'It is possible to run a business, be a head chef and to have kids, pets and hobbies'

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor

"Nobody knew it would go on for this long." 

After months of trying to keep her work hat on and stay busy despite the pandemic, chef and co-owner of The Black Bull in Sedbergh, Nina Matsunaga, has settled into a slower pace of life. 

"That's normally quite hard," she explained, "after seven days of work [a week] for seven years." 

"Suddenly having months without anything, you discover things that you haven't really done, like hobbies and books and other people you can speak to."

While the job has its stresses - making sure everything exceeds expectations at all times, and balancing that with resting enough to carry on, she said: "I think we're ready to start working. This is the longest time I haven't worked since school."

The road to Sedbergh

Born in Dusseldorf to Japanese parents, Nina wasn't set on any career until her teens, though she always had a keen interest in cooking. 

"She was a good cook," she said of her mother, though adding that "she was a bit experimental at times when it came to fusion." 

"My dad was a terrible cook - I can't even tell him that now, he just loves the slow cooker, or anything in a pressure cooker." 

"There were just horrifying things, like bananas and scrambled eggs." 

Nina's mother fell ill when she was eleven years old, which is when she made a pact with herself.

"I just decided that I was going to be able to at least learn how to make soups and basic meals so that we would both not starve," she said. 

When it came to choosing a career, she said, it boiled down to two options: "Working in a kitchen, or working for a zoo. My parents decision was that if I could combine going into a kitchen and going to university that would be better - they had a very Asian mindset, where you had to have a degree." 

And so Nina packed her bags and headed to the UK to study culinary arts at the University of Ealing (Now the University of West London). But when she had finished her degree, she wasn't brimming with enthusiasm at the idea of working in a professional kitchen.

"Fitting into an actual workplace I found quite hard," she said. "There's a lot of colloquialism and palling around in the kitchen  - you either need to be quite stubborn and not let anything phase you, or you really need to fit in and join in."

"A lot of kitchens are quite clickey and I think in London it's different - it's a big pool," which, she said can often mean that "you're quite replaceable as such." 

"So I decided that I wanted to stay in school a little bit longer." 

Asked whether she was put off of working in kitchens by the archetypal masculine brigade culture, she said: "I've got a lot of male colleagues and guys in the kitchen - and sometimes when they get a bit rowdy I do think, 'if I was ten years younger, how would I feel if I was in here, the way they act and what they talk about." 

The chef said she may have taken a different path "if I had seen more female leaders fifteen years ago."

"Maybe I should've been looking for it as well I suppose."

Her path, she said "was an organic journey," and that although "positive role models can influence and encourage people to do what they want to do, you just need to be aware that there will be uphill struggles - whether that's a gender struggle or not, it will be hard work and you just need to persist with it." 

She added: "That's just hospitality. People think that you just walk into it, and it's really nice and really easy whether you're out front talking to people or in the kitchen making a little bit of food and unfortunately, it's not quite as easy as that, but it is definitely rewarding."

For Nina, even as a business owner, it is possible to have a rounded life.

"You can run your own business, you can be a head chef, you can be a pastry chef, and you can have children and pets and hobbies - and I think most people don't realise that that work-life balance - most people do manage to do it." 

"It's definitely something that you should encourage - especially young girls - to keep pursuing." 

All roads lead to the pub

After deciding against throwing herself into London's restaurant kitchens, Nina did a Masters in food policy, then returned to Germany to work in a cookery school, before landing a job in Manchester, where she met her husband and business partner James Ratcliffe. 

Together they began working at farmers markets in the Dales, where James is from, eventually serving hot food. 

"That's how we thought we needed a base, which is why we found a café," she said, while the couple continued to do "quite a bit" of outside catering, until they finally bought The Black Bull in Sedbergh.

Serving seasonal food using high-quality ingredients is a hallmark of high end restaurants, but raises the food offering above your average pub. The food at The Black Bull, while on the surface loyal to the British classics, bears influences of Nina's German upbringing and Japanese heritage. 

"You'll find some very typical Japanese dishes and sometimes you'll just find a bit of a nod to Japanese food in a dish - it might sound quite British but it will have Japanese influences in it as well."

The critically-acclaimed public house with rooms, was this year ranked 26th in the Estrella Damm Gastropub Awards.

"It was just a massive surprise," she said, as although they applied to qualify, they hadn't been sure they were eligible. 

"It was quite short lived so far because it was only two months after we went and picked up our plates - then we've all got shut down." 


Compliance with social distancing rules (even at two metres, which was in effect at the time of this interview) at The Black Bull will be doable, but many in the industry have voiced concerns over the issue of customer confidence.

Nina said: "At the minute I'm trying not to panic about that side of worrying that there'll be nobody coming in, or that we're missing out. 

"It's not really the thing to focus on - the most important thing is looking at is whether we can safely deliver what we do best." 

The couple chose to keep their first business, The Three Hares cafe, open throughout lockdown, as a means of making a small amount of income, selling bread and pantry items, but especially to keep in touch with the local community. 

"James is quite popular in town," she said. "He'll walk around and meet people and when we go out we see quite a lot of familiar faces." 

The Three Hares is on a lease so rent payments have continued to go out - which she said, "it's not ideal from a business perspective but at the same time, a lot of people have had to pay rent and pay other things, ongoing." 

"I don't think it's as detrimental as it might be for some people - for us it's been manageable." 

Nina Matsunaga and  James Ratcliffe

The Black Bull Inn is taking reservations from July 9th. .

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Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 2nd July 2020

'It is possible to run a business, be a head chef and to have kids, pets and hobbies'