“What? You can’t do that!” Justin Konopaski remembers thinking each year as his parents put a turkey on their grill at Thanksgiving. Bucking the plop-it-in-a-pan, make-your-house-smell-like-a-bird trend, his family always did November a little bit differently.
Woodbury resident Konopaski spends his evenings grilling up delicious meals, partnering with like-minded brands, and sharing his work with his Instagram following at @cooking_with_justin. We chatted with him about what it’s like cooking for an online audience a few thousand strong, his go-to grilling gifts and one of his favorite recipes.
From those family Thanksgivings, he learned that you can grill just about anything—and that grilling is anything but one-size-fits-all.
Konopaski started getting into cooking and grilling himself, signing up for foods classes at Bloomington High School. Then as a broke engineering student at St. Thomas, he’d hit the sale section at the store and see what he could grill up on the cheap. It was a way to save money and make the most of a tight kitchen—but it was also a creative outlet.
“We’d throw it down—go with the flow,” he recalls, adding that he and his friends would grill all kinds of food, in all seasons. And in Minnesota, that’s saying something! They’d even do “snow cooks,” shoveling out their grill and searing up meat in the dead of winter.
Over time, he developed his preferences and techniques, deepening his love for a discipline that’s—much like engineering—part art and part science. And along the way, he’s become a full-time facilities engineer for 3M. It’s a job he loves, but there’s a lot of structure and demand to it. So on the side, he’s continued to dabble, developing some serious brand loyalties to specific grills and grill grates, rubs and sauces, thermometers, and high-quality meats.
He’s developed a loyalty to charcoal and a penchant for Rub with Love seasonings, which are available at Jerry’s Foods. “They’re all-natural, clean and pure,” Konopaski says. “I love the steak spice, but I’m trying others.” Then there’s Frank’s RedHot Buffalo Wings Sauce, which he admits sounds basic, but brings out the simple flavors of chicken wings done to perfection.
He’s made some mistakes, too, rattling off stories about the time he left the grill cover off too long, overheating the coals. “That meant some overdone New York strips; that was an expensive learning experience!” he says.
In late 2018, he decided to take all the grilling experience he’d gained—the good and the bad—and channel them into an Instagram account: @cooking_with_justin. He does “cooks” several times a week, adapting the dinners he’d make anyway into online content for a growing following and incorporating products from the brands he’s come to love.
On the advice of a friend who runs a bodybuilding account, he posts daily in some form, cooking for Instagram as a way to decompress and disconnect after long days in the office. But at the heart of it all, he says, the whole account—the whole reason he cooks at all—is to “get people around the grill,” Konopaski insists. “I want to have a good time with people—it’s the people that drive the content. And if it looks good, I just go for it.”
Guide to the ‘Gram
Konopaski insists he cooks for two reasons: “flavor and fun.” But in the back of his mind, he has his online content. He uses an iPhone 8 for photography, and shares his food photo tips.
Nail the lighting.
“Natural lighting works 100 times better than anything fake,” Konopaski says. “Direct sunlight can be really challenging. Look for shade.”
Let the camera do its thing.
Set up a good composition and “the camera will pick up on the different pieces,” he says.
Throw in some color.
Kebabs are a great way to introduce some bright colors, Konopaski says, and he keeps a stash of jalapeños and other fresh veggies to toss into the shot at a moment’s notice.
“I don’t want things to be too advertise-y. I’m always conscious of that,” Konopaski adds. “Cook what you love. If you love something, your followers will, too.”