'There shouldn't be any shame in making a career in something you love, just in a different way'

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor

If this time last year someone had told Poppy O'Toole that she'd be collapsing under the weight of food containers from developing her own cookbook, she may have been incredulous. 

But little did she know, someone at Bloomsbury Publishing had spotted an opportunity in Poppy's one and a half million social media following across her 'Poppy Cooks' TikTok and Instagram pages. The people she has spent a year teaching cooking fundamentals to might want to learn things the old fashioned way, too.

"It's less about me being a chef, and more about teaching my audience some of the basic stuff," she explained. 

The 10 chapters include a section on tomato sauce, with recipes to use that base with, from meatballs and pasta to potatoes. Other chapters follow the same principle using white sauce, flatbread, emulsions, roast dinners, meringues, custard and pastry.

"I didn't want to make a book of starters, main courses and desserts. As a chef, I pour myself over those books and really enjoy them, but if someone's going into this not knowing how to make basics, I wanted to make it as simple as possible so that they can learn something from it and use it again at another point." 

Leveraging her social media presence has proved incredibly helpful for her, as it has meant that she gets the to-and-fro it can take chefs and cookbook authors years to get. 

"Being able to see instantly whether something is going to work is really good, because people will tell you if they don't like something and they'll really f***ing tell you." 


Poppy grew up in Bromsgrove, between Birmingham and Worcester. She studied food and catering and everything to do with food. She scraped her GCSEs and failed her A-levels, because her mind was already somewhere else.

From pubs to a nursing home and narrow boats, she gave it her all - "basically anything but go to school," she laughed. 

Then, aged 17, she heard about an apprenticeship at Purnell's which peaked her interest. 

"It was like a MasterChef thing, there were 20 of us whittled down and only two were going to get picked for this apprenticeship. Then Glynn pointed at me and said he'd take me on as a wild card."  

After three years, she had risen to demi chef de partie on pastry and finished her NVQ Level 3, and was offered the same position at The Wilderness. She pleaded with chef owner Alex Claridge to work on the different sections and train on different posts. 

Next, she took on a position cooking food for J.P. Morgan, and within six months she had achieved her goal of becoming a junior sous-chef there. The following year, in March 2019, she spotted a junior sous position at Allbright - an all-women's club in central London, where Sabrina Gidda is the executive chef - and managed to secure it.

Then, March 2020 came. 

From furlough to fame

 After the initial shock of being let go came a feeling of excitement.

"I wanted a bit of a break, because after going back into f***ing 70 hours a week and working on Sundays [at Allbright], I was like, 'what have I done to myself?'"

Soon, she came up with a plan, as many a restless chef before her, she said, "I just didn't want to sit and watch my boyfriend work with my hands down my pants watching Netflix while he worked." 

By the time the club cut off furlough payments and permanently let Poppy go at the end of June, the chef had already accrued a sizeable audience on TikTok.

How did she manage to turn some income as a chef online? Poppy explained that boyfriend, who works in social media, gave her the confidence boost she needed to get on there and showcase her skills. 

"It was a joint effort to get to this point, a lot of learning how to produce videos - I'm terrible with computers as well. At first I would do one video and it would take me two days to edit it... And then the voiceovers, I can't. I've had to start scripting myself," she laughed. 

No mean feat, 10,000 TikTok subscribers later, the company offered to run a  'Learn on TikTok' campaign, whereby she received £1,000 to produce 12 videos in a 'how-to' style. The added visibility this gave her propelled her further into the public space, and her following grew exponentially. 

"That's when a couple of brands started getting interested," she said.

"Then we rolled forward a few more months and the book has come into it, so now I get more brand deals."

Maintaining an expression of incredulity, she added: "I'm making more money than I've ever made before." 

But of course, after realising that another route to the conventional one is possible, it seems there is no going back. 

"It's changed my view of how I want to live the rest of my life," she said.

"I thought, 'just because I'm a chef, why can't I be a chef online? Why do I have to spend my life slaving and give up my whole life to it?'"

Why do so many chefs have a problem with Poppy's success?

At the same time she was shooting upwards to success, things started getting sticky between Poppy and the chef community.

"There shouldn't be any shame in making a career in something you love, just in a different way," she said. 

"A lot of chefs don't like that at all. But I'm like, 'okay, cool. You carry on working for someone else your whole life and eventually get a restaurant that's going to stress you out so much. That's great for you, but I'm just trying to go down a different avenue."

Asked how she copes with the hostile online world, she admits that it does sometimes affect her.

"I'd like to learn to deal with it. I've always been a very good girl, I like compliments. I can deal with pressure in the kitchen, but when someone criticises me I take it, say 'yes chef' and boil up inside."

The incidents pile up. After she appeared on Sky News, someone called her 'work shy' on Twitter, and said it was unfair of her to make people spend money on her, which she sees as completely out of order.

"I've worked my ass off for ten years to learn my skill and now because I'm able to use that for something good for myself, I'm now work shy? Surely everybody is working to make money. I'm just doing that, but people are seeing it now, rather than be behind kitchen doors."

The fact that most of the grief comes from chefs poses questions about motive, and whether it comes from a place of envy.

"I think it is jealousy in some respect," she said, "the fact that I've come from nowhere, I'm not a celebrity chef but I have notoriety because I have x amount of followers. It gives people reason to say these things." 

"It is upsetting that people in the industry aren't supporting me," she said, and posited that it might just be due to her cooking home-style food rather than going down the fine dining route.

"I could whack out something that's a bit more Michelin but people aren't going to eat that at home. I'm just doing things that help people learn a bit. I don't know if they don't get that, or if they think I'm s**t and they could do so much better."

But, she as she has stressed time and time again, "I'm not reinventing the wheel, I'm just trying to make food look a bit better, taste a little bit nicer, add in a bit of lemon, trying to get people to understand how to elevate things." 

By emphasising words like 'simple' 'at home' 'home cooking' in her video titles, she said, "I'm just pushing for people to go, 'I get it' and just leave me alone." 

On falling out with Gareth Ward

One such incident occurred on The Staff Canteen after Poppy was shortlisted alongside Gareth Ward for a social media influencer award

In a podcast interview with Michael O'Hare and TSC editor Cara Houchen, Gareth expressed befuddlement at how a chef can be so successful (and beat him in a competition) without taking the conventional route, with - as we perceived it - a touch of self-depreciation for the gaps in his understanding of social media, in the context of a conversation on the importance of having a strong presence in order to stay relevant as a chef.

His exact words were: "I was up for social media influencer and I was one of the four, five top runners up. And this bird, who I've never even heard of, she'd been around for about five minutes and had around three million f***ing followers."

"I'm there thinking, 'it's nice to be seen,' 'I could win this, I have a decent amount of followers on Instagram, people know who I am', and this f***ing Toole comes along, from f***ing nowhere with ten billion followers - and she's done that in a week or something." 

"I don't even know what she did, what'd'she do?"

Poppy took the remarks to heart, and her social media posts discussing what had been said sparked extreme reactions; either defending or attacking her. 

She explained that specifically the use of words ("bird" and "tool") addressed at a person one doesn't know set a derogatory tone.

"There's differences in how you say things, and calling someone you've known for months 'bird' probably isn't that bad because they know they're on the same level." 

The underlying issue, she explained, is one of misogyny in kitchens, something that women still have to deal with despite some progress in the public sphere. 

"My goal isn't to try and take down the patriarchy or take down all these chefs in the industry who I look up to and are incredible, I'm just trying to make people think a little bit harder before we instantly go to gender or colloquialisms that we're used to using."

"Even though this is on a lesser scale of the spectrum," she added, "we have got to be in a place where a woman can stand up to a behaviour that isn't right - belittlement in the kitchen, jokes about her appearance, references to her body clock or the constant questioning of her credentials as a chef - and ultimately this leads to a position where currently sexual harrassment is just accepted in the workplace." 

"That's why this, 'it's just a joke, take a joke, no-one can take a joke anymore,' this isn't owning up to the wider part of the issue. That's not an excuse anymore." 

It's not all bad to live online 

Not to get her wrong, as overwhelmingly her experience online is positive, she said, "I get a lot of lovely comments as well," like young people asking about how to get into kitchen roles.

"There are some amazing incredible things, and they completely outweigh the negatives by a long shot." 

And for now, online is where she intends to stay - but for some workshops and stages.

More cookbooks could follow, as could some pop-ups ("Mainly potatoes, probably,") "but I'm enjoying having a life too much to go back," she said. 

"It would be great to have that professional setting again." 

What is the be all and end all for a chef like Poppy? 

"There's a part of me that still wants to have my own restaurant," she said. "It's engrained in you as a chef, you're working to have your own restaurant and I think that is something that I'd want to look at a few years' down the line." 

"If I want to make any changes in the industry - working hours, getting women in the kitchen, that's the opportunity I have there. If I have something myself where I can train people, get apprentices in, good working hours, that would be incredible." 

"It's just when and how that happens and if I've got the guts to go for it." 

"I'll get bored of doing social at some point." 

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Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 8th April 2021

'There shouldn't be any shame in making a career in something you love, just in a different way'