September 23, 2023

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The View On Cooking

The new food stars of TikTok | Food

When Poppy O’Toole was made redundant from her job as junior sous chef at the AllBright private members club in Mayfair during the first wave of the pandemic, she expected to return to work soon enough. “I thought, I’ve got three weeks to cook some nice food at home,” 27-year-old O’Toole remembers, “and be back in work in a few weeks.”

With lockdown opening up in front of her, O’Toole decided to upload the recipes she was cooking for herself on to the video-sharing app TikTok. “I’d always wanted to do the social media thing,” she says, “but I never had time, because I worked 70-hour weeks.” On 1 April 2020, O’Toole uploaded her first TikTok video under the handle @poppycooks. “Hi everyone … I’m going to start cooking at home doing TikToks,” said O’Toole. She captioned the video “hope this TikTok doesn’t flop like my career”.

A year later, O’Toole has 1.5 million followers on the app, management, and a book deal with Bloomsbury (The Food You Need is due to be published in September). It’s a remarkable rise, testament in no small part to her natural affability on camera, kitchen skills, and nose for the kind of food trends that will spread online. “I can’t believe how much it’s opened doors,” she says.

O’Toole is one of the ascendant stars of food TikTok along with American vegan chef Tabitha Brown, 17-year-old Starbucks barista Maya Smith, whose video for Skittles Frappuccinos has nearly 6m likes (diabetics, watch at your peril), and angry New Jersey muscle-head Gianluca Conte (@itsqcp), whose catchphrase is “pasta, ya asshole!”. (Food TikTok blurs the boundaries between trained chefs like O’Toole, and novelty creators like Conte – all are equal under its algorithm.) TikTok’s reach is not lost on some established chefs: Gordon Ramsay is improbably huge on the app, with more than 23m followers who watch as he reviews meals prepared and uploaded by his fans. (The #ramsayreacts hashtag has more than 6bn views.)

Tiktok, like many social media platforms, benefited from the pandemic. Creators routinely acquire millions of followers in months. As analyst Rebecca McGrath of Mintel says: “Food is visually stimulating, and something everyone can recreate at home.”

Time was that emerging talent had to be spotted by industry gatekeepers before being garlanded with book deals, TV shows and endorsements. Inevitably, this favoured the well connected, or the few able to undertake a punishing, low-paid tutelage in elite kitchens. Now anyone with a passion for food can launch their career with little more than a smartphone and a ring light. Many now-established food personalities started out on social media, whether they were bloggers such as Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen, or on YouTube and Instagram like Henry Firth and Ian Theasby’s Bosh! TV, which helped bring veganism to the masses. TikTok is where aspiring chefs and cookbook authors speak directly to an audience of content-hungry fans in very short bursts.

“I’ve found it really addictive,” says Nigel Thompson of the account @teawithmrt, which has more than 24,000 followers. “One thing that drives me is the number of followers and likes and views. I’m always trying to beat the last number of views on my videos.”

Nigel Thompson
Nigel Thompson Photograph: @teawithmrt/TikTok

Thompson, from County Durham, is not your typical influencer: he’s 57 and a retired supervisor for Nissan. His videos, which are intentionally camp, have the calming quality of a holiday advert – I want to pull up a chair in Thompson’s spaciously appointed kitchen, drink a glass of wine, and watch him sauté some shallots. This is the key to his popularity, and that of many others on TikTok – the recipes aren’t necessarily meant to be followed, merely watched and enjoyed. “There are some people desperate for the recipe,” he says, “but others who just want to watch and have a laugh with what I do.”

It’s not hard to see why publishers and agents view TikTok as a pipeline of future talent. According to Mintel, 55% of six-to-24-year-olds and 24% of those aged 23-38 used TikTok in the last three months, and 34% of TikTok users who follow social media influencers bought food or drink after seeing it promoted on the platform. “If we look back at the previous eras of influencers,” says McGrath, “people like Joe Wicks [who started out uploading fitness-focused recipes as well as workouts on YouTube] have had a huge impact on publishing. We can expect an equivalent player from a TikTok influencer.”

“I don’t want to be the next Jamie Oliver,” says Bartek Michalski (@letsmunch) a 24-year-old former bartender from London. “I want to be myself.” Michalski planned to spend 2020 backpacking through South America, but his flights were cancelled due to Covid. During lockdown, his mother asked him to make her a cheesecake. “My little sister said: ‘You should film it and put it on TikTok,’” Michalski remembers. He was so embarrassed about being seen on the teen-focused app that he recorded the voiceover for his first video secretly, in his bedroom. “I’m whispering,” he says, “so my family won’t hear me.”

A year on, Michalski’s zany, snappily edited videos of hearty but easy-to-cook meals have won him more than 520,000 followers. “A lot of it was good timing,” he says. “I started it as lockdown happened, when there was nothing else to do.” His videos have an absurdist voiceover which combines the surrealism inherent to TikTok – for want of a better word, the platform is weird – with the dialect and slang of a twentysomething Londoner. “I do a lot of jokes and skits,” Michalski says. “Lots of people don’t get it, but a lot of others appreciate that I’m from London. Because you can’t relate to the cooks online. The younger generation doesn’t talk like that. People can relate to me more.”

Michalski has partnerships with Hellman’s and McCain, not to mention approaches from TV executives. YObviously, food companies are interested – sales of Little Moons mochi increased 700% at Tesco after the brand suddenly became popular on TikTok, while a baked feta pasta dish caused sales of the Greek cheese to increase by up to 200% in one US supermarket chain. “I never thought I’d be able to make money from this,” says Michalski, sounding baffled. “The videos are paying rent, let’s just say.”

Most of the bigger TikTok foodies, including O’Toole and Michalski, already have professional management, while the marketing agency Gleam Futures, which represents social media royalty Zoë Sugg and Tanya Burr, recently signed their first TikTok food creator, Carleigh Bodrug (@plantyou). “The key to long-term success lies in their ability to diversify what they do on TikTok on to other platforms,” says Amy Bryant-Jeffries of Gleam Futures, “and grow a loyal audience which spans all, and even has the potential to be transferred to more traditional forms of media.” In other words: savvy TikTok creators will expand to Instagram and YouTube on the basis that the more followers you have, the more people are out there to buy your cookbooks.

The most successful creators don’t overdo it. If you want to learn how to make beef wellington or a croquembouche tower, a 60-second video may not be that helpful. But if you want to learn how to make an omelette, say, or a kebab skewer, then TikTok is the place to be. O’Toole will pare back her recipes to their simplest. “I definitely take the difficult elements out,” she says. “At the end of the day, you’re still getting the same gorgeous product. That’s why people follow me – I’m bridging the gap between fine dining and cooking at home.”

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It helps if your creations are visually appealing, and what could be more attractive than a bouffant mountain of buttercream? “I like my cakes to be classy, but fun at the same time,” says Jessica Clemmings (@jessicabakes_x), a 28-year-old self-taught baker from Bristol. Clemmings has more than 280,000 followers, who watch her instructional videos on how to make a crumb coating and ice cupcakes. Like Michalski, Clemmings was introduced to TikTok by a younger relative – her 11-year-old niece – and started posting videos to alleviate boredom during lockdown. She too says simplicity is crucial. “People want to see things that are achievable,” she tells me, “and specific techniques. Simple tutorials do well.”

Bartek Michalski with his Korean barbecue corn dog.
Bartek Michalski with his Korean barbecue corn dog. Photograph: TikTok

To become a breakout star on food TikTok, you need to create or get on board with a viral food trend. O’Toole is largely responsible for the creation of “potato TikTok”, a self-described “safe space” for carbohydrate aficionados. Her video for 15-hour potatoes has more than 1.7m likes alone, and inspired copycats across the platform – the #potatotiktok hashtag has more than 100m views to date. “Potatoes are accessible for whatever skill level you’re at,” says O’Toole. Other than ease, it’s hard to tell why some trends catch on – TikTok seems to have its own logic. Hits have so far included copycat McDonald’s chicken nuggets, Oreo mug cakes, and tortilla breakfast wraps. (Tortillas are huge on TikTok – the #tortillatrend hashtag has received 4.4bn views to date.)

Although the best TikTok creators appear breezy and carefree, condensing recipes that the average 16-year-old could follow into a snappy 60-second video isn’t necessarily straightforward. “I didn’t realise that at first,” says Clemmings. “You’ve got to film from different angles, and edit the videos, and do the voiceovers.” Plus, it can be an unforgiving environment. “If you’ve got a messy stove or a grubby fingernail it’s all over for you,” jokes O’Toole.

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Studied lightness is the default tone – audiences want to learn but not be patronised. Plus, the more imperfect a video is, the more authentic it feels, driving engagement. “I mumble and mess up words all the time,” O’Toole says, “and sometimes miss things out, and that brings out my true personality.”

Speed is crucial, too. “Creators have to format content to grab the attention of users who scroll at pace,” says Bryant-Jeffries. “A video of some aesthetically pleasing food won’t cut it. They need to really think about why someone would pause and watch. This could be using their knowledge to bust a food myth, or providing simple tricks.”

TikTok, for its part, is working with food influencers to build their careers. Clemmings is part of the #LearnOnTikTok initiative which promotes educational creators, while Michalski has been paid to appear in a TikTok advertising campaign. O’Toole believes that it won’t be long before her TikTok peers steal a march on cookery royalty. She grew up watching Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsay and Rick Stein on TV. “They’ve been there my whole life. It would be refreshing to see someone come from the social media age and be able to get into telly while still keeping their roots. The next generation of celebrity chefs will come from TikTok, definitely.”

As the UK reopens, she’s hoping to spend the summer meeting her fans in real life. “I want to do pop-ups,” she says, “get out there, and see if anyone actually wants to eat my food!”