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Q&A with Poppy O'Toole, author of Poppy Cooks

Posted by Lucy H on 27th Jul 2021

Q&A with Poppy O'Toole, author of Poppy Cooks

Poppy O'Toole is a professional chef; her book Poppy Cooks is out later this year. We asked her a few questions about cooking, coping with lockdowns and (of course) potatoes. 

Your Instagram has a huge following, and is a delight to watch. Do you think it is something you’d have done if not for lockdown and the subsequent changes to your professional situation?

It definitely turned out that losing my job in March 2020 was one of the best things that could’ve happened to me. At the time, I felt completely useless. All restaurants were shut, the country had gone into a lockdown and I’d gone from 70 hours a week working my life away to having A LOT OF SPARE TIME.

I turned to making cooking videos online, at first, to kill the time and keep myself busy. It was when I started seeing people comment, enjoy the videos and try the recipes, I thought… I actually love this! I started to love being able to talk to people, teach them and get to know how they cook in the kitchen and how I can help. So I kept going… and here we are now where it’s pretty much my job to teach people online!

I also genuinely didn’t have the time to make food content while working as a chef. Shifts are long, and your days off are made up of pretty much sleeping and eating takeaways because you’re a bit sick of cooking 24/7. Lockdown gave me the time to fall back in love with cooking at home, honing my style and getting to know the kind of chef I want to be!

What made you decide to write this book? Did it feel like a natural extension of your online work?

Good question. I think for a lot of chefs, one day having their own cookbook is always a dream. For me, I grew up reading endless cookbooks with my Gran. We’d get piles of them out in front of the TV, read through and decide what we wanted to make, with someone like the legendary Keith Floyd on the TV. Cookbooks for me are memories, love and food. And to be able to put this together myself has genuinely been a dream come true.

I wanted the book to stay true to what I’ve learned through cooking online. So many people have reached out to say that they can find cooking, fine dining, or even the basics, intimidating to start to learn… and I want to break down those barriers. Food to me is love and I want people to get cooking, not be afraid to make mistakes, and through that, find out the kind of creators they are in the kitchen too!

Was it as much fun writing the book and taking the photos as doing your Instagram posts seems to be?

I’ve got to admit… I was scared to start writing the book. I’ve never been the most academic at school and struggled with coursework and stuff. I was always made to feel a bit stupid at school just because I didn’t really learn through textbooks or presentations. That’s why I loved learning through an apprenticeship – that’s where I really felt like… I’m not stupid! I’m a practical learner and have thrived learning on the job. So having to sit on the laptop and get my recipes, stories, etc into writing was a bit daunting.

But then I think I realised where I went wrong at school. I wasn’t passionate about anything. But I am passionate about food. It was actually really refreshing to get writing about something I love and be able to potentially share it with people when it’s published!

On the photograph, I actually did all the food styling on my own (a lot of recipe books get in a food stylist to make it all extra pretty) because I wanted to make sure the food was real, how I cook it at home and easy enough to replicate. I’m really happy with how the food looks, and I genuinely can’t want to make all the recipes again and use my own book. It’s definitely getting pride of place on my cookbook shelf!

What’s your go-to dinner after a hard day?

It’s got to be a quick pasta dish that you can just throw together. Cheeky plug but… I’ve got a quick tomato sauce recipe in my book because I’m pretty passionate about trying to make things at home when it can be just as quick and easy… and I often throw it together with some spaghetti (and any meats or veggie I have in the fridge) for an easy fresh dinner.

Thanks to cookery TV shows and online content, we’re all getting a bit more adventurous when we cook at home. What’s the most complex or difficult thing you’ve ever had to cook?

Working in fine dining and coming from a Michelin-starred background, I’ve had to get to grips with all things liquid Nitrogen (that cool freezing smoke that you get in some fancy restaurants of cocktails), making weird gels and foams, and even a bit of spherification (making flavoured tiny bombs using all sorts of science-y bits and bobs). I love that side of cooking and it’s so interesting, but I’m a home cook at heart and realise people aren’t going to whip out a foam on their dinner at home. My cooking style is very much taking a lot of the things you learn in fine dining but make it relatable to what you need at home – so there are a lot of useful chef tips and tricks in the book to help you through each recipe!

Getting young people interested in cooking for themselves is vital. What advice would you give to a complete newcomer to cooking?

Get this book! Haha! No but seriously, start with the basics. That is how I’ve tried to set out the book. Each chapter is a core recipe – a skill that you build on. For example, the first chapter is a tomato sauce, and that follows on to a staple dinner option, a morning brunch, a fancy AF dish that you can use to impress your friends and… of course… a potato option using it!

I want people to learn key skills and learn to adapt them in their own kitchens, with plenty of amazing food along the way.

Potatoes! You seem to love a potato recipe – what’s your favourite?

I LOVE A POTATO! People online love my potato dishes and I think it’s because carbs get such a bad rep? Who cares if it’s not a salad – eat it, feel good, enjoy it! My favourite would have to be the classic roast potato. One of my favourite sections in the book is the ROAST DINNER chapter that has a load of different options of meats, veggies and potatoes, and there is an amazing roast spud recipe in there. Can you beat a roast potato?!

What have people discovered from watching your posts, and what do you hope they discover from the book?

I hope they’ve learned to not be scared to try things in the kitchen. I keep a lot of my mistakes or mishaps in my videos because it happens to the best of us! It’s all about learning from these mistakes, working around them, maybe even sometimes covering them up, and still having an amazing dish at the end!

Do you have a favourite type of food or national cuisine? And if so, where will you be heading for a gastronomy tour once we can travel again?

I love Spanish food. I could eat Paella each and every day. I spent a lot of my summers growing up in Spain and I cannot wait to go back there as soon as we can… a paella tour sounds incredible?!

I didn’t really realise until people started telling me online, but my cooking style is actually very French. I like classic dishes, I love butter, I love frying. So maybe I need to pop over to Paris for a bit too?

Who do you think is your typical reader, if such a person exists? Who would you love to read your book?

What I love from speaking to people online is that so many of my followers are different age groups. There’s a lot of young people learning to cook, as well as older people falling in love with cooking again. Lockdown got all of us back in the kitchen, so it’s great to be able to teach so many different people to cook!

Do you have a favourite genre or author? What books or authors would you say were significant influences on you?

Outside of cooking, I love an easy reader. Mostly fiction, normally stories written of the point of view of a relatable person just living the life. I love humour and I love when you can get the character’s personality through their writing. I used to do all my reading on the commute into work… is it bad that I kinda miss the 40 minutes on a grotty tube to unwind and turn off with a good book?

Virtual socialising in lockdown has been invaluable. Now that we’re allowed to meet up in person again, who would be coming to your fantasy dinner party, and why?

Such a good question! I’ve already mentioned the icon Keith Floyd and I’d loved to have met him. So he’s definitely on the list. Maybe Nigella too? We can all just chat good food and eat. And I’m a bit of a Jamiroquai fangirl so wouldn’t mind Jay Kay making an appearance. And Mark Ronson. And Dua Lipa. What a party.

The COVID-19 situation has affected us all in different ways. How have you been managing in the lockdowns?

For me, it’s just been keeping busy. I was so used to being busy day and night, so I’ve just tried to at least do something every day that I can look back on and think I’ve achieved it. Even if it’s 12 episodes of Ramsay’s Nightmare in a row. That’s commitment, right?

What would your perfect day look like?

I love my dogs. I have two pugs called Kipper and Krypto (who both make a modelling cameo in the book!). I think my perfect day would be a long walk, sitting in field in the sun, a good picnic spread, friends, a bevvy or two. You can underestimate the power of a well-put-together picnic spread. Maybe that could be book two? Poppy Cooks: Picnics?!

What are you reading at the moment?

I was lucky enough to work with one of my icons, and one of the best chefs in the world, Dominique Crenn. We did a cookalong and it was literally a pinch-me moment! She sent a copy of her autobiography “Rebel Chef” and it’s such an inspiring read on how to absolutely smash it as a chef in the world!

What was your favourite book as a child?

I loved Matilda. She was an absolute icon proving all those nay-sayers wrong with a magic spell or two. So I read that a lot, and watched the film one too many times. The pancake scene still plays through my head each and every time I make a pancake!

Thank you very much for speaking to us, we wish you every success with the book.

Poppy Cooks: The Food You Need, by Poppy O’Toole, is out on 16 September (Bloomsbury, £16.99)  

Pre-Order your copy HERE