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Pedaling the Vegan Message 

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

Wednesday, Sep 22 1999
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.

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.

If all goes well the 27-year-old Lynch will make a living winning over the stomachs -- and if he's lucky, the minds -- of San Francisco's elite. "Vegans aren't my customers," Lynch says. "They tend to not earn enough money to pay someone to cook for them." Lynch admits that while enlightening yuppies, he hopes to make a buck off them, too.

Stephen Stafford, a conference planner who works near City Hall in the Civic Center district, participated in Food Chain's trial run and is eager to sign up as a regular customer.

"I'm a yuppie and I'm a customer because the food is incredible," Stafford says. "And I'm a big carnivore."

Stafford says he always thought vegan food meant tofu, or was inherently dry and tasteless. He was surprised by Lynch's creations -- even though he didn't always know what they were.

Lynch makes it a point not to provide a menu in advance. Customers do not know what they will eat for lunch until it is delivered to them. Mainly because the food is so fresh (picked at the farm within hours of being prepared) that Lynch doesn't know what produce will arrive until it is time to begin cooking. But the no-menu idea also helps ease anxious carnivores who might be scared of trying, say, sweet-rice balls in a lychee-almond syrup.

"People are enlightened because they are exposed to something they might not have ordered because it sounded too weird. Hopefully their palates will expand," Lynch says.

Stafford liked the culinary surprises, and came to enjoy Lynch's accompanying newsletter. After a while, he looked forward to the newsletter as much as lunch. Stafford says the issues are interesting and relevant, like passages about Cesar Chavez when a special meal was delivered on the activist's birthday, and stories about revolution when another lunch was prepared with a French theme on Bastille Day.

"At first I thought people would be scared by his politics or pissed off by them, and no one would want to eat his food," Stafford says. "His politics are really left, but they're not crammed down your throat with the food. The newsletter isn't preachy at all. It's actually very well written and entertaining. And it's not insulting or accusatory if you do happen to eat cheese pizza or vegetables grown with pesticides."

Lynch has invested about $5,000 in his upstart catering business, buying large 40-quart pots and other needed kitchen utensils, the Pin-Tho pails, and the trailer for his bike. He also plans to spend between $400 and $800 a month leasing commercial kitchen space so he won't have to cook on his Magic Chef oven at home anymore. Lynch charges $20 a lunch because he says it costs him nearly $10 to make it. The price would be half if he didn't use organic foods grown by local farmers. "But then I wouldn't be cooking what I want to cook or how people should eat," he says.

Lynch has business experience helping direct a nonprofit organization in San Francisco, and his culinary talents were tested when he lived in a vegan collective and had to cook for large groups of people on a daily basis. He is confident his food will be a critical success.

"I guess there is a chance people won't like it, but I have to count on the fact they will," Lynch says, a little nervous about the risks of starting a business venture. "There will always be someone who doesn't like eggplant, but if you cook it right, they should."

And if all else fails, there are the leftovers. "Food never tastes better," Lynch says, "than after a long, hard bike ride."

About The Author

Joel P. Engardio


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