Food and Drink Editor Cara-Louise Scott and Writer Emma Walker interview TikTok and Instagram star Poppy Cooks about life online, her upcoming cookbook and all things foodie
Content Warning: this article mentions sexual harassment, which may be disturbing for some readers.
We had the pleasure of interviewing Michelin-trained chef and TikTok star, Poppy Cooks on 24th August over Zoom. Poppy was extremely chatty and friendly and we thoroughly enjoyed being able to talk to her about her career, book and advice she had.
27 year-old Redditch-born Poppy O’Toole is a professional chef, who worked in a Michelin-starred restaurant until she lost her job due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Poppy then began using TikTok to teach people how to cook, and is affectionately known as the Potato Queen of TikTok. She now has over 1.5 million followers and her debut cookbook, Poppy Cooks: The Food You Need, will be published on 16th September.
So, our first question is, how did you get into cooking and where did this love for cooking come from?
My nanny Vicky was the matriarch of the family. She was always cooking for us, drinking a bottle of red wine at the same time. Everything was food-oriented; even when she was angry at you, she’d be cooking you a meal out of anger. She had a massive influence on me when I was younger as I would spend all my time with her. We would sit and watch cooking shows with recipe books surrounding us. She taught me how much love can be put into food.
Can you remember the first meal you ever cooked?
I was about six or seven and obsessed with Poussin – the little mini chickens. I was fascinated by these tiny chickens so made my Nan buy one for everyone in the family. We then bought the little Chantenay carrots and small miniature vegetables because I wanted to cook a mini roast dinner for everyone with my Nan. I remember thinking they were a success, but whether any of the others would agree I’m not sure.
When you lost your job last year, why did you decide to turn to TikTok?
I had always loved Instagram and perhaps could have been better at it had I not always felt so embarrassed. I was always worried about what my old colleagues and school friends would say and think. Whereas TikTok was this new thing where I could be anonymous – I didn’t have anyone on there who could take the p*ss out of me. I love scrolling, and like to think that maybe I can help someone learn something while they are sat scrolling too. Making TikToks helped fulfil my need to work. After losing my job it was nice to think that at least somebody, somewhere, might be enjoying the content I was making.
What is it really like being a TikTok star behind the camera?
I want to make it sound more glamorous than it is. But it isn’t, I am just at home cooking. What you see on TikTok is who I really am, how I really cook, so it’s nothing different for me. However, I do still get a bit nervous whenever I do a video.
What advice do you have for people who are nervous to put their own food content out there?
You may be like me, and want to take a few years to acquire some knowledge and experience before creating your own food and social media content. However, you may be feeling confident enough to start making stuff straight away. Either way, if it is something you want to do, you should always pursue it, whichever way you choose to do that. The best thing I’ve learnt it is to actually not care. Don’t care whether you have old friends or colleagues or someone who might bring it up at a family party. Who cares? At least you’re enjoying yourself and doing something you like.
Do you have any advice for dealing with negativity on social media?
Try and remember that the people who post negative things aren’t achieving anything, so don’t give them the satisfaction of letting them affect your work. As much as it is human nature to dwell on the negative comments, you have to realise that there are still people who will say that you have positively affected them, and that’s what you need to listen to. Keep pushing because it does get better.
You’ve got a book coming out very soon, can you tell us a bit about what we can expect from it?
As well as being a recipe book, it’s a learning tool and I like to think both a student and a chef could pick up this book and take something from it. It will teach you those core skills which you can then take away and experiment with. It is just about helping you expand your knowledge of food and what you can actually do with it. It’s been really good to write it and I think it has got something in there for everyone.
What are your main sources of inspiration for your recipes?
They are all things that I love to eat, recipes which I cook on the regular. I wanted to reflect what was happening on TikTok and my Instagram, where I was seeing that people just want delicious food without any frills or fuss. There is nothing in there that’s too much of a hassle, you don’t have to go to specialist shops to get things, in fact you don’t have to go any further than the corner shop for most of the bits. That’s what I mean about making it as inclusive to as many people as possible.
Which recipe out of the whole of your cookbook do you think you’d recommend the most?
All of them! It’s difficult as I do genuinely like them all. One of my favourites is the ‘Bombay Potato Pasty’ which you make your own pastry for it – another skill to take away. You fill it with this beautiful potato filling which is delicious. But I also love a really simple one, which is ‘Garlic Mushrooms on Toast’. Sometimes those are the best recipes I think, when they just are what they say on the tin. That one is one of my breakfast favourites.
When did you decide that you’d like to write a book?
I always wanted to write a book. Even when I was younger, I’d be with my nan pretending to be on a TV show or writing books so that’s always been part of it. But when I got to school, I became distracted by all sorts of other things. I still loved cooking throughout but it just wasn’t something I thought was going to happen. So, when Bloomsbury got in contact and asked me if I would be interested in writing a book the answer was yes because it was something I had always wanted to do.
I wanted to make the book really simple. I wanted anyone to be able to open it and go ‘I can make that’. It goes through 12 different chapters. Every chapter has a core recipe, which is the skill. For example, how to make a a tomato sauce, a white sauce or a custard. Then from the core recipe it moves on to a staple dish. For example, the tomato sauce will lead to the spaghetti and meatballs recipe. It’s just simple and delicious recipes which you will recognise but can now make even better. From there it will progress to various other recipes, including some fancy ones, all of which will use that core skill you will have just learnt.
Fast Food by Gordon Ramsay. It is a really good recipe book for students as well since it’s fast food, but it’s delicious and simple.
What are your hopes and dreams for your cooking career over the next five to ten years?
I didn’t know this year was going to happen, so I’m just rolling with it at the moment. I really enjoyed the whole process of writing a book, so I would love to write another. I’m also trying to do YouTube videos alongside Instagram and TikTok, so there are a few fingers in a few different pies. The goal is to get those pies going in the next few years, and if anything comes up in between that, then I’d be very open to it.
Do you think you would ever work in professional kitchens again?
Although I miss it slightly and it was fun, I think I’ve learnt how much I enjoy teaching other people instead. I’d love to do my own little thing like a pop-up or work a couple of days with people in kitchens. However, I don’t think I’d go back full-time to professional kitchens. I’m having too much fun!
You’ve mentioned already a couple of times about potatoes in the interview, but if you had to pick one potato dish to eat for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?
That’s really hard! I am a massive fan of potato skins, because you can fill them with multiple different things. But I don’t think you can beat a fondant potato, which is just potato cooked in butter. There’s something about that which is sickeningly delicious. So, that’s what I’m going with – fondant potato.
What five ingredients should every student always have in their cupboards?
Pasta, straight up, pasta for everything. That’s my lifesaver when I just can’t be bothered to do anything else. Lemons, or vinegar – you need an acid at all times. That elevates dishes, makes them different and adds another layer of flavour. Really basic, but you’ve got to have salt. Get a nice salt, I’ve got about five different ones, so definitely invest in a good salt.
Potatoes are a must – cheap, easy, reliable, filling, and versatile as anything. Did you know that you can live off just potatoes? You should always have butter too, I think. Finally, tinned tomatoes – they save the day every time. Put them with the potatoes and the pasta, add a bit of lemon juice in there, and you’ll be laughing. That’s my five!
Do you have any general tips for students who are trying to cook on a budget?
You want to cook healthy food and still want it to be fresh and tasty, so the best thing to do is to look for seasonal vegetables. These are cheaper in season. Instead of getting things like tender stem broccoli, which is around all year and gets expensive, try to look for things like British cauliflower when it comes in season. That’s a good way to get fresh vegetables into your life. If you can’t, frozen veg is just as good. I have lots of frozen peas – they’re fantastic and so easy and quick to make.
I’d also invest in a good set of knives. They don’t have to be anything too expensive, but they will change your life. It makes everything so much quicker and easier to do. Don’t let anybody else use them! Put some tape around them saying ‘Do not touch, do not put in the dishwasher, how dare you’. Everyone will want them so badly. It’s really useful, as is keeping some good spices which are cheap to buy. Instead of in the little glass jars from supermarkets, a lot of good corner shops or Asian supermarkets sell bigger packets for even cheaper.
Then you can make a variety of different things – you can make curries, you can make soups, you can make pastas with a bit of flavour, there’s loads of things you can do with spices. They’re my best tips, and kind of what I follow. I like to use seasonal vegetables, a good spice cupboard and good knives – it makes your life a lot easier!
You’ve mentioned you were born in the Birmingham area; do you have any favourite restaurants you would recommend to our readers?
In the centre of Birmingham, near the Jewellery Quarter (which is where I used to live) there is a place called The Indian Brewery. If you love Indian food you’ve got to go there; they do these fat naans. It opened about a year before I left, and I was so sad to leave there. That’s one of the best ones to go to, I really love it there.
There’s a guy I used to work with called Craig and he’s got a place in The Custard Factory in Digbeth, called 670 Grams. It’s a bit more expensive but if you feel like having a fine-dining experience, it’s lovely there. It’s also one of the best fine-dining places I’ve ever been to. Original Patty Men as well, they are delicious, the best burgers in Birmingham.
Cheffing is quite a male-dominated industry, do you think things are progressing in terms of gender representation and sexism within the industry?
Slowly but surely, they are. That’s why if you look on my Instagram, I shout about it since I now have a platform to try and bring that to light. I have experienced sexual harassment, I have experienced gross things, and I’m not going to shy away from it in any way, shape, or form. It’s part of my journey in the hospitality industry. It’s a horrible place for men and women, sometimes it’s very toxic. I can only speak from what has happened to me – I’ve had to leave jobs because of sexual harassment, as well as leave jobs because I’m getting paid less than minimum wage.
Change is going to happen, and I’m going to be there still trying to shout to make change happen. I absolutely love the hospitality industry, and it’s on its knees, and we need chefs desperately. But the amount of things you hear, why would you want to do that? It’s a bit hypocritical of me to say: “Go and be a chef, it’s fantastic!” and know the things I know. I’m trying to make a difference, and I hope that more people will realise change needs to happen. Only then will it be a lovely environment for men and women to be in.
As a final question, we’d like to know, what is one thing you wish that you’d learnt earlier about cooking?
I wish that I’d learnt to not be afraid of making mistakes – it was something that really hindered me and pulled me back a lot. When I was in kitchens, I was so scared of making mistakes that I wouldn’t do anything. I’d say “Ah! I don’t know what to do”. The only way that a lot of people learn is through making those mistakes and realising it’s not the worst thing in the world. You need to make those mistakes to learn from them.
It’s quite nerve-wracking because there is so much pressure to make sure everything is right. In reality, you’re only cooking food. It’s not the worst thing in the world, you’re not a brain surgeon, you’re going to be okay.
Poppy Cooks: The Food You Need, will be published on 16th September via Bloomsbury.
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