Most of us know the Met Gala for its fashion, from the glamorous outfits adorned by our favorite celebs to the fashion rankings and reviews that populate social media the days after the event. But there’s more to the Met Gala than walking down the red carpet and taking pictures: dinner.

Every year, the Met Gala’s guests enjoy a catered meal as a part of their evening, and this year was no different. Earlier this month, the gala went plant-based for the first time in an effort to bring attention to sustainability and the conversation on climate change. The main driver of this effort was Marcus Samuelsson, a chef with roots in Ethiopia and Sweden, and restaurants across the world. For Samuelsson, the inclusion of a fully plant-based menu was an important component for this year’s gala.

Courtesy of Marcus Samuelsson.

“It’s important to nod at plant-based, because every dish we did could go viral,” Samuelsson told Spoon University. “We put it on Instagram, we put it on Vogue, and that was an opportunity that could have been meat, or fish, or something else that would have gone in a more traditional way."

Samuelsson believes plant-based diets could be more prominent and that, as chefs, it’s important to drive that dialogue and change.

”That’s how you set trends in fashion, that’s how you set trends in food,” Samuelsson said. “In the climate change moment we're in, how we process and where we buy the food from is an important part of that conversation. So why not get ahead of that and be responsible and be more plant-based-forward?”

The gala’s plant-based menu was brought to life by Samuelsson and a talented team of 10 New York-based chefs coming from diverse cultural, culinary, and professional backgrounds. The roster included Fariyal Abdullahi, Nasim Alikhani, Emma Bengtsson, Lazarus Lynch, Junghyun Park, Erik Ramirez, Thomas Raquel, Sophia Roe, Simone Tong, and Fabian von Hauske. Each chef was carefully selected by Samuelsson in an effort to promote inclusivity and expose the world to their food, their talent, and their unique stories. “They represent what the food scene in New York today looks like, what the next generation of food looks like, tastes like, where it lives,” Samuelsson told Bon Appétit.

After being selected to cook at the Met Gala, Swedish-born chef Emma Bengtsson was filled with nervous excitement.

“Whenever you have the world looking at you, you get a little bit of performance anxiety,” she told Spoon in an interview. “But I’m a huge fan of the Met Gala. I follow it every year and I think this year, as well, it was so appropriate [for me] to be part of it because of the theme of being American and what America is and the history of it. Coming as an immigrant to this country is part of what America is about, so I am super honored to be able to cook this year.” 

Courtesy of Emma Bengtsson.

At Aquavit, a Nordic restaurant located in midtown New York, Bengtsson brings traditional flavors and the old ways of Nordic cuisine into the modern food scene. Here she got her start in the New York City food scene as a pastry chef, and now serves as Aquavit’s executive chef, holding two Michelin stars at the restaurant.

Though plant-based cooking is not her forte, Bengtsson was excited about the gala’s plant-based menu and the conversations that could be had about the sustainability of it.

“If you’re gonna go towards the future you have to push the boundaries really hard to move forward in the right direction,” she told Spoon. “If you have a vegetarian menu, you can always take shortcuts here and there, but when you move towards a plant-based menu, then you’re really looking to something that grows, that comes out of the earth, and for me, it’s also about the sustainability of it. You really have to put that extra effort into educating yourself and to know what is good and what is not.”

Like Bengtsson, chef Nasim Alikhani also hopes to see more consciousness around eating habits among her customers and the rest of society. 

“It breaks my heart every time I put a big piece of a steak on someone's plate,” said Alikhani in an interview with Spoon. “But people require it, they want it. I'm hoping by all these amazing efforts, such as the Met Gala putting the vegan in the forefront of the conversation, those of us who believe we can do better come and still serve meat, still have non-vegan dishes, but still reduce our carbon footprint. That’s my hope."

Courtesy of Nasim Alikhani.

Alikhani is the chef-owner of Sofreh and the very recently opened Sofreh Cafe, both which are located in Brooklyn, New York. Before becoming a restaurant owner three years ago, Alikhani assumed many other roles: stay-at-home mother, law student, librarian, nanny, print shop owner — the list goes on. Through it all, she was always cooking and used her lifelong experience to open up her first restaurant where, today, she continues to bring traditional Persian cuisine out of the confinement of home and into the public food scene for people to experience and enjoy. 

As a passionate advocate for her country and her people, Alikhani used the Met Gala as an opportunity to speak out and represent her culture, whether it be through her words, her food, or her dress which featured a map of her home country, Iran.

“My voice is just one of millions of voices,” Alikhani said. “[I want to] bring that voice out, especially in regards to Persian food and, hopefully as a result, the Persian community.” 

What Alikhani did for Persian food, Lazarus Lynch did for Southern food.

Lynch made history at this year’s Met Gala as the first black, queer chef to ever cook at the event. He describes himself as “undefinable” and has talent in many fields including acting, writing, singing, and, of course, cooking. He is best known for his moniker, “Son of a Southern Chef,” which is a nod towards his father, who is a chef with roots in Alabama and was Lynch’s earliest introduction to the food world

Courtesy of Lazarus Lynch.

“I’d say that my cooking style is the old meeting the new,” he told Spoon. “I’m teaching history and sharing my culture in ways that are relevant and creative,” and at this year’s gala, Lynch did exactly that. 

He showcased his Southern roots on the Met Gala dinner table, drawing inspiration from his childhood and preparing a collard greens hot chow served on coconut buttermilk cornbread. 

“I grew up with collard greens and cornbread. It was almost like lunch food,” he told Cultured Magazine. “The pot liquor, which is the liquid that is used inside of the collard green juice, was something I just used to slurp. I wanted to bring collard greens to the table because in Black culture it represents wealth. We eat it for the New Year to represent a lot of green in your life, a lot of money. Because we’re Black luxury, honey. The cornbread is something that I just love eating. Corn is a staple in the South. It’s one of the foundational ingredients throughout many different cuisines.”

For some, the Met Gala is a place to make a fashion statement, but for Marcus Samuelsson and his hand-picked team of chefs, this year’s gala was a stage to make statements about culture, sustainability, and the future of food.

“It’s been a collaborative effort over six months, with so many different people and hands and I feel relieved that it's over, but also so very proud of all the cooks and the servers that worked really, really hard collectively to make this happen,” Samuelsson said. “ The Vogue team, the chefs, the servers, everybody that had to come together, through COVID, and work through this. I’m extremely proud of this moment.”

And for the younger generation, and those of us aspiring to reach major platforms like the Met Gala, Alikhani leaves us with the following:

“Don’t wait for your passion project to land on your lap,” Alikhani said. “If you're mopping the floor, mop the floor the best you can and then find a creative way of enjoying mopping that stupid floor, and make it shine like it's a mirror. Look at it, and move from it, and go and do something else, because [with] any passion project, if you don’t reach the success of where you want to be or get on that path, after a while [it] becomes either work or a tedious project that is a loose end. But if in every little work that you do, in every interaction you do, you find a sliver of accomplishment, then you're ready for the next challenge."