No one knocks on wood when Josh Knopp comes to cook.
Word around campfires at homes back of Freedom and far out as Tarentum is that Knopp knows how to cook on wood. Really well. Done all alone and designed to please, the 35-year-old New Sewickley Township man is making it his business — All Over the Campfire — to cook a meal for two to 22 outside over a wood fire like cowboys did in their day, like his grandparents did at their cabin in the Allegheny National Forest.
All Over the Campfire is a venture born of Knopp’s passion for cooking and the outdoors, an idea that’s kindled in his mind for a year or so, and began to his surprise this September smack in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Friend Matt Hogue had seen Facebook photographs of the campfire meals Knopp had made for himself and his 9-year-old daughter, Madi. The digital photos and videos of sizzling steaks and a potato medley in a purple-paint sample scheme might make a vegetarian switch course.
Hogue and his wife, Cara, wanted to celebrate their first anniversary. Their newborn daughter was weeks old. Would Knopp come to their home in Freedom and make them a surf-and-turf dinner on a wood fire? They’d be comfortable there.
Sure, Knopp said. He arrived with bricks, chopped wood, cast iron cookware and fresh foods galore. All went more than very well.
“It was one of the best meals I’ve had in a long time,” said Hogue who posted photographs of the private dinner on the Freedom Talks community Facebook page. Good food news went viral around Freedom fast.
A burning desire to cook
Knopp’s meals aren’t the grub that cowboys ate around the campfire in the black-and-white TV Westerns. They are, however, rooted in the 1990s in the long weekends the Freedom native spent in Warren, Pa., where his maternal grandparents, Jim and Esther Miller, made hot dogs and s’mores over the wood fire. Their young grandson was intrigued and over the years became obsessed with creating “anything and everything” all over the campfire.
Anything and everything is many meals — petite filets bathed in butter garlic and rosemary, surf and turf, skirt steak fajitas with peppers, onions, garlic and homemade fresh chimichurri and Yum Yum sauce, Philly cheesesteaks and Reuben pepperoni pizza with a homemade crust, and a roasted pig with all the trimmings.
Then married, Donald Knopp Jr. of Georgia and Sharon Miller of Freedom raised Knopp and his younger sister, Jacklyn, in Freedom. The kids were blessed to spend their childhoods in the company of both their paternal and maternal grandparents, all of whom lived in the Freedom area. The foods his family made and how they prepared their meals are at the core of his cooking, Knopp said.
His paternal grandparents, the late Donald and Jean Knopp Sr., raised their two sons, Donald Jr. and Joseph, who’s deceased, in a small house on two acres in New Sewickley Township. Knopp was 8 years old in 1993 when Don Knopp Sr. died.
Jean Knopp, a widow at age 54, was a homesteader and quite the gardener, her grandson said. She planted several gardens each spring that garnered plenty of vegetables that she canned, green peppers that she stuffed, sauerkraut and jars of jelly from the strawberries and blueberries she picked. Knopp watched and helped her, he said, and learned. Lucky for him, Grandma Jean hand-wrote some of her recipes onto cards. Years later, he asked that she write down more. They did so together.
Laughter laces Knopp’s memories of Grandma Jean.
“Well, she smoked like a chimney,” he remembered. She kept her lighter and green-and-white packs of cigarettes in a little leather pouch with a flap. She was tiny and rough around the edges, and for sure, tough. Her native Indian ancestry graced her with dark hair and skin.
Knopp and his daughter, whom he co-parents in a shared custody arrangement, live in the Knopp home and take care of her apple trees. Jean Knopp died in June 2014. She was 74.
Knopp also takes special care of the cast iron skillet his grandfather, Jim Miller, gave him about five years ago when his interest in wood fire cooking became a fixation. The Millers, married on Christmas Day in 1951, live at the top of Eighth Avenue and 10th Street. He is 90. She is 88. They are saints, their grandson said.
“They are wholesome. Classic and always there for us,” Knopp said. If you’ve eaten, they’ll still insist that you have a sandwich. Coffee was also brewing in the kitchen. “I drink black coffee because of Pap,” he added.
During a visit five years ago, Knopp mentioned that he was looking for some cast iron skillets.
“We have some,” Jim Miller said. He got up and found the 10-inch round Griswold Manufacturing cast iron skillet that belonged to his mother, the late Alice Grimm Miller, and gave it to his grandson. Knopp said the skillet logo from the defunct Erie-based company indicates it was cast between 1890 and 1906.
Since then, Knopp has bought 20 cast iron pieces that he uses privately and in this new venture. His great-grandmother’s is reserved for special occasions. “She grew up in a farm in Unionville and raised pigs and she baked on Sundays and Wednesdays,” he said.
Cast iron cookware and utensils, just -butchered meats and fresh vegetables are the mix of Knopp’s recipes. He’ll tell you that he’s a very good cook, but he’s not a chef. And he has a hard time explaining to people how he creates the meals. Showing is easier than trying to tell someone how to cook over a wood fire, he said.
“What’s the secret?” friends and the folks who have invited him to cook ask.
Perhaps, it’s passion.
Passion, Knopp readily points out, fuels his life and career choices. It has taken the 2003 Freedom Area High School graduate to a theater performance degree in 2007 from Seton Hill University in Greensburg. After graduating, he moved to New York City and spent five years working in wardrobe departments in the TV and film industry, as well as doing gigs with a catering company and in restaurants.
By 2012, Knopp, Madi’s mom and their daughter returned home to Beaver County. Knopp landed a job as a conductor for the railroad. It paid well. The health benefits were good. But, the work limited the time he could spend with his daughter. And, it wasn’t, he said, a job he saw himself doing for decades.
After six years, Knopp ended his railroad stint and now works daylight hours as a cutter and fabric inspector for Pittsburgh Stage Co, a Haysville-based company that builds stage curtains for theaters, universities and various venues.
His daylight hours work well with Madi’s school schedule and the shared custody arrangement. Father and daughter spend evenings in New Sewickley and some weekends at the cabin in Warren.
“The old camp was in bad shape,” Knopp said. He’s made repairs, installed electricity and began expanding and wood-fire menu adventures.
Which he posted on his Facebook page, which friends noticed in the pre-pandemic times, which led to Matt Hogue’s request, which prompted Hogue’s mother-in-law, Lisa Gilarno, to ask Knopp to prepare filets and lobster tails for four people in her home.
On the morning of Oct. 15, Knopp went shopping for the fresh steaks, lobster tails, vegetables and needed ingredients, did the meal prep at his home, then went to Lisa and Harry Gilarnos home in New Sewickley Township ladened with food, wood, utensils and cast iron skillets.
Late in the afternoon on that dreary day, Knopp arrived, set up a meal preparation table, started a wood fire in their fire pit and made the meal.
All the while and with social distancing, the Gilarnos and another couple sipped cocktails and watched Knopp at work. Sprinkles of rain forced the four inside the house to eat. Had it not rained Knopp would have served the meal outside.
Lisa Gilarno described the meal and Knopp’s presentation as amazing and far beyond anything she expected. She said she is sure to book another All Over the Campfire meal soon.
Since September, Knopp’s done about a dozen meals at homes in Beaver and Butler counties and as far away as Tarentum, all of which are unique experiences. His goal for some time now, Knopp said, has been to open a food truck.
Then in September, this magic happened. Knopp said the process of making All Over the Campfire a limited liability company (LLC) has begun, and a local company, Twisted Iron Fabrication, is making what he calls a fire wagon — a mobile 2-by-3-foot campfire so he can bring a fire pit with him and not have to build his own.
The weather’s chilled. It will soon be colder. Calls, texts and messages continue. All Over the Campfire’s Facebook page is garnering more views. Knopp’s posting lots of new photos. He continues to work full time. The pandemic continues.
Knopp said he’s wondering what comes next. Can he stir passion into profit and rewarding work?
That’s something he’ll undoubtedly think about when he’s burning wood in a campfire somewhere out there.
All Over the Campfire basics fees.
• Josh Knopp begins by asking interested customers what they’d like him to serve, explains how and what he does. He talks about the process, about meat temperatures and safety, asks about food allergies and explains what spices and ingredients he uses. The time, date, venue and menu are discussed.
• Cost is $45 per person. Preparing and serving a meal for four people would be $180. A per group, not per person fee, is determined for larger groups.
• On the morning of the event, Knopp goes shopping for fresh meats, vegetables, fruits and items needed to serve the specified number of guests. He buys the items at the respective stores, provides the customer with food receipts and also charges a flat $50 shopping fee.
• Knopp brings all necessary cookware, wood, utensils, food and dinnerware and makes the meal outside in the family’s fire pit or builds his own. He cooks alone or will gladly explain what he’s doing to those who gather around the wood fire.
• Knopp will serve the meal to the guests or set up the meal for the host. Upon finishing, the work area is cleared and cleaned.
• Information is available by calling 724-601-2667 or on Facebook at the All Over the Campfire page.