Mendel Segal wears two particular titles that each reflect a devotion to tradition, imply an unending pursuit of precision and command immediate respect.
One is rabbi. The other is pitmaster.
The 33-year-old Orthodox rabbi (and follower of the late Lubavitcher rebbe) is readying to oversee the fourth annual Kansas City Kosher BBQ Festival on Sunday, an event that is expected to attract as many as 4,000 attendees.
Segal — known as “RaBBi-Q” to his fans and fellow competitors on the circuit — is a kosher barbecue champion in more ways than one, standing (and cooking) at the forefront of a rising movement within a distinctly American subculture.
“I just want to energize people,” Segal said from his home in the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park, Kansas. “Kosher can be fun.”
After a long, slow burn, kosher barbecue is catching fire: New restaurants and food trucks are popping up from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. Meanwhile, the number of kosher barbecue events across the country has tripled, from a handful to more than a dozen. Many credit Segal’s passion and leadership as a major spark.
“Mendel’s been instrumental in changing kosher barbecue everywhere you can see,” said Mordechai Striks, a New York City psychologist and paramedic who took home the all-around title at last year’s Southern New England Kosher BBQ Championship. “He’s involved in every competition. People look to him because he runs a tight ship and he does it right.”
In the few years since he dived whole hog — well, minus the hog — into the national scene, Segal has racked up wins in kosher contests as well as on the mainstream barbecue circuit. In the latter he is seen as a worthy competitor and not just a curiosity — long, bristly beards aren’t so uncommon among barbecue buffs, though the tzitzit, or ritual fringes, worn by observant Jewish men under their clothes sometimes raise eyebrows. This summer he launched his own line of Mendel’s Kansas City BBQ Sauce and BBQ Rub (“Don’t worry, it’s kosher,” the packaging reassures), available in seven states.
“It happens that I’m obsessed with barbecue,” said Simon Majumdar, a Food Network regular who met Segal in 2012 while in Kansas City researching his book “Fed, White, and Blue: Finding America With My Fork.” “And what I say is that Mendel’s not making kosher barbecue — he’s making really, really terrific barbecue that happens to be kosher.”