February 2021

How a hash brown TikTok led to recipe book deal for apprentice Poppy  

By Melanie Hall

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Who would have thought a TikTok on how to make the perfect hash brown would lead to 1.3 million social media followers – AND a recipe book deal. 

But that is exactly what has happened to former University College Birmingham chef apprentice Poppy O’Toole, whose first book Poppy Cooks: The Food You Need goes on sale in Waterstones, Foyles and WHSmith and on Amazon in September.  

The cookbook, now available to pre-order, takes core skills such as making a pasta sauce, roasting a chicken and making homemade batter and using them as a base for 12 “delicious, adaptable, more complex and fancy - but still very do-able – recipes”, including a showstopping chicken parmigiana.

"She has shown that perseverance is the key to achieving your life goals and, with the industry in temporary lockdown, that you can still have great success in challenging times"

Stuart Wildsmith Apprenticeship co-ordinator

“This is literally a 'pinch-me' moment," said the 27-year-old, who literally screamed when Bloomsbury Publishing got in contact. “I never imagined this would ever happen in a million years. 

“The ideas in the book stem from the fact I like comfort food, but, being classically trained, like it done with a bit more technique. And while you don't see people doing it very often these days, slow roasting and braising are great styles of cooking.”  

Poppy joined University College Birmingham for the Level 3 part of her Professional Cookery apprenticeship in 2014, undertaking her ‘on-the-job training’ with ‘Yummy Brummie’ Glynn Purnell at his Michelin-starred Purnell’s restaurant in the heart of Birmingham.

Receiving her diploma in 2016, she went on to work in top fine dining restaurants, as well as take part in competitions across Europe, all of which came to a sudden halt with the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown last March. 

Being out of work, however, ended up as a blessing in disguise, taking her down a very different, but equally rewarding, path to the one she had imagined. 

Living back at home with her family, Poppy was introduced to social media platform TikTok by her little brother and sister and after uploading a 60-second video of how to make a perfect hash brown, she found herself a social media sensation.     

“Whether it was boredom from the unusual amount of free time, or that I'd secretly dreamt of one day teaching others to cook on screen, I decided to give it a go,” she said. “Particularly since the short, snappy nature of TikTok meant it looked like it would be relatively easy to create my own. 

I started out with a few easy recipes, churros, fries and a tomato sauce. A few people would ‘like’ and comment, which was initially a surprise as I hadn't been sure anyone would be interested. I was really proud of an early comment from an NHS worker who said they had enjoyed my tomato sauce and that it had helped make a simple dinner for their family after a long shift."

After her simple recreation of the fast-food breakfast classic, everything went haywire for Poppy, her success even being picked up by national and international press. Being recognised as a woman in the world of food was particularly important to her.

“Despite having trained in Michelin-starred kitchens, taking part in cooking competitions across Europe and working hard to hone my craft, it was a hash brown recipe that ultimately led to the most attention I’d had in my career,” she said.

“My goals for the future are to be able to sustain my cooking on TikTok as a full-time job. But I haven't permanently said goodbye to the buzz of a restaurant service, I would love to get back in the kitchen and one day even hold my own pop-up restaurant nights.” 

Stuart Wildsmith, apprenticeship co-ordinator at University College Birmingham, said: "Poppy was always such a bright, happy and lively student and had an excellent apprenticeship through Purnell's and University College Birmingham.

"She has shown that perseverance is the key to achieving your life goals and, with the industry in temporary lockdown, that you can still have great success in challenging times. She is an inspiration to all of us."

Find Poppy @poppycooks on TikTok and @poppy_cooks on Instagram

University College Birmingham is widely renowned for providing outstanding training in hospitality and the culinary arts, offering a wide range of college, undergraduate and postgraduate level courses as well as apprenticeships, all supported by world-class facilities on campus.

Discover our full range of courses at our Birmingham College of Food here.

Photo credit: Jessica Raphael

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