Rob Clement thought he had his professional situation figured out. Though he didn't go to culinary school, the Florida native had decades of experience in restaurants and had snagged his latest in a series of impressive jobs cooking at prominent spots in Charlotte, North Carolina. He felt lucky, though he did find himself lamenting the fact that his schedule wasn't terribly conducive to life with his wife and two young children. Then along came 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic. As the restaurant industry was pummeled, Clement was furloughed. Because he's high-risk, he opted not to return to his position when in-person dining resumed. Clement knew he needed a safe way to continue cooking, and figured this was a sign that it was time to create a schedule that was more aligned with family life.
His thoughts turned to the traditional Jewish meals he grew up loving.
Clement says Charlotte didn't have much in the way of Jewish cuisine, and shipping it from other places simply didn't yield tasty results. He realized his best bet was to draw on his own culinary experience and prepare the dishes himself.
"This is my version of comfort food. I've lived and breathed it for years," he says of his passion for Jewish food. "If you're cooking food that means something to you, it just tastes better."
Clement invested $1,300 and in September of 2020, he unveiled a pop-up Jewish deli he dubbed Meshugganah. It was a perfect fit for the chef, who describes himself on Instagram simply: "I cook food well. I try to dad and husband better."
Now you'll find Meshugganah out and about regularly on the weekends, usually at one of Charlotte's many breweries.
If you're wondering where the name comes from, meshugganah is a Yiddish term that describes someone who's out there or "crazy." Clement heard the word a fair amount when he told people about his plans to open a pop-up Jewish deli in North Carolina as a pandemic loomed.
Fortunately, the idea was less "out there" and much more ingenious than Clement could have even hoped. Meshugganah has developed a devoted following in a short time, attracting a line down the block at a recent pop-up, despite heavy rain. At his last event, Clement sold 50 pastrami sandwiches in about an hour. To make the concept even more enticing, he's partnered with pastry chef Hannah Woociker, who's added baked goods to Meshugganah's menu. This includes babka bread, black and white cookies, and other treats.
Thanks to the high demand for Meshugganah's offerings, Clement is on the verge of signing a lease for a permanent space. However, the current pop-up format does provide some perks, like being able to have face-to-face conversations with customers, who are often Jewish food first-timers, about how and why Clement prepared the food and its significance in Judaism.
"You can ask 100 different Jewish people about their religion and they view it 100 different ways. But Jewish food is universal. It's an easy gateway to helping people understand Jewish culture," he says.
Some may wonder how Meshugganah's Jewish favorites found a home in the South so quickly, but Clement explains that the two cultures actually pair surprisingly well together.
"If I'm making pastrami, that's Jewish barbecue, we just put a different seasoning on it. When you make pickles, preservation is a huge thing here in the South. People understand pickles. If I'm talking about matzoh ball soup, that's basically chicken and dumplings with thinner broth and a lighter dumpling. Everyone's got a version of these dishes in their culture," he says.
Meshuggannah's menu changes frequently, but customer favorites include:
Pastrami: Beef brisket that's brined/cured, seasoned with a blend that includes coriander and black pepper, then smoked.
Noodle kugel: Egg noodle casserole that can be sweet or savory. Sweet kugel is traditionally made with dried fruit and cheese.
Babka: A sweet bread, similar to brioche. It's baked in a loaf pan, and Meshugganah's version is swirled with dark chocolate and cinnamon and topped with streusel topping.
Knish: Flaky pastry dough filled with caramelized onions and mashed potatoes. Knishes can also be sweet, or spruced up with new flavor combinations, like Meshugannah's pimento cheese version.
Meshugganah is a Kosher-style establishment, meaning that it's not certified Kosher, but Clement doesn't mix meat and dairy products in any single dish. He steers clear of pork and shellfish and cooks with schmaltz (rendered chicken fat) in meat dishes that call for butter. The menu often reflects the Jewish holidays, including a special Passover menu as the holiday approaches at the end of this month.
If you don't have the opportunity to taste Meshugganah's offerings in-person, Clement has you covered. He frequently posts explanations about the food he prepares via Meshugganah's Instagram so you can gain a better understanding of what he's serving even if you can't try it for yourself.
If you want to go the DIY route, this spring Clement will roll out virtual Jewish cooking classes. They'll focus on holiday-specific foods, like latkes for Hannukah and round raisin challah for Rosh Hashanah. If you're looking for new ideas to keep your kids entertained, plan to join in. After all, there are only so many pillow forts you can build!