Chef, designer, philosopher, scientist and runaway winner of Imbibe’s Personality of the Decade. Laura Foster takes a peek inside the madcap genius world of Ryan Chetiyawardana
At the start of February the cream of the UK on-trade gathered at Oriole for Imbibe’s Personality of the Year Awards. On top of the usual festivities, to mark the magazine’s 10th anniversary there was the addition of a special one-off Personality of the Decade award.
And it tells you much about Ryan Chetiyawardana that when he was announced as its winner, he was probably the only person surprised by the outcome.
‘I was completely floored by that,’ recalls the co-creator of the Mr Lyan brand, owner of the boundary-pushing White Lyan and Dandelyan bars and winner of just about every industry award going, when we sit down to lunch in Hoxton. ‘Obviously, it’s lovely to be at the awards. I see it as a really important part of the calendar, and it was great because Aidan [Bowie, head bartender at Dandelyan] and Iain [Griffiths, business development manager of Mr Lyan] were up for awards. It was nice just being there. Then when that came up I was really shocked.
‘I roller-coastered through feeling crazily honoured, to feeling a little guilty. If I think of the people that have been mentors to me… I was very blown away by it. For a decade, having been trying to stride out on your own and worrying that you are upsetting and insulting people through trying to do something different, to get recognised like that was really amazing.’
And there you have Chetiyawardana in a nutshell – sickeningly modest, wonderfully supportive of friends and family, and pusher of envelopes. The bartender who quietly thinks things through to the nth degree and turns the norm on its head; yet does it all without taking himself, or what he’s doing, too seriously.
Who else would giggle at the thought of revealing the fact he’d grown a garnish from his cat Batman’s poo? This is the man who questions even the most commonly accepted fundamentals of bartending, such as the belief that ice and fresh fruit juice need to be used in drinks.
But how did he get to this point?
The son of a Sri Lankan couple, Chetiyawardana grew up in the ethnic melting pot of Birmingham. ‘Because it was a big city, a lot of the bands would come to play there in small venues,’ he recalls. ‘Music was such an important part to me and my friends, so we would make sure we had the gig tickets. We were the ones who got in front and centre and fired our way through it all.’
The youngest of three siblings (with a stepbrother two years younger than him), it is Chetiyawardana’s sister, Natasha, who has perhaps had the most impact upon him. The eldest of the clan, she’s a highly successful product designer and creative who has worked closely with her younger brother on the development of the business and Mr Lyan brand.
‘Natasha and I are quite similar. She is fiercely independent and terrifyingly talented. It was really difficult growing up. She was terrifying. I was even more scared of her than I was of our parents,’ he laughs, with a glint in his eye.
Having trained as a chef during his year between school and art college, and cut his teeth as a bartender during this time, too, Chetiyawardana packed his things and moved to London to do an art foundation course at Central St Martin’s.
‘There were really passionate and amazing people there, but there were also people that were really pretentious and contrived,’ he remembers. ‘I felt this really odd pull, I delved into it in a very different way. I used to bring my scientific background to it and felt like there was an aspect of that academic world that was a crucial part of my creativity.’
That love of all things scientific came out when he went up to Edinburgh to study biology. ‘The idea of going to Scotland where I didn’t know anybody was really appealing to me,’ he explains. ‘I just wanted to throw myself into a whole new thing. I had this identity crisis about what was going on, trying to find an outlet. I was like, “I’m going to go somewhere completely different”, and I fell in love with Edinburgh.’
To his own surprise, he was less in love with biology and switched to philosophy after a year. ‘That’s why it took me so long to leave university!’
Having finally graduated, he decided to do a master’s degree in political philosophy, writing his thesis on social contract theory.
‘It’s odd how study takes you in different directions,’ he muses. ‘I would have thought that I would be doing philosophy of art and music. That’s what my interests always were. Social contract theory, I suppose, is trying to understand people, and that’s what I loved.’
In the background to all this studying were the bar jobs. ‘I worked full time and loved that. It was such a nice thing feeding both into each other.’
From starting out as a barback at a restaurant in Birmingham to working in a London nightclub cocktail bar from 4pm to 4am (‘they would just pile us full of booze. One time I went through work, finished, broke down the bar, was drinking with the guys, and went, “Oh shit, I’ve got to go to college”’) to being bar manager in a boutique hotel in Edinburgh, Chetiyawardana worked his way steadily up the ranks before joining Bramble.
‘It was always my favourite bar,’ he says. ‘I loved the guys [co-owners Mike Aikman and Jason Scott]. I was just in awe of the way they ran it. It was the first bar to me that wasn’t themed. It was about all the things that were important to me as a bartender, and I’d never come across that. I remember the first time I went in I was like, “This is exactly my outlook on being a bartender”.’
From there he joined Tony Conigliaro and Stuart Bale at 69 Colebrooke Row in London, where, still a science lover at heart, the laboratory caught his attention.
The Lyan Family
One of the most striking things about the Mr Lyan team is the loyalty among them. Social media announcements by the team when they move on often describe leaving ‘the Lyan family’. This was no accidental development.
‘You work in venues and take lots of positives away. But I think that my biggest learning from working for other people were the things I knew that I didn’t want to do,’ explains Chetiyawardana.
‘Conditions [in the industry]are hard. It is hard to pay people the way they deserve. It’s unsociable hours. Some of the things that I encountered, I never wanted any of my team to have to deal with that.
‘We want to support them, we want there to be growth for them. I want everybody to be creatively empowered no matter who they are, and I wanted them to feel part of something.
‘[This company is] very much theirs. I say their house, their rules, but it’s a collective rules. We believe in the same ethos and the idea of doing things differently.
‘If somebody moves on, it’s their time to move on. I want to help them. I want them to look back on that time with us in a positive light. That’s the way I see it as a family thing, people move and they go to different places and they grow in different ways and they might change and develop. But you can always come back to a family.’
‘I’d been creating a lot of experiments at home over the years,’ he says. ‘I was trying to make every spirit. I grew grapes, fermented them, made brandy. I didn’t malt the barley, but I mashed barley, double distilled it, made whisky. And they had a dedicated lab for it. I pitched that I’d come and work if I could look after the R&D stuff, working in the lab. We were doing 120 hours a week in that place.’
The last piece in the jigsaw puzzle of experience was joining the Fluid Movement team to work at
Worship Street Whistling Shop. ‘The guys had this vision, they wanted to do a modern interpretation of a gin palace. Anything else modern, go for it. We were doing bottle-fermented cocktails, low-pressure distillations, high-pressure distillations, living cocktails that I called “time-travel projects”. That was seven years ago, and I think some of that stuff is still relevant now.’
It was while creative director of Fluid Movement that he approached the team about his idea for White Lyan. ‘I said “Natasha and I want to open a bar. Would you be interested in taking a share in it and being partners?” They said no. It’s interesting to think back how different it would have been… but I left amicably, and we’re still really close.’
It’s easy to see how all this experience has fed into his work in the Mr Lyan brand, from biology influencing the ‘modern botany’ in Dandelyan, to his philosophy studies encouraging him to think around subjects from a completely different angle, which in turn led to him and his team kicking the door down on certain practices and beliefs.
The first of these was White Lyan’s no ice, no citrus rule. ‘When we announced the concept I was at Tales [of the Cocktail],’ he recalls. ‘Some of the comments back were hilarious and very little of it positive. That’s because people saw it as a “Fuck you” – and it wasn’t. There was a bit of it that was designed to challenge, for sure. The fact we got such a strong reaction to that is indicative of the fact that we needed to challenge it. Because people get so stuck in their ways.
‘There was “These are the rules of bartending”. It’s like, really? Do you believe that? Do you think that’s the only way it can be? Do you think that’s a healthy thing for our industry going forward?’
What’s perhaps most astounding about it all is that he hit upon the concept for White Lyan five years before the bar opened in 2013. ‘Had we opened White Lyan at the time I came up with the idea, Christ it would have bombed. We got that reaction in 2013; had we opened five years before that it would have seemed so out of touch.’
As it is, the multi-layered ideas behind White Lyan – the batching of cocktails so more emphasis is placed on hosting, and the idea of sustainability in the on-trade being just a couple of examples – kicked off a massive discussion in the industry that’s still going on today.
But less than four years after opening, things are changing again. White Lyan has closed for good, only to be reopened as two separate venues, and will no doubt introduce further thoughts and ideas to the on-trade, evolving the industry further.
Dandelyan, meanwhile, is on the last incarnation of its series of ‘botany’ menus, and who knows what Chetiyawardana has planned for there next?
Business development manager Iain Griffiths – who has been there since the beginning – is leaving the UK to pursue his Trash Tiki project, though he is staying involved in the business.
‘I can’t manage any of this without Iain,’ Chetyawardana told Imbibe before Griffiths had made his announcement. ‘He’s the first person I worked with who worked like I did. I’m very wary of talking to people about the way we work, because I know that other people can see that as the way you should work to achieve what we do.’
Whatever is in store for Chetiyawardana and the Mr Lyan family in the next decade, it’s sure to be a fun, unusual and thought-provoking ride.
‘Our industry gives a lot of genuine moments of positivity,’ he reflects. ‘It’s very enriching, feeling like you’re making a difference, creatively growing and feeling connected with people. We have a very enviable position – we do what we love.’
Ryan Cheti on…
Talking for the trade
‘I see a responsibility whenever you hit a certain point in any industry to be a voice for it.’
‘The world’s small, we can converse with people. We can go beyond the confines of it being about food and drink. The number of talks that we’ve done that aren’t seemingly related to our industry, it’s wonderful.’
‘I don’t think either Iain [Griffiths] or I has punched in less than 100 hours a week in the last 10 years. It’s just the way we are. Fortunately, neither of us needs a lot of sleep.’
‘Do we have to just squeeze out the lemon and throw the rest in the bin? Even if we don’t think it tastes good, we know it tastes of something. We haven’t even explored that. With even small bars throwing bags of this shit away, is that the only way to do it?’
‘We don’t want to rest on our laurels. The bar’s changed. The number of cocktails we’re doing at the moment is terrifying. If you look at it in a business sense you set up a bar and you go, “This will be your sales mix”. We’re doing more than 100 hours of prep, and we never expected the bar to grow with the cocktails to be the entire focus. Now that it has, it’s great. We just need to adapt to that.’
‘She’s amazing. I’m fond of people who strike out on their own, have a real direction in something and who have had to fight against whatever that is. I think it’s a really admirable thing.’
‘We were cooking from three years old. In one sense we were just slave labour! We were always taught that it was an important part of the world.’
‘I was growing things from a tiny little kid. I got a propagator when I was about five.’
‘I see any creative endeavour as a way of trying to communicate an internal vision with the world. You’re trying to find a way of translating that internal language to somebody else who doesn’t share that internal language.’