Rabbi Mendel Segal loves good food, and soon after he moved to Kansas City he was pining for a taste of good barbecue.
But Segal keeps kosher, strict Jewish dietary laws that prohibit the consumption of pork as well as various ingredients typically included in traditional rubs and sauces.
So four years ago, Segal — who is executive director of the Vaad HaKashruth of Kansas City, which certifies local food companies offering kosher products — launched the Kosher BBQ Festival.
The Kosher BBQ Festival helps his religious community get involved with the city’s iconic food group while building a bridge that encourages non-kosher cooks to learn the intricacies of kosher foodways.
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The contest is the first kosher competition in the country to be certified by the Kansas City Barbeque Society. The certification has made Segal — also the creator of RaBBi-Q kosher barbecue rub and sauce, available at Hen House — the go-to guy for organizers of other kosher barbecue festivals who want to up their games.
On Saturday night, the parking lot of the Ritz-Charles Overland Park began to fill with wood smoke as competition cookers fired up their grills. Contestants began turning in entries at noon on Sunday. KCBS judges did their tasting and evaluating in a quiet room inside the convention center.
Meanwhile, a crowd gathered under a tent to watch cooking demos and hear color commentary by celebrity chefs, pitmasters and food media (including yours truly) who sampled entries.
The Food Network’s Simon Majumdar served as emcee to an all-star panel that included Jasper Mirabile (Jasper’s), Colby Garrelts (Bluestem and Rye), Stretch Rumaner (Grinder’s) and prize-winning pitmasters Paul Kirk (the Baron of Barbecue and a soon-to-be American Royal Barbecue Hall of Flamer), Andy Groneman (Smoke on Wheels), Rod Gray (Pellet Envy), Joe Pearce (Squeal Like a Pig, Slaps BBQ) and Stan Hays (County Line Smokers and the charitable Operation BBQ).
Chow Town blogger Ardie Davis donned his Remus Powers PhB apron and bowler hat. But in honor of the kosher event, he swapped the traditional pork rib bones that decorate his apron for beef bones. The kosher contest categories include chicken, beef short ribs, turkey and brisket.
In addition to ingredients, competitors are supplied with identical grills and utensils that have never been used to cook non-kosher meats.
“It’s really the battle of the pitmaster,” Segal says. “Each one has to dig deep to find substitutions for something they want to use if it wouldn’t be kosher. We don’t mix milk with meats, so if you wanted to use butter, you’d have to find a substitute. It is fun and a little different and a challenge, but at the same time it’s still barbecue.”
Yosef Silver of Kansas City works for a kosher wine distributor and writes a food blog, This American Bite. He was on the organizing committee for the first festival and began cooking the second year. This year his Epicurean Bite team members included Chris Jones, a California blogger of The Epicurean Pig (whose wife was a college sorority sister with Silver’s wife), and Menachem Katz, who flew in from Israel.
“We’re all very passionate about food, and this is a good way to express it,” Silver says. “I think Mendel has done a great job of bringing our community and our food together, especially in a town that doesn’t have kosher restaurant options.”
Epicurean Bite made a Korean sauce for their beef ribs, and they were especially proud of their tender, juicy ribs, which got a shout out from the celebrity judges. But they received their highest ranking — fifth overall — in turkey.
Two years ago the team almost didn’t turn in for the brisket category. “Our Achilles’ heel is that Chris and I both fell asleep at the same time and ran out of water in the pan. The temperature spiked and we killed our brisket,” Silver says.
This year they took shifts and stressed less about beating the clock. “We didn’t overthink anything,” Silver says. “We’re all agreed that we didn’t come to win. We came to make memories.”
Andy Groneman, who was the World Pork Champion at the 2010 Jack Daniels competition, says that competing under kosher rules actually winds up leveling the playing field.
“Here everyone is on the same playing field,” he says. “You haven’t aged your brisket for 30 days, and you’re not using kiln-dried wood from a special purveyor. Everything is kosher supervised by the rabbis, so all of the meat and rubs have come through those channels, and what happens is the real cooks shine through.”
After the first competition Groneman encouraged Segal to seek KCBS-certification to provide “rigor” and uniformity in the blind judging process.
“Now all the other events are coming to him and saying, ‘How do we go about doing what he’s doing?’”