Salt Bae and the year the internet chef trolled the world

When Salt Bae opened his London restaurant in September 2021, no one could stop talking about it. Kate Ng explores why we can’t get enough of the man or the meme

Monday 27 December 2021 06:00
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Of all the cultural moments that took place in the UK over the course of 2021, few were as enduring and as divisive as the opening of Salt Bae’s London restaurant in September.

The Turkish chef, whose real name is Nusret Gokce, shot to stardom as a meme in 2017, when a video of him sprinkling salt liberally down his forearm and onto a steak, went viral. Today, he still adopts the idiosyncratic pose that made him famous both in his restaurants as part of a performance for customers and wherever he is photographed in public.

It’s this hyper-awareness of what the internet loves that has made Salt Bae such a success, both as a public personality and in his restaurant business. It has been his life force for years, allowing him to grow far beyond the confines of a meme in a way no other real-life subject of a meme has been able to.

Gokce opened his first restaurant in Istanbul in 2010, after working in several restaurants in Argentina and the US to widen his experience in the industry. His luxury steakhouse chain, Nusr-et (a play on his own name and the word “et”, which means “meat” in Turkish), has since spawned nearly 30 establishments and regularly hosts high-profile celebrities, politicians, sportsmen, you name it. The glittering guestlist bolstered Nusr-et’s reputation as a place in which to eat and be seen eating.

And yet, how Salt Bae has been able to open restaurant after restaurant, in some of the most sought after locations in the world – Dubai , Los Angeles, New York, London – despite consistently receiving negative reviews is something of a miracle. When his NYC restaurant opened in 2018, critics described his giant steaks and hunk of meat as “bland and boring”.

Writing in the New York Post, food critic Steve Cuozzo called the establishment a “ripoff”, and said, rather savagely, that his steak was a “shoe-leather-tough bone-in ribeye, which, for extra fun, was loaded with gruesome globs of fat”. GQ’s Joshua David Stein added that the menu was “absurdly expensive, even by New York City steakhouse standards”.

This year, all of London Twitter raged about the overpriced menu, which featured gold-covered everything. From £100 burgers to £850 tomahawk steaks (way more than what this writer pays in monthly rent) Salt Bae was widely criticised for slapping huge prices on his menu items with a liberal sprinkling of salt.

As though inviting public ridicule, some customers posted photographs of their receipts from dining at Nusr-et in Knightsbridge, showing the eye-watering amounts of money they spent. One table of four revealed their bill came up at a shocking £37,000, which included the famed tomahawk steak, pricey side dishes such as asparagus (£18) and mashed potatoes (£12), as well as bottles of wine and champagne costing thousands of pounds.

As though inviting public ridicule, some customers posted photographs of their receipts from dining at Nusr-et in Knightsbridge

The restaurant has also been hit by a slew of negative reviews on Tripadvisor, where it now ranks as low as 20,491st out of the 23,811. Some of the most recent reviews warn others not to dine there “even for your social media snaps” and complained of meat served up so raw that “the cow was still alive”.

One particularly (ahem) salty reviewer wrote that the food was an “insult to humanity”, adding: “Worst food, worst service, paid over £1,800 for three of us. Poor quality, smelly meat, small portions, rather spend £50 in the local restaurant will be better [sic]! Never again! Stay away, it’s a death trap.”

Publication after publication (including The Independent) pounced on all the adverse attention Salt Bae’s restaurant received. For weeks after it opened, there were countless think pieces, news stories, reviews, and hot takes produced on every newspaper imaginable. One particular review by food critic Jimi Faruwera for the Evening Standard captured the experience rather aptly: “Any attempt to seriously engage with something so patently unserious is ultimately futile – like offering sincere music criticism to a guy playing traffic cone didgeridoo in a doorway.”

But still, Salt Bae’s London restaurant remains fully booked, a feat that has earned him praise from Manchester restaurant boss Nikolas Opacic. Opacic described the celebrity chef as a “genius” despite having “insane prices”.

“Well done to him, he deserves all the credit,” he told the Evening Standard. “The people that are complaining are the ones who are not even going to the restaurant. If people can afford it and want to experience it, let them. He’s a genius, if he can fill a restaurant with those prices.”

All the attention focused on Salt Bae and Nusr-et is not about the food, and it never has been

You can’t help but admire the magnetic pull of Salt Bae. Some have gone so far as to pay respect to his ability to take money from the super-rich in a way no government ever could. Even the bad press can’t stop him; arguably, the relentless content machine only serves to gain him more attention, more bookings, more reviews.

All the attention focused on Salt Bae and Nusr-et is not about the food, and it never has been. It’s about the performance, the dinner theatre that Salt Bae puts on for his customers. It’s perhaps no surprise that once he left London two months after opening the branch here, his restaurant ratings plummeted.

He has now gone on to open yet another restaurant in Saudi Arabia, his 28th establishment. Once there, he will no doubt continue to slice, sprinkle and pose his way into an even bigger empire. And for that, we only have ourselves to blame.

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