French Culinary Institute and then pastry production at New York caterer Abigail Kirsch. She worked as a private chef for corporations and individuals, including 15 years cooking for the same family. Eleven years ago, Katz married Fritz Beckmann, a classically-trained chef who worked at Morimoto NYC, and they began spending time on the North Fork, where Katz’s family had long summered.
As Katz and Beckmann spent more and more time out east, they became entwined with the food world. Ten summers ago, when Katz and Beckmann ran a pop-up restaurant on Shelter Island, she and Holly Browder of Browder’s Birds became friends at the Shelter Island Farmer’s Market, when their booths were next to each other in a now-legendary row of North Fork purveyors that included Ira Haspel of KK’s The Farm and the late Ann Marie Borghese of Castello di Borghese Vineyard. Browder was looking for a talented cook to make quiche from her eggs and soon Katz was on the case. Now Ali Katz Kitchen also makes pot pies from Browder’s birds and gingersnap moon pies from their egg whites, for the Browders to sell to customers.
Browder introduced Katz and Beckmann to Claudia Fleming and Gerry Hayden at North Fork Table and Inn and soon Beckmann was running the food truck there as Katz was helping Fleming in the kitchen.
“That’s how we met Abra and Chris, [Abra Morawiec and Chris Pinto who own Feisty Acres, a poultry farm] and that’s why we now work with them making their mousseline, and stocks,” Katz said.
By 2019, Katz and Beckmann had their own retail store and kitchen on Middle Road in Mattituck and were making food for retail customers in addition to their wholesale farm business when the pandemic hit and turned their takeout business into a local lifeline.
They started making more prepared foods, like Lasagna Bolognese. They began offering a Thursday night Noodle Bowl and for three years now, they’ve had customers come every Thursday night and return for fried chicken on Saturday.
They went from being a bakery with a couple of salads to a gourmet food store, with chicken pozole and veggie chili and beef stew.
“People needed it,” Katz said. “We learned how few people really cook.”
On a recent Wednesday, Beckmann was using a cleaver to turn bunches of fresh thyme into a fragrant pile of green for enough salty, herby, garlicky brine to soak chickens ahead of Saturday’s fried chicken dinner.
Ali Katz Kitchen feeds hundreds of people a week. The lean staff of two is a considerable challenge, especially in pastry, where timing and temperature are critical.
“A great birthday cake needs good buttercream,” Katz said. “There is no substitute, so when I tell Fritz I’m taking the butter out of the refrigerator, at that moment, he has to take control of the counter (in the store) so I can work with the butter.”
Since COVID-19, Ali Katz Kitchen stays open year-round, with three two-week closures a year.
“We had a loyal following at the start of COVID and those people have not left,” Katz said. “It’s been a big change. I never thought this would be my life.”
Katz and Beckmann recently bought a home near the store and he is fencing in a garden where they will grow salad ingredients as well as the kale, cucumbers, butternut squash and tomatoes that are so important to their signature dishes.
It’s a long way for Katz from a city girl in fashion merchandising to rustic tomato galettes and Linzer cookies.
“I certainly never thought I would have a garden and grow vegetables,” she said. “That was not anywhere on my radar.”