Food stylist Lisa Heathcote concocts the culinary delights for the Crawleys of Downton Abbey and the MacKenzies of Starz’s Outlander. With the Masterpiece series starting its fifth season on Jan. 4, she dishes on the process behind her dishes.
Heathcote devises full menus for the dinner scenes on Downton.
“When they are actually sitting at the table, they’ve all got a menu in front of them. Then we basically decide at what point they are in the dinner, what course we’re actually going to see. The rest of the meal is imaginary. But it might be that in the course of the story line we see Mrs. Patmore preparing for this dinner. We might not see what she’s preparing go upstairs, but to make sense of it she’s preparing what they would have eaten in that dinner so that it corresponds.”
But the actors aren’t always eating rich meats and decadent puddings.
“I’ve got to make it pleasant for them to eat because they are going to be eating it all day long. I can’t be too fussy with a sauce. I’m designing food that’s going to look good on the plate and catch the camera’s eye, but when they are eating there is going to be something like a piece of watercress or cucumber, something quite simple, that the actor can just constantly be eating.”
As suspected, downstairs is more fun than upstairs—at least when it comes to the food.
“[When food stays in the kitchen] I call that my ‘passing food.’ It’s just passing through shots. I don’t have to worry about any problems with actors possibly not being able to eat it. It could be a nice big old wobbly jelly that could just be plunked down or some wonderful grouse or quail. Often the scene around the table does involve the actors saying their lines and having to get some food off a platter and onto their dinner plate. I can’t do anything too complicated.”
Heathcote never stops doing her research.
“I went to the British National Archives this year. I also have some old Buckingham Palace menus. I’m quite often in junk shops—you can find old menus.”
Five seasons in, the Downton cast members are now pros
“Mrs. Patmore, Lesley [Nicol], [and] definitely Daisy, Sophie [McShera], have gotten very good at handling. If they got a dish that involves pastry and it’s all covered in pastry, for example, I might just then punch out the last few pastry disks or leaves, and she’s just putting the last few on. They can concentrate on the dialogue; they are not actually really cooking the whole thing or preparing the whole thing. I do actually try to think about things that are visually strong for them to do…They are more comfortable with the whole scenario, whereas before it was like, ‘oh my goodness, what’s a wooden spoon?'”
Outlander is a different beast from Downton.
“It’s a lot more rugged. With Downton, everything’s set in aspic. It’s all very glossy, whereas Outlander is out-there. They’re wearing big kilts and they’ve got big hunks of meat with feet and beaks and all that. It’s great. It’s really fun.”
But that doesn’t mean Outlander is completely uncouth
“There’s still a sort of elegance about Outlander. They’re not heathens.”
A version of this article appears in Entertainment Weekly‘s Dec. 26-Jan.2 issue.