Q & A With Lesley Nicol of Downton Abbey: Salty Raspberry Meringue, Adventures in Pretend Cooking + How Mrs. Patmore is Like Gordon Ramsay

Lesley Nicol as Mrs. Patmore of Downton Abbey
Lesley Nicol as Mrs. Patmore of Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey starts its third season on Jan. 6 on Masterpiece Classic at 9 p.m. -- that would be tomorrow. Fans of the soapy period drama might be imagining the glorious nuptials of the long-suffering Matthew Crawley and the spoiled Lady Mary, or laying bets on whether or not Lord and Lady Grantham's rascally daughter, Sybil, will return after running off with Tom Branson, the family chauffeur.

But what we've been wondering about is what's been going on with Downton's barking head cook, Mrs. Beryl Patmore. Will she still be able to maintain order in the chaotic Downton Abbey kitchen even while wearing a bewinged white nurse's bonnet? Will her gift for unleashing bouncy invective on her underlings, much of it which makes little sense, get the showcasing it deserves? Will she scorch a kidney soufflé or retrieve a roasted chicken from the floor, brush it off and send it upstairs for dinner? Will she bristle and fume as always but ultimately wear her beating heart on her flour-covered sleeve?

Recently we met up with Lesley Nicol, the British stage actress who gives humor and soul to Mrs. Patmore, and who you may have spotted tooling around town in a gold Jaguar over the past few months. She's been living here with her husband, Da'aboth, and their two dogs -- a Tibetan terrier and a miniature poodle. Over an elaborate caramel-and-whipped cream encrusted coffee drink at Peet's in Beverly Hills, Nicol covered a range of subjects, from being compared to Gordon Ramsay to why Mrs. Patmore is so impatient with her assistant cook, Daisy, to the fact that she's been besieged by autograph requests from Downton-obsessed Hollywood executives. "Downton has become crazy crackers around the world," she explained after pulling out a photo of herself and inscribing it to Squid Ink, "and it is well loved here."

Squid Ink: It has now become legend that you, Lesley Nicol, are a terrible cook.

Lesley Nicol: I can do basics but I'm not a proper cook. I can do a roast. I can stick a chicken in the oven with vegetables.

SI: Do you know that a proper Sunday pub roast is a niche that has never been filled in Los Angeles?

LN: Isn't that weird? There's a big gaping hole in the market. I'd better make up Mrs. Patmore's Rosti Shop. That's the one! I have a business idea! My niece lives here and she told me, "I'm missing going to the pub actually for a roast lunch." [laughs]

SI: Your cooking expertise might be very narrow, but Mrs. Patmore always looks like she knows what she's doing in the kitchen. Are your movements choreographed?

LN: We all take it very seriously and try not to make any mistakes. The fact is that you don't see me cook much at all.

SI: You know how to hold a bowl in the crook of your arm and make energetic whisking movements.

LN: Yeah, but luckily one of the props guys is a chef, so if I have any questions -- there was something about a sauce in one of the shows ...

SI: Are we talking about the curdled hollandaise?

LN: Well done. You have been paying attention. Whenever we do a scene, we always say, "Okay, where are we in the day? What meal are we preparing? Is it lunch?" Then we have a historical advisor called Alastair Bruce and he's fantastic.

SI: You are referring to Alastair Bruce of Crionaich, OBE, descendent of Robert the Bruce and the man you'd most like sitting next to you at a post-Edwardian era themed pub quiz, correct?

LN: He's such an interesting guy and he knows a lot. Nowadays, he's getting quite strict. A director will say, "Okay, come in and maybe you're bringing in a tray," and Alastair will say, "No, Mrs. Patmore doesn't need to bring the tray. She has a whole bevy of people to do that kind of thing for her." Similarly, you won't find me preparing vegetables unless there's a real reason why, there's a prep person. So really I'm garnishing, I'm smelling, I'm doing what proper cooks do. So you don't actually see me doing much, but I always check it out first. None of us really know anything about that period.

SI: Though she's called "Mrs." there doesn't appear to have ever been a Mr. Patmore. Have you figured out anything else about her backstory?

LN: I think she started like Daisy and learned from people and she just got good. [She knows a lot about French cuisine] because she kind of had to. That was the function.

SI: Is that why she's so unforgiving with Daisy? Is Daisy meant to follow in her footsteps?

LN: Yes. When people say "[Mrs. Patmore] is just a bully, just a bossy woman," I defend her every time. I think it's quite obvious that there's a real affection between her and Daisy, but in those days these jobs were really good jobs. Something Alastair said to me was these jobs were not to be pitied. Amongst their peers, in the working class in that village in Yorkshire, they were seen as having good jobs. Because it's like a well-oiled machine, and it has to be, in Alastair's words "the best show in town," it's very competitive. People have to say, "We had the best meal at Downton Abbey," there was no room for error. Mrs. Patmore is trying to get the kids up to speed and if they do get up to speed, there's every chance that they will have a future.

SI: Part and parcel of being a professional chef is knowing how to delegate and not being worried about coming off as incredibly domineering. Mrs. Patmore has that down.

LN: It comes from a sense of pride, doesn't it?

SI: Yes, and, let's be honest, a little lack of emotional control.

LN: Sophie McShera, who plays Daisy, and I were on a morning television show recently called This Morning. We were on with a chef named Mark Sargeant who for 14 years was Gordon Ramsay's right hand man. He said to me, "Mrs. Patmore is like a female Gordon Ramsay," and I said, "Is that a good thing?" And he said, "Yes," and I said, "Did Gordon Ramsay shout at you a lot?" and he said, "Sometimes. But this is the stuff that he does on TV." He obviously respects Gordon Ramsay hugely. But he saw a strong similarity between Mrs. Patmore and Gordon Ramsay: It's that strong personality and the stakes are high.

SI: Especially during season one when Mrs. Patmore was going blind and mistook salt for sugar and sprinkled it liberally on raspberry meringue pudding.

LN: If she'd been in a different house, she would have been out for chucking salt on the dessert. Gone, with nobody looking after her. She was lucky that she's got a benign boss.

SI: Let's hear more about your cooking demo with Mark Sargeant. What did you prepare?

LN: They took a Downton-type recipe, something that was called lamb ... or maybe it was liver. No, it was chopped lamb stuffed with ... things. I crushed a few new potatoes and that was all I did.

SI: Have the reality TV offers started pouring in?

LN: I have been invited to do something called Celebrity MasterChef in England, which of course I can't do. It's complete nonsense. You have to be a decent cook to begin with. I'd be the joke one. I've also been asked to do Dancing with the Stars twice. Again, dancing and me, not a happy combination. I mean, I've done musicals, but it's not my best thing. So I'd be the idiot one. [laughs] And the judges shout at you. I can't deal with that. I don't like being shouted at. [laughs] I do get asked all kinds of "Can you give us a recipe?"

SI: What is your response?


LN: I say, "I haven't got one. Just give me a recipe and I'll put my name to it."

SI: Really? What is a recent recipe that you have passed off as your own?

LN: There was a thing called Celebrity Bake Book, and it raised money for charity. I told them, "I'll happily be in the book, but I haven't baked anything since 1969."

SI: What did you bake in 1969 that traumatized you so deeply?

LN: I took a cookery course. On the examination I had to cook a cheese omelet with peas and an egg custard. With the egg custard, which was supposed to be a dessert, I forget to put the sugar in so that's more of a quiche, isn't it? And the peas I put on a plastic plate and it melted and the peas went down the cooker and I didn't have time to put cheese in the omelet. I still passed.

SI: What does that say for the state of cuisine back then that you ruined every dish and weren't instantly given a failing grade?

LN: I'll bet my written paper was quite good.

SI: Let's hear more about your adventures in pretend cooking.

LN: One of the Sunday newspapers asked me to make my favorite dish and they photographed me holding it in the kitchen. It was roasted salmon with roasted vegetables. That's not cooking, that's putting things in a pan. It looked quite nice but I'm not saying it was good.

SI: Mrs. Patmore is almost as famous for her cooking as she is for her memorable one-liners.

LN: Contramundi, that's one of the ones we love. Contramundi means it's you and me against the world. She says to Daisy, "It's you and me, contramundi," so that's "It's you and me against the world."

SI: What about "He knows this is just the sprat to catch the mackerel"? Translation please.

LN: Sprat is a small fish, so he's doing something small in order to get something bigger later.

SI: Mrs. Patmore has her dark side, too. Take the time she said to poor Daisy, "Listen to me and take those kidneys up to the servery before I knock you down and serve your brains as fritters." Brains for fritters? Sheesh.

LN: She's quite violent. [laughs]

SI: What parts of Mrs. Patmore do you love?

LN: I loved slinging the crepe at the dog when [one of the maids asked if she could try one.] It was like, "Whatever." [laughs] I like Mrs. Patmore's wittiness. I know the ladies upstairs get all the top lines, but I get some good ones too.

SI: It is well known that the upstairs scenes are shot at a real-life Yorkshire country estate seventy miles outside of London and that the downstairs scenes are filmed at set built at Ealing Studios. Do you ever get to go to Highclere castle?

LN: Not often. I've worked there no more than eight times. This is Alastair again. In the first season, a duke comes to visit and all of the servants line up to welcome him and I said, "Can I come?" and he said, "No. You have a huge dinner to prepare. There's no way you can be able to come upstairs and leave that kitchen. It's just not believable. But I might have you peeking behind a bush." And we DID peek from behind a bush, but they cut it out. At the servant's ball last Christmas, I was dancing with Matthew, which was marvelous. There is a big outdoor scene with everybody in season three.

SI: Is the vibe different at Ealing Studios than the one at Highclere castle?

LN: It's completely different. We're [on a set] and not in somebody's home with treasures all around. That inhibits how people feel. You have to be on your best behavior. Whereas, we are very badly behaved.

SI: What do we mean by "badly"? We've heard that Siobhan Finneran, who plays O'Brian, and Rob James-Collier, who is Thomas the footman, are the naughtiest.

LN: They're not the only ones. I think we take it in turns in terms of being badly behaved. We're often told to be quiet as a group of people. Because we get over excited. Sophie and I, we're usually working together, and she makes me laugh. I love that Daisy is changing and a bit more difficult. That's just Mrs. Patmore getting her own. It's like having a teenage daughter around with a terrible attitude. [laughs]But the fact is that we are working really fast. We get through a lot in a day so some programs you see those outtakes where actors have got the giggles? If it happens [on "Downton"] and it does, it doesn't happen very often. The fact is that we've got crazy schedule.

SI: There are rumors on the internet that Mrs. Patmore is getting a love interest. Which character would you like her to have a torrid affair with?

LN: Anthony Hopkins.

SI: He's not even on the series.

LN: Can't he be? [laughs] That's a real, genuine plea from me. Can't he come along and be the local butcher?

SI: Perhaps something was kindled during her dance with Matthew Crawley?

LN: There's a bit of an age difference.

SI: Which makes it an even more compelling storyline.

LN: I did request a love interest to Julian Fellowes quite some time ago. He said, "Never say never." [Julian Fellowes] has developed all of us nicely. He wouldn't let me be just a shouting, red-faced, bossy cook. We're more than that. None of us are one thing. Which is fantastic.

Some other great interviews:

Q & A With Bruce Aidells: The Great Meat Cookbook, CSAs + a Pig Named Dinner

Q & A With Lisa McManus, America's Test Kitchen's Gadget Guru: OXO Tongs (Yes), the Garlic Rocker (No) + Why 9-Year-Old Girls Should Have Strawberry Hullers

Q & A With Homeland's Abu Nazir: Navid Negahban on Israeli and Persian Cuisine, Looking for Hummus in L.A., Shimon Peres' Facebook Page + Getting Detained by the Real Guys

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