I had the pleasure of talking to Outlander food stylist Lisa Heathcote at the end of April as she was hard at work on the film King Arthur. She took time out of her busy schedule to talk to us about being a food stylist for television and film projects, especially her work on Outlander and Downton Abbey. Lisa will be returning for Season Two of Outlander and we cannot wait to see what she does with the change in scenery.
Outlander TV News: How did you get into being a food stylist on television series and films?
LIsa Heathcote: I am a trained cook. A friend of mine who was a producer a long while back asked me to do a partly political manifesto on the side of a pork pie in pastry, and I said, “Okay, I can manage that.” Then the next week, he said a yin and yang in ketchup and mustard sauce, so I said, “Fine.” And then it just went on from there.
OTVN: So basically you have been into this [field of work] for a long time?
LH: Yes, yes, yes, yes. I have done many strange requests over many years.
OTVN: What has been your favorite project that you have worked on?
LH: Oh, there have been so many. They are all different and have their own quirks. It’s nice. I like doing the historical foods. I do all the Downton food, so that’s fun. I think that can be a lot of fun because there is so much of it and it has been going on for so long, so that’s fun. I like doing the historical projects. I don’t have a favorite as such. It’s just each one is different and each one, I think, is very lovely.
OTVN: What is a typical day like for you?
LH: (Laughs) Well, today. . . (laughs again) Today, I have been running around getting ostrich eggs, as you do. It is proving an enormous problem because ostriches in England are not laying. That’s a problem because I need ostrich eggs. I need big scotch eggs. So, I don’t have a normal day. I have prep days and I have shoot days. I’m either running around trying to get food, trying to get strange things, driving all over London, meeting people, picking things up. My butcher has to do weird and wonderful things with bits of string and meat. I will go talk to him and then the butcher will make me something special, and then make it look authentic and old. And then when I am on set, I have to, I mean, today, as I am talking to you, I am making stuff. In a minute when I am finished doing all this, I will then cut everything up, put it in boxes, put things in the fridge so I can them in the morning. And then tomorrow morning, I will get up at 5:15 and I will finish packing up everything and put it in the car, and then drive on set and then unpack and set myself up and do the work we got to do tomorrow. Every day is varied.
OTVN: Funny you mention ostrich eggs. I work with ostrich at a zoo and we have plenty of eggs. Too bad you are not in the U.S..
LH: Obviously they lay nightly there. The weather is not right for ostrich here.
OTVN: It is their laying season right now, so we get one or two a week from our four girls.
LH: That’s the problem. I need two dozen.
OTVN: Oh, Jesus.
LH: Yeah, exactly. They are not doing it quickly enough. I have to go and meet someone in a minute for some more eggs. Crazy.
OTVN: How did you become involved with Outlander?
LH: Well that was nice because I was working with the art department on Downton Abbey, and I worked with that same art department on many, various projects. They moved up to Scotland to go do Outlander, so they called me and said “Hey, can you come on up and do some stuff for us?” So, I did. That was lovely because I got to go up to Scotland and work with them again. It was like working with old friends. I am very much a part of the art department, so my work is very collaborative with the set director and designer.
OTVN: So you work with Jon Gary Steele and those guys?
LH: Yes, exactly. Although, I have not been up for a while, but I am about to go up in June and do a nice, big scene. That is going to be great and fun.
OTVN: One of my ending questions was were you going to be working on Season Two, so, yes, you are?
LH: Yes, I am. I am going up in June and they have only started back up again. They are gently cranking up. So, yes, I will be with them in June.
OTVN: How excited are you to be doing some French Court stuff?
LH: Really great, because I have not done anything like that for a long time. On my travels today, I was looking at some molds, as you do (laughs). So I am always on the lookout for certain things, different molds and shapes and things. I just had to go to a specific shop today for something else, but they had some molds and I got very excited, so I bought those. I have things in mind for what I am going to do for them. That’s going to be lovely because it is going to be intricate, pretty stuff because a lot of the other stuff is pretty rugged and Scottish highlands. Beaks and feet. There will still be beaks and feet, but just in a pretty way.
OTVN: How much say do you have about the look about a particular scene of food?
LH: As I said, this is a collaborative effort, so, on Outlander, I work with Gina as I did with her on Downton. Sometimes things are scripted, so if something is specifically scripted, then obviously I am going to have to do a chicken or I am going to have to do a pie or whatever. When I did the Outlander banquet, that was totally my say because things that were in the Great Hall (at Castle Leoch) were things that were going to catch the eye, camera-savvy. It was such a big space to fill with food, so I had a lot to say about that. Then the designer comes in and takes things off the table or says, “Yeah, that’s good.” Yes, I had an overall say, but sometimes, I am also doing at the moment King Arthur. We will have meetings and chats about should this work, will we go in that direction. Then I will go and realize it for everybody and put my take on it.
OTVN: Probably the last big thing you did in Outlander (“By the Pricking of My Thumbs”), you did a big dinner scene with the Duke of Sandringham and all the MacKenzie Clan and this huge peacock cake/pie rolls out . . .
LH: Ah, yes. I have to say that was a model. A model maker made that. Have you spoken with her? She made that.
LH: You need to speak with her. She made that thing. We were laughing together and she was working alongside me, quite closely when I was doing the cooking because I was set up in the prop room, and I was cooking all these chickens and, oh my god, it was endless. She was making the peacock pie. We discussed the size and shape, but it was too big. To actually bake something that big, you would have to have an enormous oven. We started off speaking to Gina [Cromwell] and we started off with the thought that I would make it. After further discussions, I said that I think it is going to have to be a model because of the practicality of actually baking it is going to be a big problem. Sorry to disappoint you there.
OTVN: No, no, no. How much of the food that’s you see on screen is edible versus something that is just out there as a prop?
LH: Well, it is all edible because non-edible food looks like it’s not edible. But what I tend to do is rest food on the plate. At this period of time, all the food is on the table at once. What we tend to do, the food is all on the table and then put the food they are eating on the platters in front of them. And then what we do is called “refreshing the food.” I’ll refresh the food on the platters and reset what they have eaten off their platters. So they won’t touch the food that is in the middle of the table. That will just stand there because most of the time, it’s pinned and very glazed and the jellies I have made are going to be very, very stiff. They would not want eat any of that. But it is all food.
OTVN: How much research did you do for this time period? I don’t know how much [material on the subject] would be available.
LH: As I travel through life, I am always researching about anything and everything and speaking to people. I go to speak to food historians and pick their brains about all sorts of things and asking questions. I am constantly reading or going to museums and grand houses. It is an ever-evolving process. So I already had a knowledge. I did The Duchess, but that was slight later [in time], but kind of in that time period. We are pretty much historically accurate, but when I am making a film, it is not a documentary. That’s the difference. I might slightly bend the rules, but not ridiculously. I am not going to do a peacock pie and chips. (Laughs) Although, I did do that for a film called Being Jane Austen. It was quite fun, but she dabbled in food and gets it all wrong, so I did peacock pie and French fries, which was hilarious. Onion ring and cake and all of that. It has to be food that is attractive to the camera and what I call “camera-savvy.” But it is 95 percent historically accurate. I might make things slightly bigger, so that it will catch the camera because there is no point in making tiny little things because the camera will never see it.
OTVN: Other than the obvious difference being the time period, how is your work on Outlander different than your work on Downton Abbey?
LH: Outlander is more straightforward. You’re doing the food, they are eating the food, and that’s the end of it. That’s the end of the scene. We never see that food again. On Downton, it is very complicated because you have Mrs. Patmore downstairs, so you see the food below the stairs. You see her preparing the food in various different stages, which is what I am doing tomorrow, in fact. And then you will see that food upstairs in the dining room which can be three weeks later and I have to recreate the food again. I also have to think about if we have done food downstairs; it has got to be eaten, so I have to be practical about what Mrs. Patmore is doing. It is much more complicated.
OTVN: Did you have anything in the kitchens of Castle Leoch with Mrs. Fitz?
LH: Yes, we did. I was there for some of that kitchen stuff. I helped set it up. Gina [Cromwell] and I were laughing because we have done endless Mrs. Patmore in the kitchen and now we are doing a slightly earlier kitchen. We had a shorthand. We knew what we were doing. We are going to put this in this bowl here, and give her this action, and then it all makes sense. It can’t be random; it all has to make sense as to why the food is there and what it is doing. It’s just different ingredients. It’s more kind of grains, poltices, a bit more rugged. I had fun with the spitjack and the meat. That was a bit of a process.
OTVN: Are there any behind the scenes memories from working on Outlander that you could share with us?
LH: (Laughs) Well. (Laughs) When I was cooking on Outlander, I was in a huge prop room which was lovely. I had my own little tent that I was cooking in this big aircraft hangar, and other prop people were all around me, all the different departments making swords and pots and other things. Next to me, there was a guy and he was making horse poo on the table (Both of us are now laughing) because they did not want, obviously, things to smell bad. I have a picture of him making big mounds of horse poo next to me.
OTVN: (Still laughing) That is so ridiculous.
LH: That was my last memory as I left Outlander. You didn’t really want to hear that. He was doing it really well with straw and hay. It was really good. Apart from that, all the extras and everybody in that Great Hall were such fabulous, tall, rugged men. It was wonderful. They were like seven foot ten, and all the dogs.
LH: Season Two will be something very different that I have not done in a while and it is pretty soon. It will be fun, and I am really looking forward to that.
Any mistakes or incorrect information is my fault, as this is a transcription from a phone call.