Interview with Nina Matsunaga representing North West on Great British Menu 2024 – Women In the Food Industry

Great British Menu (GBM) returned to our screens on January 23rd for season 19. The BBC2 show puts the nation’s most talented chefs to the test. At Women in the Food Industry we are continuing our series of interviews with the strong female line-up of chefs from across Britain competing to serve their dish at the final banquet. Our co-founder, Mecca Ibrahim, interviewed Nina Matsunaga Head Chef of The Black Bull, in Sedbergh Cumbria.

Nina Matsunaga - Great British Menu 2024

How did you start working in the food industry and where did you train to be a chef?

I went into food straight after school.  I studied at  Thames Valley University, which is now The University of West London.

I did a three years bachelor’s degree in Culinary Arts Management there and I did a master’s in food policy after that, because it wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. A lot of people doing that course were already working for the government, or they were working for NGOs. But that meant it was quite hard sort of sector to get into, especially when you’re only 21.

I then went back home to Germany to work at a friend’s bakery,  just to dip my toes back into the kitchen. But I didn’t really want to stay in Germany and was keen to get back to the UK. So I took a job in Manchester in the catering department at one of the universities. I discovered the street food scene, and that’s where I met incidentally I met my partner to be James. We worked as part of the team at Trove for a while then set up our own street food and event catering business called The Moocher.

We left Manchester and moved to Sedbergh in 2014 to set up our first restaurant The Three Hares and later on to have our first child.  I’m now in the kitchen of the Black Bull.

North West Chefs Great British Menu 2024

How did you get onto Great British Menu this year and how did you prepare for the Olympics theme?

I was approached about five or six years ago, but it wasn’t the right time. But when they called again earlier last year we were in a good position. But then by the time I got ready for filming we has lost a couple of members of the team, but I thought I can’t back out now!

I found the Olympics theme really tough as I’m basically sports illiterate. I mean, I walk that’s honestly as far as it goes. So that meant  I had to do a lot of research. You know, when you’ve got like about 200, windows open on your laptop.

This is your first time on Great British Menu, how did you find it working in the studio kitchen and under the eye of the cameras?

I can see why having been on it previously, is kind of an advantage, which means that you know what to expect, and I would imagine everything  feels a bit more familiar. However as smooth as it looks on TV, it’s obviously not like that in reality, there’s a lot of breaks in the process and a lot of people floating about which can throw you a bit.

Nina Matsunaga - Great British Menu 2024

Which was the hardest course to prepare for when you were researching for GBM’s Olympic theme?

Without a shadow of a doubt it was dessert. It was the toughest thing. I’m not the biggest sort of dessert person anyway. I suppose it’s just knowing where your forte and where your passion lies. I suppose this is why a competition like this is good because it makes you do things that you wouldn’t normally do.

Nina Matsunaga - Great British Menu 2024

Did you embrace the props on the show?

I found that quite hard to connect, the props with the dish at times. In daily restaurant situation, you’re not trying to tell a story through your plates of food. I mean, you do use props to certain extent in a restaurant, whether it’s your crockery, your cutlery, whatever might be. But yes, so I did embrace them to a certain degree. But again, it was quite tough.

North West Chefs Great British Menu 2024

If you were marooned on a desert island, what was the one type of dish you could happily live on?

I did think about this and it’s really tough because I can live on the same food probably quite easily. I’m very repetitive person. But  I think congee is one of the things. It has the infinite sort of capability of being anything  you like. You can serve it as a savoury, or you can have a more tangy version, and you can have anything on top of it.

Nina Matsunaga with chefs knife - Amanda Farnese-Heath Photography

Photography of Nina by Amanda Farnese-Heath Photography

Otherwise, I would have to say, because I grew up in Germany, something sausage related. I could probably eat sausages every day. I’ve been in the UK for  about 19 years and I still haven’t quite got used to the sausages in the UK. They’re a very different texture and a very different type of sausage.

Nina Matsunaga seated - Amanda Farnese-Heath Photography

Finally, what do you know now that you wish you could have told your younger self when you were starting out in this business?

To have more patience. I think that’s a really big one. We’re very much Do First Ask Later people. When you’re young you want to move on quickly and don’t want to stay in a job if it’s not exactly perfect. But you have to have a bit of patience and trust in yourself to stick at things and see things through.

Nina will be appearing on Great British Menu from Tuesday 27th February 2024 representing the North West.  Look out for more in our series of interviews with the great women chefs on Great British Menu 2024 – this page will be regularly updated.

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