Chef of the Week: Nina Matsunaga, Chef Patron of The Black Bull in Cumbria

How long have you worked at your current restaurant?
Since opening in 2018.

Where did your passion for cooking come from and where did you learn your skills?
Our family has always been food centric and as a result lots of connects from my childhood are to do with food. Furthermore, I got my undergraduate degree in BSc Culinary Arts Management where I also gained my NVQs.

What do you enjoy most about being a chef?
It isn’t just one single thing, it’s the entire process. For example, seeing lambs on the side of the fell grazing, taken to slaughter and then collecting the whole carcass so that I can butcher the animal and separate it into its component parts, and create numerous dishes using those cuts alongside making a garnish and other elements to sit alongside those cuts to then serve to customers. It’s a lengthy process but one that I relish as you have to see it through from start to finish and ensure that you are involved so you can observe every step.

Name three ingredients you couldn’t cook without.
Flour of any kind, butter and kimchi.

Which piece of kitchen equipment couldn’t you live without?
Currently my Hobart mixer. It’s old, clunky but reliable.

What food trends are you spotting at the moment?
A lot of international cuisine, which may perhaps be linked to the numerous lockdowns we’ve all experienced? And definitely an increase in online culinary classes of all types. It just seems that because people are missing out being able to travel and might not have easy access to different food cultures they’ve taken upon themselves to source the raw ingredients and become more adventurous in the food they are creating in their own homes.  There’s also been a decline in complicated meal kits with more ready meal style cuisine taking over.

But also, by contrast I’ve seen a lot of chefs and colleagues rediscover homegrown, British, local, and foraged ingredients more than ever. This may be just because they are experimenting or perhaps because they are struggling to get hold of ingredients at the moment because of the fall out from Brexit.

What do you think is a common mistake that lets chefs down?
If you mean in terms of the whole experience when you go to a restaurant, then I would have to say it’s often down to the produce they use and the provenance of that produce. Not knowing or caring enough about where things you use come from is a big no no for me.

I’m certainly far from perfect as a chef but the one thing I do is to take the time to source all of my ingredients, see where they are reared and produced and if they don’t sit with our food ethos they simply don’t get used by us. We put a lot of care and passion into the food we create, and we want to be able to shout about the farmers and producers we use too, after all they’ve taken the time to nurture and create the raw ingredients we use, so it’s only right in my mind that we reciprocate.

What is your favourite time of year for food, and why?
Spring and early summer. I love asparagus, wild garlic, peas, broad beans, any kind of green produce. We see tomatoes coming in, the first of the season’s berries. It is like a breath of fresh air especially after an all too often rainy and dark winter.

Which of your dishes are you most proud of?
I am very critical when it comes to my food. We’re constantly moving forward and there isn’t much we keep the same. In terms of consistency, there are a number of things within the menu especially if they feature the beef or lamb we source locally, it’s amazing and as a red meat lover myself I can take a great deal of pride in any dish that includes these.

How do you come up with new dishes?
I think about food pretty much 24/7, there’s no off switch. It’s often just a jumble of ingredients and lists in my head, mostly linked to what to try next. I instinctively work with in the seasons and look at nature and what’s around at that particular time of the year. If temperature shifts, we can change dishes to suit. For example, we’ll put on refined winter warmers when it snows, add cold soups when its boiling hot outside, which doesn’t happen often in Cumbria!

Who was your greatest influence?
My family. All dreamers and doers. Doing and working hard, dreaming of other things all the time. My mum was a harsh critic, especially when it comes to life choices, but they’ve supported me in whatever I’ve set my mind to.

Tell us three chefs you admire.
Jamie Oliver and Michel Roux Senior got me into cooking when I was around 11-12 years old and since then there has been a constant parade of chefs inspiring my every step, thoughts and decisions. If I could even become a fraction as inspiring as recently retired Professor Tim Lang, chef Dan Barber and food writer Lizzie Collingham, I would be very happy indeed!  

What is your favourite cookbook?
As someone who buys too many cookbooks (I have to hide them from my partner), I don’t think I can choose just one, especially as they are all equally useful in their own ways.

Who do you think are the chefs to watch over the next few months?
I love Lorna McNee, I know she’s in the limelight, but there’s definitely more to come.

What’s been your favourite new restaurant opening of the last year?
I’ll let you know when we get out again. But for now, our own new outside dining space at the Black Bull is pretty exciting!