“Opening The Black Bull from scratch was a huge challenge” – James Ratcliffe & Nina Matsunaga

Husband and wife team, James Ratcliffe and Nina Matsunaga opened their first eatery in 2014. The Three Hares went on to win numerous awards and appeared in the Good Food Guide. In 2016, they acquired a former 17th-century coach house in Sedbergh and have since transformed it into an award-winning gastropub with luxury accommodation. Inspired by Nina’s Japanese heritage and James’ childhood in the Yorkshire Dales, the menu at The Black Bull in Sedbergh is a delightful blend of British, European and Asian cuisines.

Prior to the second national lockdown being announced, we interviewed the talented foodie duo as part of our ongoing series of Q&As with inspirational Yorkshire business owners…

Could you tell us a little about what you were doing prior to opening the Black Bull in 2018?

Black Bull, Sedbergh

I had been working in hospitality for many years, both independent and chain. Nina trained in Culinary Arts in London, then did a PHD in Food Policy, working several food and chef related roles, including Cookery Teacher at Dusseldorf’s famous Franz Petzchen School.

When we met, we started ’The Moocher’, serving food at farmers markets and festivals before opening the award-winning Three Hares which we still run and own.

Who in the hospitality industry inspires you the most?

That’s a tough one. So many in different ways. Fergus Henderson was a big influence for us both, especially with his philosophy of nose to tail eating!

From a business point of view the guys behind Hawksmoor, Tom Kerridge, David Chang and locally, Simon Rogan, are big influences, especially as they have all built quality brands, with diverse offerings. Each has created something beyond just a restaurant, which is something we’d love to do more of. 

In terms of chefs and the creative aspects of the kitchen, there are a number who carved out their own niche and managed to reflect what they feel and represent. Particularly Dan Barber, who has revolutionised the link between chefs and farmers. Alongside that, he has made us all think about our relationship with the produce we use. Ana Ros, Magnus Nilsson, Sean Brock have all made the best of what they have around them and turned that into somethingtruly exceptional. It’s hard to ignore Rene Redzepi for his part in this, and of course Simon again.

Possibly slightly embarrassingly, I wouldn’t have been so enthused to look at food differently if it weren’t for Jamie Oliver. He really changed things at the beginning and that resonated with me.

Have you faced many challenges since opening the Black Bull? If so, how did you overcome them?

Yes! Many. You just have to keep pushing. No matter how many times you get it wrong or how many times you find yourself stuck in a rut, you just have to keep moving forward. There’s no other way. All of the hard work you undertake will hopefully pay off in the end. There are no guarantees but if you don’t believe that, it certainly won’t happen.

Does your initial vision for the Black Bull differ much from how it is today?

It doesn’t now but we had to go round the houses to get there. It’s much closer to our vision now but there’s still much to do.

Most hospitality businesses have had to make significant changes to their business models during the pandemic. What changes have you had to make?

We’ve had to make lots of changes across the business but several have actually been for the better. We have of course had to follow strict guidelines, reduce hours, covers etc but we’re now much stricter on times and turning tables to counter these issues. The biggest change we’ve made is to close the business two days a week, which at present has had a huge positive impact for ourselves, our team, overall efficiency, and the business’s profitability, but I guess time will tell.

What do you feel are your greatest achievements?

We are the kind of people who think we could always be doing things much better. So, we’re always pushing to do a little bit more and trying to achieve that little extra. Opening the Black Bull from scratch was a huge challenge and certainly wasn’t easy. I guess overcoming that and getting it to where it is today. The awards, mentions, inclusion in restaurant guides and the reviews have all been happy additions in the process.

If you had one piece of advice for someone thinking of opening a restaurant, what would it be?

Stick to your guns and do what you know. Have faith and be honest with yourself and your guests. If you don’t it will show.

What does the future hold for the Black Bull?

We’re hoping a lot. We’ve still got the outside space to develop even further. Think courtyards, brewery, smokehouse, curing and preserving rooms, and that’s just the start. We’re currently further developing the Three Hares deli and are taking it online, which will allow all our brands to create new revenue streams. Nina would love to expand the bakery side of the business too, but we need to acquire extra pace for this to happen. We have quite a few restaurant and hotel concepts we’d love to explore and develop a little further down the road.

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