Unless you’ve been living under a rock the past year, you’ll know that a particular social media site is booming in popularity, unlike any other platform. This is of course TikTok, the Chinese-owned social network which claims a staggering 1 billion active monthly users worldwide.
What was once perceived as a platform for Gen-Z to upload dance routines, the site now acts as the perfect springboard for Michelin-star chefs, bakers and home cooks to grow huge online audiences. This thriving sub-section, nicknamed ‘FoodTok’, is chock-full of 60-second cooking hacks, tutorials and no-nonsense recipes, with trends such as that baked feta to those tortilla wraps depleting supermarket shelves and engaging millions of users in their kitchens. It’s easy to see why, with its overflow of snappy videos satisfying short attention spans and our collective appetite for digestible content.
Poppy O’Toole, otherwise known as @poppycooks, is a professionally trained chef using the viral nature of TikTok to her advantage. With 1.4 million followers and a lucrative publishing deal under her belt, Poppy’s cheerful foodie content is lauded by her inquisitive audience, most of whom are trudging through lockdown with little else to do but scroll.
“In March last year I lost my job in a professional kitchen; I’d been working as a Michelin trained chef for 10 years. After I was made redundant I felt a little lost, so I thought TikTok could be a good, anonymous way for me to get my cooking out there,” she says. “I wanted to do Instagram, but I always found it too perfect. I considered TikTok as a great platform to let me try new things.”
Poppy fills her feed with creative potato-based recipes and simple how-to tutorials, such as how to cut onions, proving her content is informative as well as entertaining: “I think because of my professional background I have the knowledge behind the food, it’s not just a random person cooking, and that’s something people lean towards,” she says. “When I started my series, ‘What a chef eats in a day’, it just rolled from there.”
A particular video of Poppy’s arguably defines the word ‘viral’. During the second national lockdown, Poppy uploaded a series showing the many different ways to use a potato. Safe to say, things kicked off: “I went from having 200,000 followers, which was already too much, to getting another 800,000 overnight, just from one video,” she says. “I was really lucky to have a viral video that now has 25 million views – that’s how huge TikTok can be.”
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Despite her rise to TikTok stardom, Poppy remains modest and constantly amazed by the site’s magnitude. “The position I’m in now, it’s a pinch-me moment. I don’t understand why or how this happened. All I know is I’m so grateful and happy,” she says. “To be fair, I couldn’t have done this without losing my job, so it’s very much a silver lining.”
Bartek, or @letsmunch, was in a similar situation to Poppy when TikTok turned his life upside down. Bartek was working as a mixologist when the pandemic hit, leaving him furloughed and stuck inside his parent’s house. It was a few weeks into lockdown when his younger sister convinced him to film the cheesecake he was making. “I didn’t even know what TikTok was, I was clueless,” he says. “I sent the video to my friends first and they liked it, so I posted it on TikTok.”
Although the video didn’t get much traction, Bartek found the app fun and his friends were enjoying them, so he made one more. “Then, the third video went crazy, with 400,000 views overnight. I was going mad,” he says. “The next one went even bigger, with over a million views, and it’s been non-stop ever since.” Now, Bartek dedicates his time to creating comfort food masterpieces for his 348,500 followers, from oozing eggs and avo on toast to white choc and blueberry pancakes.
Whether it’s sellotaping phones to the inside of extractor fans or tucking into shirt collars, creators have had to brush up on their videomaking skills in hopes of earning views. Brixton-based restaurant supervisor Nathan, who goes by the handle @thegrubworkskitchen (203,200 followers), knows all about unconventional methods when filming his hearty Jamaican cooking: “I have a tripod, but if I need to get a shot where I’m showing both my hands, I’ll stick the tripod into my trousers, so it looks like I’m doing it hands-free,” he says.
Nathan’s most viral videos to date, a two-part series on Birria tacos, saw his following shoot up by around 40,000 followers. “I don’t really know why, people must go absolutely crazy over tacos,” he laughs.
For nature-loving friends Slawek and Kris, otherwise known as @menwiththepot, they were able to grow their business after leaving their full-time jobs in hotels. Living near the Irish border, Slawek and Kris spend their days cooking up a storm in the forest – which they aptly named ‘the office’ – creating campfire treats from chocolatey forest doughnuts to Polish beef roulade to an audience of 5.3 million.
“We’ve been in full-time jobs for the past 12 years, and we knew something had to change,” they say. “We have similar hobbies and had the same thought to turn our passions into a full-time job. There’s nothing better than when you can do something that you love.”
Though some may wonder why brace treacherous, wintry conditions to cook, for them, filming outdoors is key to their success. “95% of food content is recorded in a regular kitchen; one of the cases we’re trying to encourage is for people to spend time around nature. Especially now with Covid-19, it’s nice to be outside.”
Their feed’s verdant and rustic aesthetic, partnered with their impressive knife skills, means most videos score well into the millions. “We strive for attention to detail. We want our videos to be an ASMR experience but also a visual one, so everything looks nice and tidy.”
The duo claims a video will take roughly four hours to make. Whereas some creators aim to keep things simple for followers to replicate, they believe the more complex a recipe, the better. “The thing with easy meals is they don’t sell because anyone can go into the forest and make it. From how we look at it, it has to be complicated. We recently made chicken fajitas from scratch in the forest, which involves baking, cooking, frying, all combined. The more complex a meal, the better the response.”
Slawek and Kris ultimately hope to create content that inspires their followers. “I think every dish we make shows you impossible is nothing,” they say. “The feeling of cooking on the open fire, even in windy or wet conditions, makes you feel unbelievable.”
Many creators believe the site has transformed over the past year into something quite different. “It sounds weird, but more people are learning from TikTok than in school these days,” Slawek and Kris say. Lockdown has no doubt played a role in propelling the platform’s shift from entertainment to education, with users spending more time than ever discovering new corners of the app.
Bristol-based @jessicabakes_x, who shares baking tips for different occasions and decoration hacks to 242,900 followers, aims to educate with creative, bite-sized content: “I participated in the ‘Learn on TikTok’ campaign, which made me really think about different content that could be tutorials, and I got such a good response,” she says. “Going forward, I’ll definitely continue using TikTok as an educational platform, as well as showing my followers what I’m baking.”
Due to a boom in users, TikTok’s audience has inevitably stretched beyond its original Gen-Z demographic. Jessica feels her audience, though initially rooted in the younger generation, now incorporates a wider age range: “Naturally there are a lot of young people on TikTok, so I began with younger followers, but I’ve seen a real increase in older users who are actively into baking, and those are the ones who interact more. I’d say there’s more of a mix now.”
Slawek and Kris noticed their demographic is disproportionally female, possibly as a reaction to their most viral video – claiming a staggering 37.9 million views – featuring a pair of hands rubbing oil into a raw chicken. “It’s not our fault some people have dirty minds!” they joke.
With social media platforms evolving at breakneck speed, do TikTok creators believe the site can prove its longevity? “I think a lot of people have been scared about the future of TikTok, especially with the regulations in the US,” says Bartek. “But it’s so big, it was once musical.ly and now it’s TikTok, so it will only evolve into something else.”
“I see it lasting,” says Nathan. “Especially when I compare it to platforms like Facebook, which is what I used when I was younger – Facebook isn’t that much fun. The range with TikTok, I can scroll and see food, then dance, then learn facts from a doctor – it’s everything, all in one place. I certainly can’t see it dying down any time soon.”