Ryan Chetiyawardana: Shaking up the bar industry with a focus on fun and sustainability

Cocktails have taken on an exciting twist in recent years due to a number of bartenders championing a resources-conscious approach. Ryan Chetiyawardana, aka Mr Lyan, is a pioneer when it comes to devising cocktails that are non-conventional, low-waste, focused on flavour, and quite frankly, kick-ass.

His first bar, White Lyan, which he opened in London’s Hoxton in 2013, was a real game changer. It served as the launchpad for the “closed-loop cocktail” or low-waste cocktail. Whether you’ve watched a bartender make a cocktail or whether you make your own cocktails at home, you’ll be familiar with the amount of waste that is generated from just one drink. White Lyan however managed to reduce their bar waste so much so that the only thing they actually threw away were bottle caps and some of the plastic packaging around things like napkins.

To be able to do that, White Lyan used no perishable ingredients – no fresh fruit nor ice – nor branded spirits nor mixers. Instead of relying on citrus fruits – some of the most frequently used ingredients in many cocktails and also, quite often, the largest generators of waste – Ryan Chetiyawardana and his team used alternatives like vinegars, distillates, shrubs and cordials to sour the drinks. Gone were the lengthy wait times to be served a cocktail at the bar. A bartender would simply fetch a pre-batched bottle from the fridge or freezer, pour it in to a glass et voila serve to a customer.

The closed-loop cocktail essentially changed the dynamics of cocktail making as well as drinking. The experience put sustainability on the bar, so to speak, and made the environment a priority. It also made cocktails more accessible to people who may have otherwise perceived cocktails as “not in their league”, and enabled bartenders to enter into dialogue with their customers rather than their time taken up making a cocktail.

White Lyan debuted the closed-loop cocktail and a circular approach to bartending at a time when there was, what Ryan Chetiyawardana refers to as, “resistance” from the bar industry. “I think they saw it as a challenge, almost an attack on the way that the industry had been set up – and it was never intended to do that,” he recalls. “It was like we can still have these wonderful luxury things but it means that we don’t need to also generate tonnes of waste.”

All of Ryan Chetiyawardana’s bars guarantee equal parts fun and equal parts sustainability. When he and his team first started out, the primary thing that they had to address was to take away some of the stigma around the word “sustainability” – breaking it down for both the industry and consumers in a way that made it exciting and not so far removed from them. “Sustainability isn’t a sexy word,” Ryan Chetiyawardana explains. “It doesn’t ignite the same things that people go out dining for. People go out and they go: ‘I want it to be delicious, I want it to excite me and I want it to be a new experience’. So a lot of the first points in that were to try and show that it could still be all those things.

“You don’t necessarily win people around by shouting at them about the facts. It’s really crucial that it’s fun – this doesn’t mean to be at the detriment of it being delicious. One of the major problems for a while was that people saw sustainability as a sacrifice – that notion that ‘if I want to do something good for the planet, it means I have to drink out of jam jars and I’ve got to be able to only eat XYZ’ – and that’s not the case. That was one of the things that I was really keen to talk to people about – it can still be fun, and it’s not like nature doesn’t create delicious things. It’s just that systems had been set up around it that meant it was kind of sucking the soul out of our food and drink a little bit.”

Much has changed for Ryan Chetiyawardana and his bars as well as the wider industry since White Lyan and the latter Dandelyan came on the scene. “Some of the first things we started to look at with closed-loop cocktails, we knew they were kind of scratching the surface,” he says. “It started to really tackle the waste side head on and it’s now something that’s really started to become commonplace than before.”

The award-winning bartender closed White Lyan in 2016 and Dandelyan late last year. He decided to close the bars not because they weren’t doing well – far from it in fact, both were huge successes and each closed on a high-note, Dandelyan taking the top spot at last year’s World’s 50 Best Bars awards, in addition to other accolades. It’s just that Ryan Chetiyawardana’s desire to bring in “new concepts” and “new ways to bring people together” meant change, and that change came in the form of fresh ideas, new bars, and new cities even.

In March, Ryan Chetiyawardana opened Lyaness at Sea Containers London on the South Bank. It has taken over the space that Dandelyan once occupied. While the staff are the same as Dandelyan, the new bar with its new décor presents a new theme.

At Lyaness, the cocktail menu, made up of 21 drinks, steps away from traditional cocktails to focus on seven ingredients – including banana, peanut and raspberry. Here Ryan Chetiyawardana applied his approach as a former chef to cocktails, creating drinks with his team at their lab that were ultimately led by flavour rather than recipes. While the bar owner acknowledges that Dandelyan and White Lyan succeeded in shaping a movement towards “sustainable drinking across London”, he describes Lyaness “as an evolution of this legacy”.

Such flexibility and ingenuity demonstrates how Ryan Chetiyawardana is as much an innovator, a changemaker and an educator as he is a cocktail wizard, carefully crafting cocktails as well as businesses that are nothing short of magick. He too has a strong team behind him – like-minded souls with an equally innovative approach to their craft. Chatting with Ryan Chetiyawardana, it is very apparent that he is guided entirely by his intuition – the physical, spiritual and magickal components that is his very being completely in-sync. “Change – we do it in quite a drastic way,” he says, referring to the bold steps of closing his bars to make way for new ventures and adventures.

“But I think everybody should keep themselves open to those ideas, because the whole point is the world evolves and if you are not changing with it you are either being stubborn or you are being arrogant. As I say we do it in a more extreme sense where we burn things to the ground and do something different but I think there needs to be this shift. In a world that is challenging expertise and going back to this very old school mentality, innovation and change are really important.”

While sustainability is a very natural part of all Ryan Chetiyawardana’s operations, his own drive towards sustainability he admits, “came from the realisation that it just makes sense”. Growing up in a household where food and drink was important, and raised by parents who are Buddhists, there was a mindful approach to living and a respect for nature in its entirety. “Growing up we didn’t waste things. Not only was it a bad use of limited resources, but I think there was something in that it does have a connection and you don’t just waste stuff, it’s not respectful of everything that’s gone into that whole process to use things just once and throw it away,” he says.

It was during his time while studying Biology at Edinburgh University, when he worked in kitchens before getting a taste for bartending, that he became exposed to the issue of sustainability within the industry itself. “I was working with a small venue in Edinburgh. The owners were doing all that they needed to do and they were looking after their staff well. But they were buying all this local produce and we were using it just in a singular sense and then throwing it away. I was like: ‘we know that there’s flavour left in that, why are we doing that?’ It kind of struck me as odd that we weren’t questioning that,” he says. “I was a biology student as well so I think there was some of it that was driven by understanding that everything is connected – you can’t really look at it in isolation.”

A large part of what Ryan Chetiyawardana does is about raising awareness. “I see education as one of the most crucial things in tackling a lot of the problems that we face,” he says. His bars and Hoxton-based restaurant Cub – a collaboration between him and Doug McMaster of zero-waste restaurant, Silo – are as much places to acquire knowledge as they are to savour flavours and taste sensations.

Over the years, Ryan Chetiyawardana’s focus on sustainability has long surpassed the waste factor. Seeing the bigger picture, as it were, there is now an emphasis on human sustainability, which he says is often overlooked. There is much to consider – everything from the farmers they source from, the people that deliver their food, the people that help manufacture it, as well as ensuring their own team’s needs are met.

While the industry endeavours to make changes in their everyday practices, consumers also play a valuable role as catalysts of change, as Ryan Chetiyawardana notes: “There’s so much that can be done just by asking the question: where did this come from? The more and more people start to ask those questions, the more venues will realise that it’s important to the consumer. It doesn’t need to be a massive assault or a boycott of things because again that doesn’t help things change in a proactive way – say if you see vegetables on the menu, ask where they came from? Even if they [the venue] don’t know at first, they’ll realise that it’s important to their guests and it will start to do a shift in change.”

London has a vibrant bar scene thanks to the likes of Lyaness, as well as Matt Whiley’s Hackney-based bar, Scout, and Bermondsey’s Nine Lives – all of which operate sustainably. Many bars and bartenders worldwide look to London’s example as a source of inspiration. “There’s a really community at the moment,” the Lyaness founder says. “But I think there’s going to be more of a chance to pool resources in the future. There’s a company called Foodchain that’s doing stuff that enables you as a community to support a local farmer and that farmer wouldn’t have otherwise been able to do it just supplying one place in London. So then as a group of bars or group of restaurants or a mix of them, you can support that farmer, and that’s really powerful.”

It’s fitting that Ryan Chetiyawardana’s latest venture has taken him to the Netherlands. His Amsterdam-based bar Super Lyan, set within a 17th century Dutch house, opened in April. The bar, which has cocktails on tap, borrows from each of Ryan Chetiyawardana’s bars both past and present. Super Lyan’s team deploys some of the methods used throughout the London offerings – so drinks that don’t rely on the traditional fallback of using sugar, citrus fruit or egg white. Although the bar is still in its infancy, the Super Lyan founder has been quick to note just how progressive the city is when it comes to sustainability.

“The Dutch have been very progressive with their agriculture. The fact that originally they didn’t have much land and they were trying to reclaim it, they were being inventive in what they did with it – everything from the working hours, the way that society is set up to look after people, the way they travel around the city, and the way they dispose of food and materials,” Ryan Chetiyawardana says. “And that’s what we’ve really embraced with the whole bar – the core of the concept is this idea of Dutch optimism. They have been very willing to try, to challenge or to do something different. We’ve noticed more opportunities, and it’s amazing. They are way ahead of us [in the UK] in a lot of ways and it’s made us notice that the UK really needs to step up its game.”

Ryan Chetiyawardana is acknowledged worldwide as a pioneer by both those within the bar industry and consumers. It’s inevitable then that his magick is taking him all over the world. Later this year, he will launch his first bar in the US in Washington DC. It too will be a process of discovery, presenting different issues around sustainability that are local to the area. “DC is fortunate because there are lots of amazing local suppliers and local farmers that we’re starting to have conversations with, but their systems are different and that’s a learning curve for us,” he points out. “Even the expectations around things are very different and that’s what we’re working on at the moment. Looking at those systems – we want to excite people and to educate. But we also want to feed off what’s happening in the US and learn from it.”

Mr Lyan

Rosa Medea is Life & Soul Magazine’s Chief. She writes about lifestyle including sustainable and green living. She also offers content services to businesses and individuals at Rosamedea.com

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