It takes a special kind of skill to juggle pulling pints for the locals, making stacked high burgers and sandwiches for hungry hikers and creating gourmet tasting menus for foodies. But Nina Matsunaga, the award-winning chef owner at The Black Bull at Sedbergh makes it look easy.

The 36-year-old chef, along with partner, co-owner and wine expert James Ratcliffe, knows whoever is going to step over the threshold of the award-winning rural pub will be well-looked after, well-rested and crucially, well fed.

That juggle is part of the melting pot that makes The Black Bull the special place it is. Nina’s own heritage – born in Germany to Japanese parents – forms a strong thread through the seasonal menus she puts together. Her dishes show a love of the land and are a celebration of local farmers and suppliers.

It’s location in Sedbergh, straddling the border of the Yorkshire Dales National Park, gives them the opportunity to showcase produce from both counties – think beef from the Yorkshire coast, near Whitby or from regenerative farmers in Morecambe Bay.

Great British Life: Part of the Black Bull dining room.Part of the Black Bull dining room. (Image: Amanda Farnese-Heath Photograph)

Nina’s skills landed her on the latest series of Great British Menu, where she competed in the North West heat. She had been approached several years ago but it wasn’t the right time.

‘We were fully staffed when they called again earlier last year so I thought it would be good to push myself beyond my comfort zone and be good for the business too,’ says Nina, who took on the pub and restaurant with rooms in 2018 with James. ‘When it came to filming, we weren’t fully staffed anymore but there was no backing out then.

‘It was my first time in the GBM kitchen, and the only woman in it too – it felt intimidating at times. There were some brilliant, talented and supportive women behind the scenes, like Rachel Stockley who used to be at Baraxturi in Ramsbottom, Lancashire, who I was very grateful for. Although it was a challenge, it was an exceptional experience competing alongside some very talented chefs.’

Great British Life: Nina, second from left with her Great British Menu contestants Ryan Stafford, presenter Andi Oliver, Andy Sheridan, Kirk Haworth. Nina, second from left with her Great British Menu contestants Ryan Stafford, presenter Andi Oliver, Andy Sheridan, Kirk Haworth. (Image: Optomen Television Limited, Ashleigh Brown)

Nina’s obvious ability as a chef, taking great pride in knowing exactly where and how her ingredients are reared and produced, and demonstrating a commitment to sustainability, is the lynchpin of what makes The Black Bull shine. Nina takes great pride in knowing exactly where and how her ingredients are reared and produced. It's one of the reasons she is passionate about regenerative farming and supporting local farmers and producers who rear animals in this way. Not only is farming in this way kinder to the animals and the planet, but also produces meat that is higher in essential nutrients and healthy fats, helping to diminish the myth that eating meat is bad for the environment. Nina and her team operate a nose to tail kitchen, dealing with farmers direct, with all butchering taking place in house, ensuring that every part is used, and nothing goes to waste.

The chef is allowing her food to speak for itself, alongside wines carefully curated by James, with a Taste of the Black Bull, a seven-course taster menu that celebrates all those influences in Nina’s life and allows her to nurture her creativity in the kitchen.

Great British Life: Lemon bavarois, blackberry, gin and tonic sorbet. Lemon bavarois, blackberry, gin and tonic sorbet. (Image: Amanda Farnese-Heath Photograph)

Dishes of British white beef tartare with a pleasing wild garlic sauce, line caught tuna with smooth, fresh wasabi and a wafer-thin Timothy Taylor’s ale cracker set the standard for the palate-pleasing plates to come. Homemade breads – the caraway flavour transporting my dining pal who grew up in Germany straight back to his childhood – were devoured with a choice of seasoned cultured butters. Barbondale fowl, sliced to display its pink perfection, came with red cabbage and a swirl of smooth kohlrabi. The next seasonal showstopper, again, used British White Beef – all ingredients are made the most of at this inn - and came with an XO sauce and citrus flavours that delivered an unexpected and pleasing punch to the dish.

The first of two desserts was a scrape the bowl, smooth cereal crème patissiere, a layer of sharp forced rhubarb, a spoon of sorrel ice cream and a delicate topping of buckwheat. The second an indulgent dark chocolate with cherry ice cream and flavours of macadamia, cherry, cacao, Szechuan pepper and toffee sauce – decadence on a plate.

Great British Life: Lobster, beef fillet and black garlic.Lobster, beef fillet and black garlic. (Image: Amanda Farnese-Heath Photograph)

Rather than a stiff, formal dining room, reserved just for those enjoying the tasting menu, diners, whether eating tasting menus, a la carte or less formal options, mingled to create a pleasing hubbub, perfect for a Saturday night’s dining.

For those, like us, who were staying over there was just a short stroll upstairs to more decadence with wood panelled rooms, super king size beds and talking point bathrooms – they are almost entirely glazed. Don't be sceptical - it works.

What Nina is crafting in her kitchens is quite remarkable. A total homage to her own roots, the area around the inn and the superb produce available in it, this talented chef, along with partner James’ equally talented eye front of house and on the wine lists, are creating a truly special experience.

Great British Life: Snacks of joy: Lamb bon bon, oyster with ponzu, maple pea hummus, courgette flower, beef and shiso. Snacks of joy: Lamb bon bon, oyster with ponzu, maple pea hummus, courgette flower, beef and shiso. (Image: Amanda Farnese-Heath Photograph)

Add in warmth and generosity by the bucket load, a team loyal to the couple and rooms that, through everything from the Cumbrian-made carpets and blankets to their own range of Petrichor toiletries made for them by Sedbergh Soap Company, celebrate the local area, you begin to understand just what magic the hospitality power couple are wielding.

Taste of the Black Bull, £79 per person. Optional wine pairing, £59 per person,

Great British Life: Nina Matsunaga's love for the land feeds her menu choices. Nina Matsunaga's love for the land feeds her menu choices. (Image: Amanda Farnese-Heath Photograph)

All about Nina

Born in Dusseldorf, Germany, to Japanese parents, Nina’s food is characterised by these two very distinct cultures. Aged 18, Nina, made the move to London to study Culinary Arts Management. By the age of 21 she was back in Germany, helping in a friend’s bakery and heading up a leading cookery school delivering courses in baking and game cooking.

She made a trip back to the UK, to Manchester, where she discovered a burgeoning street food scene, where incidentally she met her partner, James Ratcliffe. Nina fully embraced Manchester’s street food scene, working as part of the team at Trove for a while before setting up street food and event catering business The Moocher with James, which rapidly took off. In 2014 the pair made the move to Sedbergh and opened their first eatery, The Three Hares, which quickly won a host of accolades and appeared in the Good Food Guide.

These days you will find Nina behind the stoves in the kitchen at the Black Bull. Since opening in 2018, Nina been turning heads with her food, sourcing and cooking local ingredients to produce inspired dishes that are full of international influences.

Nina’s efforts have earned her a deserved reputation, which has seen her feature in The Good Food Guide, The Good Pub Guide and Hardens Guide. It has also earned the Black Bull's second AA rosette for culinary excellence, be recognised as the Best Pub in the North West by the National Pub & Bar Awards. Nina has also been awarded the coveted title of Best Pub Chef presented by the Craft Guild of Chefs and has also achieved a place in the UK’s top 50 gastropub list for the last two consecutive years.