Pedaling the Vegan Message

Cycling chef hopes to win over a few stomachs, and hearts

Stefan Lynch hasn't quite figured out how to make a chef's toque stay put over his bicycle helmet, but if he's going to change the world à la lunch, he wants to do it with style. Losing a few plumed hats to the wind while trundling up San Francisco's grueling hills on his Trek mountain bike won't stop the vegan cook and biking activist-turned-entrepreneur from pursuing his organically grown, animal-friendly, pedal-powered mission.

The self-taught chef and strict, nondairy vegetarian who once bicycled 4,000 miles across the United States is combining his passions -- political, environmental, and gastronomical -- to launch a new catering service. He hopes it will make him not only a purveyor of good food to the hungry office workers of City Hall and the Financial District, but a messenger of social responsibility among the people who he says need to hear it most.

With every lunch he delivers, Lynch hands out a newsletter, extolling the vegan way. He writes the articles himself, pointing out that carnivorism, cars, and corporate profits are not the path to better living.

Food for Thought: Vegan chef Stefan Lynch delivers a lunch and a message designed to woo San Francisco's carnivores.
Bobby Castro
Food for Thought: Vegan chef Stefan Lynch delivers a lunch and a message designed to woo San Francisco's carnivores.

And at about $20 per meal, Lynch isn't cooking for the vegan choir. He's feeding the downtown yuppies who can afford high-end food and service. These wealthy customers may drive to work in gas-guzzling SUVs and eat steaks for dinner, but Lynch believes they can aspire to more humane living, if they only knew better. And lunch, he says, is an easy -- and fun -- place to start learning how.

Lynch calls his new venture Food Chain, and after a brief trial run in August plans to gear up full time in early October. "I'm marketing to people who may wear a suit and tie, but deep down want to put on a dashiki and live consciously, or at least care about what they eat and enjoy good food that's good for them," Lynch says.

During the trial period, Lynch whipped up three-course meals at his Upper Haight apartment and bicycled them directly to office desks around the city. He cooked up to 20 vegan lunches a day (the most he can prepare and deliver at one time on his own), using organically grown produce usually pulled from the ground of a local farm the day before.

His daily printed menu-manifesto also included recipes and stories about the historical importance of the meal's dishes.

"Food is very political," Lynch says. "As in the political history of sugar, which is the political history of slavery. And the tomato is fascinating, too. It shows the long history of colonialism."

Refined sugar is a no-no in vegan diets. Tomatoes are OK. But honey is not -- it comes from bees. Any food that results in the killing or exploitation of animals -- or humans, in the case of foods picked by migrant workers in fields sprayed with pesticides -- is shunned.

The food, Lynch swears, does taste good. It's not all brown rice and lentils, he argues, and at 6 feet 2 inches and 240 pounds, he offers himself as a beefy example that vegan fare can prompt second helpings.

"I eat well and I eat a lot; the notion of the scrawny little vegan is not always true," Lynch says. "Vegan does not have to be bland, brown, and mushy. I'm a gourmand who creates fine cuisine. I love to push the vegetable envelope."

Indeed. Consider a recent lunch: wilted spinach with toasted pine nuts, water chestnuts, and plum wine-infused dried cherries. Asian vegetables and shiitake mushrooms in ginger-black sauce over vermicelli rice noodles. Seared cantaloupe with raspberries in a mango-ginger coulis.

Lynch knows it's the food, not the politics, that will keep him in business.

"Customers will eat my food because it's healthy, tastes great, and convenient," he says. "I don't expect them to start throwing blood on people who wear fur, or liberating farm animals."

Because Lynch is catering to a higher-end market, he also knows service is as important as the food. That's why he is so attentive to details, such as his delivery uniform and the food's presentation. He wears black pants and a white chef's jacket, with cycling shoes, of course. His bike, however, is stripped of any identifying decals and painted white. His helmet is white, too. And when he can get it to stay put, a toque blanche sits on top.

Each lunch is packed in a Pin-Tho, a tall, stainless-steel cylinder lunch pail native to Thailand that contains four stackable sections. Lynch puts salad in one section, a side dish in the second, the entree in the third, and dessert in the last. He tows up to 20 full Pin-Tho pails -- about 80 pounds -- around San Francisco in a trailer attached to his mountain bike. Flat areas first, hilly sections last. And he won't deliver to the Outer Richmond or Sunset neighborhoods simply because a bike, a trailer, and one man can only go so far. He plans to cook (7 to 10 a.m.) and deliver (10 a.m. to 1 p.m.) three days a week. In between, he'll work on recipes, chop the vegetables (6 to 9 p.m. the night before a lunch day), write his newsletter, balance the books -- and rest his calves.

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