Ryan Chetiyawardana – aka, Mr Lyan – talks to The Spirits Business about plans for London landmark White Lyan, and how the wider industry could benefit from a ‘responsibility’ movement.
There’s always a pang of nostalgia when a much-loved bar announces it is to close its doors. And London imbibers are feeling delicate, having recently lost the likes of Lab Bar and El Nivel.
When Ryan Chetiyawardana, aka Mr Lyan, who heads the award-winning team behind Dandelyan on the South Bank and White Lyan in East London, suggested the latter was set to join the line-up of cherished closures, the rumour mill went into overdrive. But there is no need to panic. White Lyan’s provocative recipe for cutting a niche blended with an audacity for newness isn’t going anywhere.
As it turns out, Chetiyawardana himself is not quite yet sure of the exact future blueprint for the Hoxton haunt, which opened in late 2013. Media reports have bandied about both “evolve” and “close” when discussing the bar’s destiny beyond 2017. Mr Lyan himself, taking a break from the chaos of London Cocktail Week to speak on the phone, is both indeterminate and philosophical about the space.
“It’s probably a little bit of both of those points,” he says, cutting to the chase. “The bar is closing as a regular bar, but we are going to stay true to the ethos of what White Lyan was about.” On the surface, his vision is for a space to both serve drinks and showcase projects and ideas from the Mr Lyan team. “So it will be open to the public, just not as regularly as it has been up until now,” he confirms, in one breath putting many minds at ease.
Stripping back the buzz, White Lyan “was about hosting people, looking after them and making sure they have a great time,” Chetiyawardana says of the bar’s founding principles. But White Lyan was also intended to thoughtfully challenge the concept of what cocktails could or should be, and the role of the bartender.
While he says he never wanted the bar to be a “temple to the cocktail”, the ambition was to couple the warm welcome with concepts that “stimulate conversation”. Historically this has been around the concept of sustainability – White Lyan famously operates sans perishables, including ice.
But from talking with Chetiyawardana, one gets the impression he is hoping to widen that remit. Will this live on under the White Lyan name?
“Actually we’re kind of undecided on that,” he says. “I quite like the idea of it remaining ‘White Lyan’ because, you know, the whole purpose behind this was to ￼￼￼￼continue to push that conversation.” In a rare departure from his trademark pep, Chetiyawardana recalls the “snide comments” he and the team got when the bar opened from “people who imagined it to be something it wasn’t”. After all, he was opening a venue, which, in his words, “kicked the hornets’ nest”.
“We wanted people to question how they prepared things, how they used their ingredients, where they got them from, you know? It was never about saying, ‘This is the ultimate way or the best way of doing things.’ But ultimately it succeeded.” Now he sees many re-examining their use of perishables, be it on the cocktail competition circuit or in long-established venues.
“White Lyan wasn’t about no ice and no citrus, that’s just sort of a consequence of it. Ultimately it was about having these kind of prompts to be able to get people to sit up and pay attention to something different. And that’s really what we’re going to be doing going forward.”
So what can we expect from the new space, whether under the White Lyan mantle or by another name? More provoking, conversation-starting concepts will clearly be central. Chetiyawardana takes urban farming as an example. “We’re not saying, ‘Right we’re setting up a farm and it’s farm-to-table in the bar’, because it’s not about that,” he says. “It’s about saying, ‘This is a conversation around how we grow things and how we source things’.
“But we can only showcase this through a limited amount that we can get our hands on. [Perhaps] we’ll only be able to offer 30 serves.” Part of being Mr Lyan means a whirlwind schedule of talks, events and exhibitions. Expect themes explored in these settings to feature in the new space, and a desire to challenge convention. “That was partly the reason behind [the bar evolution]; we’ve been doing so many things [but] that doesn’t allow us to push that conversation to a wider set,” Chetiyawardana says.
The desire to counter on-trade culture goes beyond the bar itself. Chetiyawardana is considering his employment policies as a way to provoke wider change in the industry. “We’re changing the working hours for the team in the bar,” he says. “One of the things we want to challenge is the longevity within the industry. If the bar’s not open seven nights a week, if [the team] isn’t working five a week, if there’s a difference in how they’re putting things together, if they’re doing a day where they’re at a desk one day, in a kitchen the next day… that kind of variance I think is one of the things that is crucial to giving longevity to people in the industry.”
It is a noble cause, not only in terms of promoting a culture of creativity, but also self-care. “It’s a taxing job to be behind a bar five nights a week or seven nights a week, physically, on relationships, on everything, it’s tough. So if we can try to change that dynamic and make a difference in working hours then that pushes that conversation, too,” Chetiyawardana says.
This fits in with a wider movement of responsibility which is starting to filter through from thought-leaders in the industry. Chetiyawardana is part of the P(our) bartender collective, which held its first symposium in Paris in July. It seems to have inspired him, and he is taking seriously the responsibility that comes with being a leading light in the sector.
“We need to take responsibility for what we do. We are dispensing something which can be quite damaging so we need to be considerate of that and we need to do that with the due care and attention that anybody else who is handling dangerous materials would apply,” he says. “And it’s about collaboration, it’s about showing the fact that it doesn’t exist in a bubble, it exists alongside a balanced lifestyle.”
He also acknowledges a need for the on-trade to step up in the face of legislative challenges. “We need to be able to have a two-way conversation [with policy makers]; it needs to be an adult conversation around alcohol, because at the moment it hasn’t been.” He recalls a project where he spoke with governmental bodies and the NHS about the “benefits” from the health perspective of alcohol.
“It was tongue-in-cheek but it was a necessary conversation to showcase how there is this really crazy schizophrenic view of alcohol from the government side. On the one hand, it’s one of the most important manufacturing industries in the UK and around the world, it’s crucial to exports, it’s an amazing part of our tax economy, yet in the other breath it’s the cause of all of society’s ills. There’s nobody having a balanced conversation around that, it’s being led by a voice that doesn’t understand or represent our industry. So it’s really important that we have this conversation otherwise a very important industry is going to become closed down and kind of wrapped up in red tape just because we haven’t been professional enough to voice that side of the story.”
It is a real danger, and one which requires as thoughtful an approach as every other aspect behind White Lyan 2.0. Those wanting a final Lyan fix – in its current incarnation – have just under a year to enjoy five menus, each running for 10 weeks. “So basically it’s a year of the final exploration of the bar,” Chetiyawardana says. Take from that what you will.