My Life: Food Stylist Lisa Heathcote On Serving Grub At Downton Abbey

Lisa Heathcote

If you're anything like HuffPost UK Lifestyle, you'll have spent the last few Sunday evenings salivating over the food on Downton Abbey.

And who can blame us? Not only does it look bloody tasty, but much of the plot unfolds during upstairs family meals and the painstaking preparation in the kitchen below.

Of course, if you think Mrs Patmore is responsible for the exquisite spreads, you're sadly mistaken - Mrs Patmore is in fact a fictional character played by actress Lesley Nicol.

The culinary expertise belongs to Lisa Heathcote, the show's talented food stylist.

We caught up with her to find out a bit more about the day-to-day life of a food stylist and what it's like working on the television show on everyone's lips.

What is a food stylist?

I basically make edible props to be used on film and TV - it's a food stylist's job not only to make the food look good on camera but to make sure that it's safe to eat and meets health and safety guidelines.

I prepare all the food beforehand, off-set so that it can travel to wherever filming is taking place.

How did you get into food styling?

I’m a trained chef – it's important to have a knowledge of food, antipating how it’ll behave and what you can use - and I've got an arts background.

Back when I was a full-time chef, an old friend asked me to help with a commercial and that’s how I got started. It's been 20 years now, I've done everything from TV and adverts to big feature films.

What’s your favourite part of the job?

I love creating the food in my work kitchen - making jellies or building food towers is really satisfying.

And what is your least favourite part?

Getting up early in the morning is one of the worst parts. That and packing everything up once your finished - the Downton set is notoriously like a wind tunnel, so it can be tricky.

Talk us through the inspiration for Downton’s food

I work very closely with the art department on Downton. We read the scripts and look for where the food comes up – when it’s scripted in, there’ll be very specific actions – we have to decide what the action would be with the food. We then design dinners for the upstairs and make sure we have corresponding actions downstairs.

My research comes from my books and my recipe books. I then adapt a recipe that would fit.

Is Mrs Patmore’s reluctance to use technology (i.e. the electric whisk) reflective of the time?

That’s just Mrs Patmore! She’s worried that she’s going to lose her job. I think they’d be happy to have additional mechanical help, but then who am I to say!

What is the main difference between the food eaten by characters upstairs and downstairs on Downton?

Upstairs is about presentation; it’s all rather beautiful. There is butler service where dishes are brought to you.

Whereas downstairs characters help themselves to a plain simple pie and vegetables - it's a bit more humdrum, with a stick-it-on-a-plate mentality. It's much more of a family affair, with Mr Carson dishing out soup with a ladel.

Why is it important to use real food on set?

Because they really eat it! Also, prop food looks like prop food. It just doesn’t work. I’ve been a food stylist for many years and food looks like food. Everything in the kitchen is always food too.

The food on Downton Abbey has gained cult status. Did you anticipate this kind of attention, and why do you think it’s so popular?

No, I didn't at all!

A lot of the plot in Downton takes place around the dinner table and I think that catches people’s imagination - the formality, and the nostalgia, the camaraderie and pace of life, all in and around food both upstairs and downstairs.

I do go to great lengths to prepare the food so that is appealing and eye-catching and clearly it's doing the job!