Nina Matsunaga

Nina Matsunaga

Nina Matsunaga

Born in Germany to Japanese parents, Nina Matsunaga and her partner James Ratcliffe now run The Black Bull in Sedbergh, a beautiful pub on the edge of the Lake District, where she cooks local ingredients full of international influences.

Someone’s style of food can be traced back to all sorts of influences. It could be the food they enjoyed whilst growing up; a part of the world they’ve travelled to or simply the produce surrounding them at any given time. For Nina Matsunaga there's evidence of all these things in her dishes, resulting in plates of food that take the best local ingredients and impart plenty of pan-Asian – and occasionally German – flavours and techniques into them. The resulting menu at her and her husband James' beautiful pub The Black Bull has turned the old coaching inn into a destination restaurant that certainly stands out from the crowd. 

Growing up in Germany, Nina’s Japanese parents instilled into her the importance of all dining together from a young age. ‘We were a very food-centred family,’ she explains. ‘Even in my teenage years we always had to be there for dinner with my parents. Dinner was always homemade, which meant that as soon as I left home I was cooking for myself because it just didn’t feel right to have a ready meal.’ Despite having a talent for cookery which her sister had noticed, Nina was initially encouraged by her parents to follow a more traditional job path, but she had an even more unusual profession in mind. ‘I wanted to work with animals so I thought I could become a zookeeper,’ she laughs. ‘When I told my mum that I thought she was going to die.’ Nina soon changed her mind and in 2007 moved over to London to do a culinary arts management course.

After working in kitchens during her studies, she quickly realised that she wasn’t actually enjoying it at all. ‘It was all very intimidating,’ says Nina. ‘Understanding the kitchen language was hard, everything was really hot and noisy, and at that point it was still very male-dominated so I always felt tiny compared to everyone else.’ Still wanting to be involved in food in some way she decided to do a Masters degree in food policy, but after struggling to find a job ended up moving back to live with her parents in Germany, where she briefly worked at a bakery. ‘Baking was always something that I’d really enjoyed growing up,’ she explains. ‘I really liked working out front selling the bread, knowing that you'd made it.’ Nina eventually started to miss being in England, however, and decided to move back – but this time she was set to stay.

Having initially struggled to find a position in London, Nina moved to Manchester after getting a job working in the catering department at Manchester Met University, and it was on the day of her interview that she first met her future husband James, who was working at Robert Owen Brown's renowned restaurant The Mark Addy. Together Nina and James began to hatch plans to start a street food business and were soon selling everything from chocolates to lemonade at local farmers markets. ‘At the start we’d spend a week preparing everything and we probably didn’t make any money at all’, says Nina. ‘Then we realised we could do more with it and start specialising in something.’

The couple called their business The Moocher and focused on cooking food that showcased wild game and other local ingredients, preparing it out of an ex-army field kitchen which they drove all the way down from Edinburgh. ‘It needed to be affordable and we wanted to be a bit different,’ Nina explains. ‘But we probably should have thought more about the practicalities. The ovens weren’t proper ovens; they were just big metal boxes with no heat control and all the pans were massive. It was definitely designed for one-pot wonders rather than cooking a bit of pigeon, but we made the best out of it.’ Meanwhile, the choice to cook with lots of game – something that’s still a key part of Nina’s food – both came about out of convenience and because the duo wanted to make people more aware of it. ‘I've always had an interest in prepping things from start to finish, including whole animals,' says Nina. 'But you can't just go out and buy a pig. You can, however, go out and get whole pigeons or rabbits. We'd try and make game more accessible and crowdpleasing by cooking things like pigeon in a karaage marinade.’ By the time Nina had given birth to her son, while still running market stalls and doing functions, her and James realised it was time to look for somewhere bigger.

In 2014 Nina and James opened The Three Hares in Sedbergh, which was initially just a café and bakery. Having taken it over from previous owners, who also ran it as a café, at first they had to win over the locals with their food and baking. ‘One guy came in and said ‘you need to whip more air into the bread’, which I still don't understand,’ smiles Nina. ‘But eventually people started to come in and order a sandwich and you’d see their eyes change. They’d ask where the bread was from and we’d explain that I baked it downstairs and their whole perception would change.' After six months, they started offering dinners at the Three Hares and Nina began winning accolades for her cooking. ‘The food was very different from what we’re doing now, but it was good,’ she explains. ‘We’d use ingredients that people had never heard of and it was much less refined. Over time I think we’ve realised you can still use whole animals in a more refined way in terms of presentation without taking anything away from the flavour.’

The success of The Three Hares led to the opportunity for Nina and James to open The Black Bull in 2018, a gastropub serving food driven by local ingredients. Though the wild produce that Nina now cooks with is British in origin – and usually very local to the surrounding area – her style is still very much influenced by her past. ‘My food is very eclectic because it can vary from something very classically English to a traditional Japanese dish with a slight German influence,’ Nina says. ‘It all comes from the way I was brought up. It’s a bit like being Willy Wonka in a factory because you can do anything in terms of putting things together, as long as you’re sensible. Taking something that you know, mixing it with something that you don’t and creating something new is what I really like to do.’ Sustainability is also a key part of Nina’s ethos which is why she makes everything from XO sauce to seasonal kimchi herself rather than importing it from miles away.

While Nina continues to turn heads at The Black Bull with her food and introduce the locals to flavours that you’d rarely find anywhere else in the area, the Three Hares is still flourishing as a café and deli. You get the feeling that the couple won’t stop there though; Nina and James have already gone from working out of an ex-army field kitchen to running two acclaimed bricks-and-mortar spots in under ten years, and are both full of ideas for future concepts (‘I think we’d love to try something based on much more simple flavours and just a few ingredients’). Whatever form these concepts will come in remains to be seen, but we can't wait to see how this innovative, almost daring chef continues to evolve.