Matsunaga: Meat does not make a pub unsustainable

By Amelie Maurice-Jones

- Last updated on GMT

Spinning plates: Nina Matsunaga talks sustainability and customer expectations
Spinning plates: Nina Matsunaga talks sustainability and customer expectations

Related tags Cumbria Food Chef Social responsibility

The Morning Advertiser caught up with the head chef of the Black Bull in Sedbergh, Cumbria on how meat fits into a menu that’s focused on sustainability.

Nina Matsunaga, who heads up the gastropub, which is currently ranked 35th in the country​, wanted to work against assumptions that ‘meat equals bad’ and show customers that meat-based dishes could suit a sustainable diet.

Lamb dishes and beef pies were some of the most popular items on the menu. Beef nibbles also did very well, as did more traditional foods like rabbit. “We’re a very ‘red meat eating country’ here,” said the chef.

Local lamb, for instance, comes with homemade lamb liver pate, a biscuit and a cherry topping, a lamb loin piece, slow cooked lamb in a shepherd’s pie with a mash topping and some more cherry on the plate and some seasonal wild garlic.

Customers and operators alike were becoming more attuned to sustainability, she believed, as they learnt more about climate change, food miles and carbon footprint. Pasture-fed beef, lamb, chicken and pork was becoming more common to match this trend.

She said: “It’s about making people more aware of these issues, and also making them aware that if you want to be more in tune with the life around you, you can’t just have whatever you want whenever you want.”

However, she was aware this flew in the face of the message given by supermarkets: “You can have avocados 10 times a week,” she added, “but you shouldn’t.”

At the Black Bull, Matsunaga wanted to show people that meat wasn’t a bad option just because it had received bad headlines in the press. She wanted to champion pasture-fed British beef, and maybe serve less pork.

“People don’t really think about how bad some meats are compared to others”, she added.

Education is key

Food was a “rabbit warren” at the minute, the chef continued, and it was difficult to do the right thing. But that didn’t stop the team from trying. 

“We’re reading a lot, we’re trying to educate ourselves, we’re trying to go to lots of talks, and we try and educate our customers without educating them,” she said.

When customers dine out, they want to have a good time, believed Matsunaga. “They want all their decisions to have been made for them and for the decisions to be right,” she said.

Guests didn’t want to know the ins-and-outs of how a pub had sourced specific ingredients. If a place was clear on its sustainability credentials, that was good enough for them, she said.

However, since Covid, there had been a rise in “demanding” guests who would grill staff on the environmental impact of the food. 

It was “really hard”, said Matsunaga, as guests were more aware of environmental issues, but not educated enough to make all decisions themselves.

While customers sometimes offered useful words of wisdom, such as suggesting the pub offered takeaway cups, others were “just trying to catch you out,” according to the chef, who said this could come off as “aggressive” and “a little bit offensive”.

But the kitchen staff wanted to show customers that having two to three cuts of meat on a plate did not mean the pub wasn’t sustainable. Chefs try to take a nose-to-tail approach, using an animal’s whole body, for instance. A pig’s head, for example, is used in dishes like Pig’s Head Terrine.

Knowing the backstory

“We know where this product comes from,” Matsunaga continued. ‘It’s a good quality product, and if we didn’t have this then we would have an anonymous piece of beef from a wholesale butcher that I’d have no clue if it was even British or not, where it’s been, how its life was or what age it was.”

They even know the names of the animals coming into the kitchen. “it works for us,” the head chef added, “and we use it all and nothing usually gets wasted.”

Matsunaga also forages for wild garlic, leeks, hedgerow herbs like ground elder, then berries in summer. Chicken of the wood and oyster mushrooms they can forage, as well as rosehips and wild dog rose in winter. 

Most grow in the surrounding area, so foraging can be kept casual and accessible for the team and combined with a dog walk. “It’s nice to get out and to do something a bit different,” she said.

However, she acknowledged that there was always more to improve to become more sustainable. Staff could work on finding organic milk and dairy suppliers, as well as sustainable suppliers for veg, and could also look to grow more on-site.

“We are working at it slowly and doing as much as we can without overstretching ourselves and jeopardising everything from one night to next so the customers all freak out and the staff can’t keep up,” Matsunaga added. 

She said: “It has to make financial sense as well, plus protect our staff to not do too much at once. But we are working on it.”

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