Ryan Chetiyawardana

26th January 2017

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Sophie Davidson

26th January 2017

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Sophie Davidson

If you ask Ryan Chetiyawardana for advice on making better cocktails at home, he’ll tell you it all comes down to preparation. “A little bit of planning makes your life so much easier,” he says when we visit him for lunch on a glorious summer’s day in east London. Preparation is at the heart of everything Ryan does. At White Lyan, the small but revolutionary bar he opened in Hoxton in 20131, all the cocktails are pre-made. There’s no mixing, there’s no shaking, there’s no elaborate juggling of bar tools when you go up to order a drink: all the bartender does is open the bottle and pour.

It feels apt, then, but no less exciting, that Ryan has put a huge amount of thought and preparation into our lunch. This is the first Gannet interview we’ve ever done where each dish (there’s more than one) comes with a drink to match. Olives are served with genmaicha tea; a plate of tomatoes, cheese and lardo comes with cacao-nib-infused gin, rhubarb cordial and blanc de blanc; a fantastic pork dish is paired with an equally fantastic sherry cocktail; and to go with dessert – a sort of exotic Eton mess – he opens a bottle of ultra-rare Laphroaig 21-year-old whisky. He’s even written out a menu for the occasion.

The only hitch is that Ryan is hosting us at his sister Natasha’s house rather than at his own place in Canonbury. There’s not much to look at in his flat, he says, because he’s hardly ever there – and we can’t deny Natasha’s duplex in a private courtyard in Bethnal Green is very pleasant indeed. What’s more, he’s very close with his sister: they collaborate on the design for the bars (Ryan also runs Dandelyan at the very upmarket Mondrian hotel) and he says they have similar taste in most things: plates, glassware, restaurants. Natasha is away for the weekend but an old friend of Ryan’s from Birmingham, Bob Conwell, has gallantly offered to come along and help soak up the booze. Thanks Bob, we couldn’t have done it without you.

Continued below...

Did you grow up in a household where food was important?

Yes. My parents’ approach to cooking was very typical of a Sri Lankan family: you invite loads of people round and you feed them until they can’t move. My mum was a pastry chef so there was always cake in the house – you’d turn up unannounced and she’d be all, “Oh, I just made this cake” – just on the off-chance of somebody being there.

Were you allowed to cook at home?

We were baking cakes from a tiny age. One day when I was about six, my brother and I decided we were going to make dinner, so my mum said, “Okay, what do you need?” We went to the supermarket and got a few things to cook a stir-fry. And I remember us accidentally chucking half a tub of Chinese five spice over this chicken. We said to ourselves: “That’s not right… but we’ll just go with it.” And my parents politely forced their way through it. We knew it tasted terrible and they still persevered.

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Did you grow up eating a lot of Sri Lankan food?

Not really, strangely. We’re all spice wusses: my mum likes it but my dad’s not great with spice and I can’t deal with it at all. My brother and my sister have got better because they travel so much, so they’ve had to suck it up. You eat spicy food or you don’t eat.

You said your mum was a pastry chef. Did you learn from her?

Yeah. I learned a lot from how well she managed a kitchen. She taught us about cleaning and timing. You need to be methodical, you need to have a plan. It’s the same thing with drinks. If you’re making drinks for friends coming round, a little bit of planning makes your life so much easier: set-up, execution, clean up. It really is just a little bit of foresight.

We didn’t eat much Sri Lankan food at home. We’re all spice wusses: my mum likes it but my dad’s not great with spice and I can’t deal with it at all.

How did you get into working in bars?

In the year between school and university, I enrolled in the local catering college in Birmingham, wanting to learn the practical side of it. But I felt very alien in the kitchen. In our kitchen at home, you’d be standing chatting to people, cooking, and you’d just get everything done and you’d tailor it to what people liked. And all of a sudden in the professional kitchen you were away from it all. Removed physically, visually, in terms of interaction. It didn’t work for me. Then a friend of ours said: “If you want to chat to people, go work in a bar.”

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So it was the social, interactive element you were looking for.

Yeah. The understanding was that it was the same as the kitchen – you’d get to work with ingredients, developing flavours. But back then the bar and the kitchen were at completely different levels. Birmingham in 2002: it wasn’t exactly classy drinking [laughs].
Bob: There was this place we used to go that did 50p shots. So you could get a quadruple and Red Bull for a fiver.
Ryan: Get as loaded as you can in as short a space of time as possible [laughter].

Sounds like the height of sophistication… Were you working in bars during university?

Yeah, full-time working and full-time studying. I started out doing fine art at St Martin’s but had a bit of an identity crisis. I ended up switching entirely and doing biology in Edinburgh. I’d loved studying biology at school, but when it came at university, it was all about the quantification. So I switched again to philosophy: philosophy of arts and music initially, then philosophy of language, then political philosophy. All these different disciplines ticked different boxes. But the constant throughout all of it was being in bars.

It’s not just about the drinks. It’s about everything around it – the idea of bringing people together. You can have great music, great drinks, but you’ve got to look after people.

Were you working in a good bar in Edinburgh?

Yeah, I ended up in a bar called Bramble, which is still my favourite bar in the world. It really cemented my outlook on stuff. It’s not just about the drinks. It’s about everything around it – the idea of bringing people together. You can have great music, great drinks, but you’ve got to look after people.
It was the first bar I’d ever worked in that wasn’t themed in some way. That was really important to me. I don’t really like the idea of themes. So the bar side got interesting for me then. I was able to think about designing a menu that appeals to lots of different people, but from a more modernist perspective. What is affecting taste? My first interaction with that was trying to understand the physiology of how our palates work. I understand the biology of it and I’m quite happy reading a scientific paper on that kind of stuff. I ended up getting absolutely lost in this whole world involving the tongue, the nasal passage, the olfactory bulb – a massive web of neurology. A complete maze.

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Does it help to think about those things, or does it get in the way of making a tasty drink?

Well that’s the thing. It was helpful… but also a terrible way of looking at it. My lecturers, who were super-supportive, put me in touch with [experimental psychologist] Charles Spence down at Oxford. He sent me loads of papers and it just changed my thinking on this stuff. It kind of reinforced what I think intuitively: if people recount the favourite meals they’ve ever had, the first thing they talk about is who they were with, where it was: the setting. They don’t necessarily talk about what they ate. Exploring this idea was really interesting to me.

Tell me about setting up your first bar.

So I came down to London to work with [cocktail guru] Tony Conigliaro and I ended up running the lab at 69 Colebrooke Row. They basically wanted to do a modern take on a gin palace: how do you update something from the Victorian era? I had complete carte blanche to do whatever I wanted. That became The Whistling Shop.

How long were you there?

About a year and a half. Meanwhile, I had this plan with my sister Natasha about doing our own project. The idea for White Lyan was there for about five years. Thank god we didn’t open it earlier – it would have been an absolute bomb. It’s always about time and place: I couldn’t imagine White Lyan in any other city – and if we’d tried to open it at any time other than when we did, it would have been a disaster.

Because of the financial crash?

No, in terms of the scene.

People weren’t ready for it?

No. The world of bars at the time was all focused on block ice, citrus, cocktails à la minute [prepared to order]. White Lyan was reacting to that. I think – you know – it still is a stupid idea.

The place I crave is Black Axe Mangal. Lee knows where to get the best ingredients and he knows what he’s doing – it’s finesse without being tweezered. And they play metal, which ticks another box for me.
Ryan on his favourite food places in London

What do you mean?

Well, it’s a very odd bar. It doesn’t surprise me that nobody else has tried to reproduce it. It’s a bold thing to do, and if you were to repeat it, it would very obviously be a repeat.

Can you be more specific?

Well, doing the no ice and no citrus thing – it would be very odd to take that on as a project. The bar was always meant to be a starting point. The idea of challenging the setup and devising new ways to deliver drinks – that echoed with people. Making a cocktail à la minute was all about showing people the whole process. But if you do that, you end up making people wait for however long and you don’t necessarily increase the quality. From the initial reaction, which was in some instances quite negative, you get people adopting the transferrable elements: having less waste and a more sustainable bar, having a different way of putting the customer first. That’s increased hugely and had a massive impact.

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Which elements would people not replicate?

The lack of ice, the lack of branding.

So there are no brands in your bars?

No, we don’t really use them. We use stuff like Campari, but all the spirits are ours – all the stuff in the bars is ours. It’s a different financial model.

We’ll come back to bars in a bit. Can you talk me through an average day in terms of what you eat and drink?

I tend to go with fruit and yoghurt as my wakeup.

I remember visiting Natasha and we did 15 bars in five days. Michael, her then boyfriend, was like “this is relentless, this isn’t fun”. And maybe I’ve got a twisted view on that, but I thought it was fun.

Being in the bar industry, do you surface a bit later?

No I tend to be up late and then up early. Ian [Griffiths, Ryan’s business partner] and I average between four and six hours sleep. That’s not for everybody, but that’s the way we’re geared. So I get up early, and if I’m in London I go to the fruit shop [see Places] every two days and pick up mad fruits, good yoghurt and honey – I’m obsessed with honey. It’s a really simple breakfast but the monotony of it has never caught up with me.

You vary the fruit.

Yeah. Bananas are the constant: I love bananas. One of the fruits I find really interesting is the granadilla – a Colombian relative of the passion fruit. The seeds are amazing, it’s expensive but worth it. I’ll have berries when they’re in season. I drink Henrietta [Lovell, owner of Rare Tea Co – see Things]’s tea – black teas in the morning.

Never coffee?

I did drink coffee for a while but I get really wired off it. I think I’m quite sensitive to caffeine – that strange hollow feeling.

Do you eat three meals a day?

I do. I’m a pig.

You don’t like missing out on meals.

No. I punctuate my day around it. It’s very easy to run around and then go, “Ah, I haven’t eaten since 6am.” And I don’t think that’s a good thing to do. So lunch is usually… if I’m east, there’s some great street food stuff outside White Lyan so I’ll grab something from there. I’ve picked this up from my mum – unless I know where it’s come from I tend to eat vegetarian. We’ve been doing a lot of talks on sustainability and I ended up researching loads about the meat industry. It’s not put me off, but it’s made me think more about meat – I don’t need to eat it at every point in my day. Then dinner… I’m rarely home so I eat out a lot. That’s partly a research thing. It’s a really inspiring way of exploring what we do – go to new places, see what they’re doing. I still have plenty of favourites.

If someone gave you a free ticket to go and eat and drink anywhere in the world, where do you go?

Probably Japan. Or I’d do Australia properly. The quality of the everyday food there is so high and the ingredients are amazing.

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Do you always have your work hat on when you go out to bars and restaurants, or are you able to relax?

It’s quite a fortunate position: work is play. I remember visiting Natasha and we did 15 bars in five days. Michael, her then boyfriend, was like “this is relentless, this isn’t fun”. And maybe I’ve got a twisted view on that, but I thought it was fun.

Are you frequently impressed by the bars you visit?

I’d say the bar is high. There are different perspectives: sometimes it’s a really inspiring cocktail, sometimes it’s the place. I’m not always judging it, though I tend to be more critical when that authenticity isn’t there. When someone is just doing it for money, or it’s been engulfed by something else, it loses its sheen.

On The Menu

Lunch with Ryan Chetiyawardana
London, July 2016

To eat:

Olives
Cheese, tomato, lardo »
Pork, bread »
Fruit, flowers »

To drink:

Genmaicha tea
Gin, cacao nibs, rhubarb, Blanc de Blanc »
Amontillado, apricot, tonic water »
Laphroaig 21

Do you have favourites – bars or restaurants?

It’s hard to separate from the occasion. My favourite meal was my 30th at Fäviken [Magnus Nilsson’s restaurant in the north of Sweden]. We did Noma and a few other restaurants on the way up, but Fäviken really stuck out. When I get together with my brother and sister, we either fight or laugh, but this time we were laughing and it made the whole experience feel amazing. It was similar being in Japan, having amazing cocktails, going for food, going for karaoke. Hidetsugu Ueno [of Bar High Five in Tokyo] was beyond a host. Him taking us out, showing us around, giving us an insight from a local perspective – I loved that.

So Fäviken was good?

Amazing. Worth the trip. There’s a lot of great restaurants in the world, but the isolation and sheer focus at Fäviken is pretty incredible. You get there and the saunas are on, wine and beers out, salami is there. It feels so hospitable. Of the 20 dishes we had, only three didn’t blow me away. And by that I mean: “I never tasted something like this before.”

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You mentioned you don’t eat spicy food. Do you have any other aversions?

I don’t like oysters. Never understood them. I’ve really tried as well. It’s basically a snotty wave.

I often wonder if I like oysters because I feel that I’m meant to like them. Other people are passionate about them, so am I just picking up on their enthusiasm? For years, I just tried not to gag…

Ryan: That’s it – a food you have to battle that much with, I just don’t get.
Bob: I think you can break foods, though. I’ve done it for a lot of stuff.
Ryan: For sure – there are things you can grow into. I talk about that a lot with whiskey. At first a lot of things are quite difficult to break into, but then you start recognising the flavours you like in it through exposure, or different context, and so then you encroach more into that category. But oysters are very definitive – a big, salty sea-whack. It just reminds me of being turned over in the waves as a kid. None of this is fun. I don’t know about the Icelandic hákarl [fermented shark] either. It smells like death. Rotting horribleness. Apparently it burns your mouth as you eat it. Nobody I know likes it – I was talking to [food scientist] Harold McGee about it and he said that in New York, when you’re walking past the piles of garbage that have been sitting out in the sun and you get that waft, you’re transported back to Iceland. That’s not a positive connection to have.

I don’t know about the Icelandic hákarl [fermented shark] either. It smells like death. Rotting horribleness. Apparently it burns your mouth as you eat it.

The far end of cheese brings out those analogies – who would want to eat someone’s 10 day-old sock?

I think that’s really interesting though. We try and play around with those sets of flavours, experiences, substrata stuff. So parmesan is quite high in butyric acid which is the same as sick. I’m interested by things that have these two sides: allure and disgust.

I didn’t know parmesan had the same acid as sick – the minute you say that it’s identifiable.

It’s strange that all cultures have developed a liking for that rancidity. We like decay when it’s coupled with something attractive. It’s a strange thing, but fun to explore. I’m not quite sure how we got on that tangent. Rotting stuff: delicious [laughs].

Let’s change the subject. Tell me about opening Dandelyan at the Mondrian hotel. It’s a quite a different proposition to your first bar.

The challenge was how to bring the warmth of White Lyan into this wonderful, opulent setting – how do you make that accessible to people? We hope it’s innovative and exciting but still feels like something anybody can be part of. We never want to be gimmicky or elitist. That’s not what a bar is. It’s a democratic meeting place where you meet with your friends and have a great time. The menu was 18 months of development…

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So when the bartender opens a bottle and pours it – that very simple procedure is backed up by a huge amount of work.

Absolutely. If you look at the way Michelin kitchens work: White Lyan orders the same number of ingredients, the prep is on a similar level. Dandelyan does 100 hours of prep just to be able to churn out those cocktails. In both bars, I still see a sense of theatre – the consideration is the theatre. That we can take a bottle, pour it out, and it tastes complex and varied and all those things – there’s a confidence in that execution that I love.

Old Laphroaig is like the Holy Grail. Amazing. Seriously, it’s incredible. Massive tropical fruits. So this is a bottle of the Laphroaig 21.
Ryan on his favourite drinks and ingredients

Because that’s the obvious question that people would ask: where is the theatre?

I always talk about a teppanyaki chef and a sushi chef. If you sit around a teppanyaki with a group of friends, you get the fire, the passion, the flair – but there’s that exact same thing in the confidence and focus of the sushi chef. Cutting up a fish seems so void of theatre, but it’s mesmerising. It’s a different occasion. I’m not drawing a direct comparison, but the point is that everything in White Lyan is done for a purpose. One of the nicest compliments we had was being compared to St John, where they understand the temperature of the dish is part of the seasoning. Terrines aren’t served out of a fridge. We’ve considered everything – glass temperature, pH, minerality – but at the end of the day somebody gets a tasty drink in 10 seconds. They don’t need to know that we’ve gone through all that process.

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Any tips for making good cocktails at home?

You can achieve great things if you have great ingredients. That’s the best starting point. Having a good shaker and glass makes it easier to control what you’re doing, but you don’t need to spend hundreds on bar equipment for your house – it doesn’t fit the occasion.

So good ingredients are a priority.

Yes, and that includes ice. That’s often overlooked. Having proper ice allows you…

The only things in my freezer at home are glasses, booze and ice.

And what is proper ice?

Having ice-cube trays. Bagged ice is just chipped ice, it disintegrates. The only things in my freezer at home are glasses, booze and ice. Obviously you don’t want meat coming into contact with it – if you have potentially dangerous ingredients in there, it’s worth keeping it separate. Bigger ice gives you more control.
There are some other things to pay attention to. A lot of home glassware is really big. It’s quite hard to balance drinks on that scale – that’s why you end up with a pint of gin with a splash of crap tonic on the top. A well-made gin and tonic is an exceptional cocktail, but a lot of the time it’s not well made. Put a bit of attention in, and it’s really easy. It’s the same with cooking: you can make great meals with amazing ingredients. You’ve just got to apply the right thinking beforehand.

For more about Ryan’s bars, click here.

Ryan has a book. It’s called Good Things to Drink With Mr Lyan and Friends. Buy it here.

Follow Ryan: Instagram | Twitter
Follow White Lyan: Instagram | Twitter

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  1. White Lyan is scheduled to close in 2017. Ryan and co-owner Ian Griffiths are turning it into a creative development space

Posted 26th January 2017

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Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Sophie Davidson

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