In this special episode of “End Of Day Drinks,” VinePair’s editorial team is joined by Ryan Chetiyawardana — also known as Mr Lyan —an award-winning bartender, bar owner, and international tastemaker. However, Ryan is also a global sustainability champion. Listeners will get the chance to learn how and why sustainability is front and center at Chetiyawardana’s bars.
In luxury establishments, material waste is a major issue, and Chetiyawardana has sought to change practices in his bars and across the hospitality industry. Finally, Mr Lyan gives listeners an update on his future ventures, including a partnership with Johnnie Walker.
Or Check out the conversation here
Tim McKirdy: Hey, everybody, this is Tim McKirdy, staff writer at VinePair, and welcome to the “EOD Drinks” podcast. Joining us for today’s episode, we have Ryan Chetiyawardana, an award-winning bartender, bar owner, international tastemaker, and sustainability champion. Ryan, welcome to the show.
Ryan Chetiyawardana: Thank you so much. A real pleasure to join.
T: And as always, I’m pleased to be joined by my colleagues on the VinePair editorial team, including Joanna Sciarrino, Cat Wolinski, and Katie Brown.
Joanna Sciarrino, Cat Wolinski, and Katie Brown: Hey, guys!
T: Ryan, you run bars in Washington, D.C., Amsterdam, and London. I’ve heard you describe the soul of your bars as being a mix of luxury and sustainability. I’d love to get into what that looks like in real terms. Before that, I was thinking we should start with a quick primer on how you got to where you are today. I believe you’ve previously worked as a chef. You studied fine arts, biology, and philosophy at some really incredible institutions. How did that lead you to become one of the world’s best-known and highest-regarded bartenders?
R: Well, that was a very kind introduction, thank you. But I think it’s quite similar to when I chat to friends and peers in the industry, I don’t feel like anybody’s had a straight trajectory into the world of hospitality. I definitely jumped around a bit. It’s fairly typical for the industry. I think it’s one of the things that makes it so exciting. You’ve got so many different backgrounds and different perspectives as a result of the way that people stumble into the industry. For me, it was that passion of finding something that felt like an output for my interests. That was always, to me, a balance of science and an art perspective, as you touched upon in some of my studies. There was something really amazing when I first started working in the industry. It was the switch I made from being in kitchens into bars, where you just got to see the response to something that you were making for somebody. It is a wonderfully rewarding role of essentially making people have a better night out. It’s addictive in terms of that. I had a thirst for trying to explore the industry. I tried to cover pretty much everything from the back of the house to the front of the house. I think I’ve worked in every style of venue from fine dining to nightclubs and bars. It’s been a fun journey of trying to pick up little bits of influence because they’re all doing the same thing, with just different audiences. And just trying to find a way of carving out something that I didn’t think was being addressed in the industry when we kicked things off. It’s almost been 10 years of the Lyan company, which is crazy to reflect on. That has brought us to this wonderful position where I get to jump between London, D.C., and Amsterdam between different projects. Yet, all of these projects have this idea of, as you say, trying to address what luxury and sustainability can look like and what we can bring as a way of exploring hospitality experiences.
T: I’d love to hear more about that, especially looking into what sustainability looks like behind a bar because I’m sure there are things that span across all industries or every aspect of life. Can you highlight some of the main areas that guests or our listeners don’t realize that is really important and placing sustainability front and center when it comes to running a bar program?
R: Of course. I think it’s the difficulty as a topic where I describe it as a hydra. You cut off one head and two appear because it’s never a static topic. It’s evolving and it’s actually very different in the places that you are. You might face very different challenges being in the U.K., whereas you might do in Australia. However, I think there are also some common ones. Food in a lot of respects, because of its link to agriculture, is actually a major contributor to climate change. At the same time, that’s manifested through things such as monoculture crops, intensive farming, heavy processing, or packaging of materials. It’s also on the waste side of things. A luxury item was seen as something that you would trim off a lot to get to the heart, to have something very polished to present to a guest. Particularly, spending time in some of the more traditional luxury environments, I saw a lot of that. But it was something that I saw across the board. Everything was very tight in the industry. Margins were tight, resources were tight. There would be inevitably a lot of material waste. That would be packaging, that would be your bottles, your water usage. There would be leftover organic waste. Over the years, we’ve tried to address some of those, and particularly, to begin with, it was looking at the waste. A lot of what you would see in the food and drink world is a primary use of an ingredient. That’s possibly trimming off down to a little nugget of meat or it might be squeezing citrus just for the juice and then the rest would be discarded. If I jump back 10 or 11 years, that was just the norm. People were using the same ingredients who were going after the “prime cuts” as a catch-all term. They weren’t really thinking about alternatives, different ways of processing the whole usage of an ingredient. I suppose the understanding is the insight of where it came from and what system that was part of. Over the years, we’ve tried to delve into that, to understand it, and really learn where these kinds of connections come from and what opportunities there has been to change it.
T: It’s so interesting because you mentioned something before about the link between bartending and working in the kitchen. I used to work in a kitchen, and people may think that the more natural link is between a sommelier and a bartender. I would argue that it’s definitely closer between the bar and the kitchen. You also mentioned the idea of prime cuts. The way that I have experienced it as well in the kitchen is where the off cuts get used for the staff dinner. I think they call it family meal here in America, but that’s another aspect of sustainability where if you’re doing that with too many ingredients, it is not going to be a profitable business — especially in an industry where the margins are so tight.
R: Yeah, I completely agree. Similarly, coming from a kitchen background, to begin with, but I’ve always seen it as food and drink. It’s that one and the same. Drinks are just an aspect of food that’s consumed in a different way. One of the major bits of work I saw that was a breakthrough was we just worked as a single team, particularly when we had a restaurant, we would take an ingredient and decide whether it was best manifested on a plate or in a glass. It wasn’t really about this food and drink divide, because if you think about a guest experience, nobody sees it as a split thing.
T: That’s so true.
R: You want it as a full experience. You would find it odd if your drinks came and then your food took an hour gap before it all turned up. To me, it’s quite odd as an industry that we put up our own barrier between those two worlds. Absolutely, in terms of the sharing of knowledge and the skill sets, we’ve seen such amazing developments, and not only from creative growth. I think that’s one of the aspects of sustainability that I really love — the problem solving, the way that you can come up with solutions when you’re working as a single unit rather than dividing it out into the kitchens and bars.
Katie Brown: Hey, guys, this is Katie. I have a question relating to what you were mentioning earlier about waste and specifically when you talked about citrus. I know that from a drinks world perspective, a lot of that waste comes from garnishes. What are you doing for your garnishes to make them more sustainable? How do your patrons react to that?
R: Yeah, absolutely. Again, this has been an evolving thing over the years. I suppose, with our first bar, White Lyan, had no perishables. We didn’t use anything that wasn’t going to degrade, so garnishes were interesting there. We *developed paints and spritzers that were distillates to be able to give that aroma flourish or something that would change kind of the journey of the drinks. You’d have something like paint on the lips before it translated into the drink. As we moved into things like Dandelyan and Lyaness and the other venues, we looked at trying to use up ingredients to make sure that we aren’t generating waste or using anything that would previously be termed a byproduct. How can that be transformed into something as a garnish? Again, it’s not only something that is esthetically pleasing, aromatic, and functional from the classical garnish perspective, but it’s also a storytelling device. You’re giving an opportunity to introduce stories about sustainability to a guest without too much of an assault on a worthy approach to the story. It has changed a lot as time has gone on, but one of the things that we’ve been really conscious of is garnishes. You need to have a different production schedule around it. There were some that we had really good success with. We ended up mummifying citrus at one point, where it was the fourth use of the citrus by the time we’d gone to this point. Essentially, we were using embalming techniques from actual mummies, which is fun. That was great to explore. It was not very sustainable from a human point of view. The labor and the hours that went into it didn’t quite match up, and the worst for that is where you’re actually generating waste to create a byproduct garnish. I’ve seen examples where we’ve fallen prey to it in the past where something’s become very popular. We were using a byproduct, but the economies don’t quite match up, and we’re almost juicing to be able to have the leftovers to make this garnish, which is completely nonsensical. We’ve adapted a lot over the years, and we ended up doing a lot of work of exploring preservations from quite ancient techniques such as sugaring, salting, smoking, and dehydrating, but applying it to things that were really abundant. It was something that we learned a lot from Douglas McMaster of Silo. He’s been a collaborator, a partner, but generally a huge inspiration. One of the things that he talked about was abundant materials, things that you can use that are plentiful. How could we take some of these streams and then apply the beauty of booze as a preservative? How can we find ways of transforming that, particularly into garnishes? That was where we found a lot of those difficulties, as you say, with citrus or whatever it was, where you’d have excess or an imbalance. Trying to find abundant ingredients that we could process in that way was a real change for us in terms of what we could do in terms of garnish materials. I hope that answers that.
T: I think that’s a very in-depth answer.
Cat Wolinski: Hi, Ryan, this is Cat. I really like the idea of luxury and sustainability working in tandem. I’m wondering if you can translate that to the home, to a more casual setting. What is an easy way for home bartenders or inexperienced drinks enthusiasts to make a sustainable cocktail at home? For example, how could I use the entire banana to make a drink?
R: I think there are probably two parts to that question. I think the first is some of those techniques are easily adaptable in the home. Again, it’s amazing to see the wealth of resources that have come out. We try and share as much information as possible that people can replicate, but there’s a ton of different people that have been working in this field. Iain and Kelsey with Trash Tiki were very much part of the extended family, same with the Tin Roof Community, but from those early days as being a wealth of different bartenders sharing tips and tricks. Again, a lot of it is simple techniques. It’s not about having fancy equipment. You can do it with an oven or a hob. It just takes a bit of care in terms of being able to think about your materials and how you’re going to be able to use them completely. The same change that’s happened in terms of people’s home cooking with a little bit of preparation and foresight, you can adapt what your waste output is going to be. It’s really amazing to see that increase in terms of the home bartender. The other side is the luxury aspect. It’s shifting a bit of mentality. I think the days of luxury being about ostentatiousness, natural excess, and waste have moved on. The education has gone hand in hand with it, where imperfect fruits, things that have come from a local farmer’s market may not be the perfect shape and it may not be your expectation of what a strawberry or tomato or whatever looks like, but actually really over-delivers on the flavor. Then, it also supports a balanced agricultural system. I think those things have become a massive driver for the people making more conscientious drinks at home. That’s extending not only to the sourcing of ingredients, but what ingredients can you use for your drinks. Classically, for balance in a cocktail, you’d use citrus for your acidulation, and you’d use sugar as your sweetener. As food conversations have moved forward, the access to alternatives and the knowledge is, I suppose, that bump in that expansion, and what is considered luxury has changed a lot. People are more considerate and more willing to use things that are a bit better for the planet, and they don’t come at any sacrifice to any of the deliciousness.
T: In the industry in general, you talk about this already being a 10-year journey. Do you think that this idea of sustainability has changed from being like, “Oh yeah, that’s Ryan’s thing, that’s Mr Lyan’s thing” versus saying, “No, this is something we need to all care about?” Can you open a bar these days that blatantly ignores that and the industry is fine with that? Do you think as a collective people have moved on to the place where this is something we all need to be thinking about?
R: I think it’s universal. It’s not something that you can ignore. I think it’s become very understood that everybody is responsible for this topic. It’s something that everybody has a part to play in. I think the other side of that is not about punishing people, and it’s not about saying that there’s a one-size-fit-all to this approach. I think everybody taking little steps is really important, and it’s really admirable. If you go to different markets, if you go to different setups, even down to governmental support. I think one of the things that we need to be really careful of is encouraging people to do it. You don’t encourage people by shaming them. Secondly, it is a process. Education is key. I think we have to be able to support people who are making the changes that are feasible for them to make. As an industry, as a whole, everybody is on board for this topic. I haven’t seen any blatant disregard for it at all. I think it’s amazing to see how universal it’s become in a short amount of time. It is also important to make sure that we’re encouraging this as a development, going back to that hydra point earlier on. It is really different in different places in the world. It’s an exchange of knowledge. We should all be trying to support and learn at the same time. I’m excited to see more of those conversations taking place, but I do think it’s going to continue to rocket. That is the beauty of the industry, that point that I discussed early on about people falling into it and coming from lots of different backgrounds, the problem-solving capacity of the industry is spectacular. You’ve got lots of fiercely creative people that are hugely passionate. Now, I think it’s been displayed by the Covid crisis that our food systems are on very stable ground. They’ve been propped up by passion, not by governmental support or wider alternative industry support. You’ve got people who are trying to come up with amazing solutions and are driving it forward with that creativity and passion. I think it’s a really exciting space to be working in.
Joanna Sciarrino: All right, I’m going to jump in here. I think that’s a good segue to talk about the Next Steps Initiative, which is something you’re partnering with Johnnie Walker on. Could you tell us a bit about this initiative, its goals, and why it was something you wanted to partner on?
R: Yeah, absolutely. We’ve had some really good successes, if I think back to the early days of White Lyan and how weird it was and how resistant people were to it at first. It’s from those points that we’re always trying to look at what we can do to kick this off as a discussion in the industry. We had some amazing successes, and some of the techniques are pretty commonplace in the industry now. It’s amazing to see. We were not the only ones ushering those in, but they succeeded is the way that I would look at it. It was always trying to find ways of amplifying those changes, things that we can affect as a bar and as a certain sector of the industry. How can we push that into another bracket? How can we find ways to have that conversation with larger groups of people? A big point to me was always about the scale change. How can we do that? The only way in which we can affect scale changes is with partnerships that believe in the same ideals. It was really amazing to see some of the conversations, and it’s been a part of their brand. It was really amazing to see that passion for the topic and in a genuine sense. I always lived in Scotland as a young bartender. I was close to the world of Scotch, and I visited the distilleries there and met the people behind it. There’s always been this connection with the land, and as it’s grown as an industry, it’s had its own teething. When we spoke with the team and we looked at the initiatives that they were undertaking, it wasn’t simply addressing the easy wins and having any effect of greenwashing. They were looking to make genuine, large-scale change. They were looking to facilitate that not only for their own business, but to support the hospitality industry, to look at ways in which you could translate through for guests, be both an educational and an actual actionable difference. To me, that was really exciting. It really tapped into everything that was part of our initial desires in terms of pushing this conversation forward. I was very excited when we started having those initial discussions. Now, we’re into the fun part where we get to bring them to life. There’s a lot of plans ahead, which is really wonderful. It’s not just a single campaign. It’s a real sea of different initiatives. I’m really stoked about it.
T: You mentioned something earlier that I would like to ask about, too, which I think is really important now, where you were talking about the balance of being sustainable or sustainable practices, but also that needs to align with your labor. I think that is a big question right now for all bar and restaurant operators just because of the impacts of Covid. Can you outline how that’s going to impact the way that you do things at your bars in the short term and what the next stages are for the industry going forward?
R: Absolutely. The question is how do we make sure it’s as equitable as possible? How do we make sure that we’re being as attractive to as wide an audience as possible? What does it also mean for the problems that we’re carrying forward? There were problems that were inherent to the industry that we need to address. I think it’s important to use this juncture as an ability to ask questions. We want to make sure that we can reopen. Some of that is putting in new plans for ourselves. I think that’s the other difficulty of the industry. You’re always running full pelt, there’s never any downtime. How do we use this as an opportunity to reflect on some of the things that were part of our systems for whatever reason, and try to find ways to improve? That’s everything from hours of operation through to workflows, and through to creative input. It’s the full gamut, but it’s also trying to learn from the industry. From our peers asking questions and from our team asking about what worked, what didn’t work. A big exercise that we’re trying to undertake at the moment is gathering that data so we can start to implant new systems and new ways of working. That’s particularly internally for us as a team. That’s a body of work that we’ve been trying to track alongside the reopening plans. But it’s also what can we do as an industry? There are some amazing initiatives on mentorship, some sharing of information and sharing of resources. Elizabeth Tilton of Oyster Sunday shared a load of resources for free, and she offered consultations and helped to find ways to bridge those knowledge gaps and give people the opportunities to understand more details of the business so they could set it up in that manner. Lynnette and Ivy with Speed Rack’s mentorship scheme. Over in the U.K., the Equal Measures Team is doing a mentorship program that I’m part of. Again, trying to find ways to support those knowledge sharing aspects, because there are some amazing platforms for education. I think it’s really helped allow the industry to steamroll in the way it has in the last few years, but how do we make sure that as many people as possible have access to that and can learn from those mistakes that we’ve all had to endure? If I reflect on some of the venues and the styles that I’ve had to work through, a big part for me was saying, “Well, how do we set it up that the next generations don’t need to have that?” Yes, of course, experience is wonderful, and there are positive things to be able to look back on. At the same time, there was a lot of setup of our industry that we don’t need to see perpetuated. How can we make sure that we’re listening, reassessing, and trying to find new ways of developing? It’s a tough one. It’s not something that I believe we have great answers to because it’s something that we need to do in unison. I don’t think it’s something that there’s a singular voice exploring. However, it is an exciting part of looking at how we can rebuild the industry in a new way.
T: It is definitely an important moment in which so many people have taken stock, reset, and, going forward, hopefully as together as possible. It’s an exciting time for the industry. One final question for yourself, within that, too, is what comes next for Mr Lyan? What can we expect? Are there any plans you can share with us, or are you looking forward to being able to travel and visit your different bars? I know travel has been restricted for everyone. What do things look like in the near future for you?
R: Obviously, a major part is the focus on the bars and getting them restarted. As a group, we’ve always tried to look at things differently. It’s a major part of what we try and offer to the teams is that breadth of creative expression. Of course, each of the venues has a particular style and direction in which they explore, but we’ve always tried to find ways of pushing the boundaries of food and drink in every aspect. The different styles of the industry we can collaborate with, different spaces, different manifestations of it. It’s also been a good time to reflect on where we can explore some of those new avenues. Part of that downtime development was looking at different ways in which we could strike up new partnerships and collaborations. It’s probably the area that I’ve always loved working in the most is where you get to cross paths and learn from and develop with somebody who works in a very different way than you do. Fingers crossed — not everything is 100 percent confirmed — but we’ve got some really exciting collaborations that will allow us to explore something quite new. That’s obviously something that I’m really passionate about for our team, but it’s also to try and demonstrate that the areas in which we can operate as an industry don’t need to be as hemmed in as they have been. I think it’s been great to see the adaptations to bottled cocktails and doing delivery services. I think it’s been a great illustration of how brilliant the industry’s minds are and how they can come up with different solutions like that. I’m also keen to say that is one slice of what we can do. There are lots of other avenues in which we can hopefully push things, so yeah, I’m really excited. I always remain optimistic about things, but particularly with some of the conversations that are happening in the industry now. Once we get through all of the troublesome stuff of getting reopened, it is a really positive and optimistic time for us as well.
T: Well, that’s definitely very heartening and inspiring to hear. Looking forward to seeing the developments there, as well as seeing you hopefully either in New York or in London sometime soon. Until then, thank you so much for your time today.
R: Absolute pleasure. Thank you so much.
Thanks for listening to this week’s episode of “EOD Drinks.” If you’ve enjoyed this program, please leave us a rating or a review wherever you get your podcasts. It really helps other people discover the show. And tell your friends. We want as many people as possible listening to this amazing program.
And now for the credits. “End of Day Drinks” is recorded live in New York City at VinePair’s headquarters. And it is produced, edited, and engineered by VinePair tastings director — yes, he wears a lot of hats — Keith Beavers. I also want to give a special thanks to VinePair’s co-founder, Josh Malin, to the executive editor Joanna Sciarrino, to our senior editor, Cat Wolinski, senior staff writer Tim McKirdy, and our associate editor Katie Brown. And a special shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, VinePair’s art director who designed the sick logo for this program. The music for “End of Day Drinks” was produced, written and recorded by Darby Cicci. I’m VinePair co-founder Adam Teeter, and we’ll see you next week. Thanks a lot.
Ed note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.