Words by Sammy Hemmings
First name(s): Vnay
Last/Family name: Lad
Profession: Bar manager
“I’ve always been a fan of cooking and baking” says Vnay Lad, the bar manager at Livin’Italy Dough House and the creator of Bartender Bake, an initiative to network with his fellow bartenders in Leeds through desserts and cocktail pairings.
Our very own Paloma Alos met Vnay during the UKBG finals and came away captivated by his story.
“My friend Joe wasn’t in a good place,” Vnay recalls. “The hospitality industry is quite gruelling. It’s long hours, unsociable, you don’t see your family as much as you would a nine-to-five profession...he was seeing the negative side of the industry.” He made Joe a cake, a small token which went a long way.
“I initially started [Bartender Bake] just to show it’s not all doom and gloom,” he says. “It was a way to reflect the good part of the industry…people are in this industry because they’re really nice people and they give themselves to others.”
Growing up in West Yorkshire, England, Vnay stumbled into hospitality at just 16, working at a hotel, Cedar Court. “I just started off as their waiting staff,” he explains. “Essentially, bringing people coffee, taking away their dirty plates and polishing cutlery.”
While studying computer animation and visual effects at Leeds University, Vnay landed a job at the Queens Hotel in Leeds. Then, four years later, he was scouted for cocktail bar Banyan Bar & Kitchen and joined the opening team in 2016. A stint at Spanish tapas restaurant and gin bar Pintura followed.
By ill luck, the bar shut down suddenly. "I went in on Tuesday and they said, 'yeah, tomorrow you don’t have a job'," Vnay recalls. "It was a situation that no one wanted to be in." His general manager shared the news on social media and support from the local bar community flooded in. Hedonist Project, a sleek cocktail bar in Leeds, took him on the very same day.
Despite enthralled in the deep end at Hedonist, building his cocktail repertoire while working alongside acclaimed bar owners Tom Finnon, Dan Crowther and Bruce Lerman, Vnay missed the food sector of hospitality. When an opportunity came to join Livin’Italy Dough House, a restaurant and bar in the centre of Leeds, he jumped at it.
While bar professionals often have challenging lifestyles and long, unsociable hours, Vnay believes the bar industry has many positive aspects. "You’re serving other people all day, you’re making their day happy, making sure they’re happy," he says. "It’s a satisfying feeling and a lot of us forget that it’s a good feeling because we end up working too much."
"I love the Great British Bake Off," Vnay says. "My family have always been home cooks. They’ve always cooked a lot at home. My mum cooks quite a lot and she does a lot of baking. She used to do it with us as kids."
Following the first edition, Bartender Bake has evolved into a initiative to network with local bartenders while giving back to the bar community.
And besides following his passion for baking, Bartender Bake brings bar professionals together. Alongside Vnay's dessert, he asks the bartender to pair a drink to it. He'll then visit the bar to share his creation and to spend some time with the bartender. “It’s a good way to get to know people,” he says. “And it’s a good way to get out there and try something different.” His cakes include a banoffee pie, chocolate mousse and a New York cheesecake.
Vnay has received encouragement from his fellow bartenders, with a number hoping they can participate in a future edition of Bartender Bake. "It was really nice to see people supporting me in something I wanted to do. I wish I could do more, but making time that works for everyone is hard," he says.
And for Vnay, there's an abundance of great cake and cocktail pairings out there, but his favourite? “Sbagliato - the right level of sweetness and dryness that it goes really well with cake, or a really good coffee,” he says.
What about his dreams for the Great British Bake Off? “I’d love it if I got the opportunity to go on,” Vnay says. "Looking at the standards of it this year, I don’t think I’m ready yet... I’ll probably apply and if I get through I'll be like 'oh god, I’ll have to do this now'." We wish him the best of luck.
Take a look below at a selection of Bartender Bake editions.