What were you doing in early January 2017?
It seems like another lifetime. No world-shaking pandemic, no squabbling about “cancel culture” and President-elect Donald Trump had yet to be sworn into office. A moment of weird transition and uncertainty, but not without slim hope that things would remain relatively stable. We wanted, perhaps, a little whimsy to put us at ease.
Enter Nusret Gökçe, a Turkish chef and restaurateur whose signature style of presentation — sprinkling salt down his forearm onto slabs of steak — would quickly earn him the internet nickname “Salt Bae.” Gökçe had flair, but he also had poise, completely locked into his way of serving food and enviably unbothered by anything else. With confident gestures and a minimalist Euro-cool aesthetic, he made something we might try as a gag at home resemble a serious performance, or at least a legitimate way to elevate a simple meal. “People Are Swooning Over This Sexy Chef Who Treats His Food Like A Lover,” BuzzFeed reported.
Even back then, Salt Bae had his critics. “When you use ‘thus’ in an essay,” reads one vintage YouTube comment on his overwrought technique. “My favorite part is when he keeps uselessly banging his edge on the hard surface and dulls the shit out of it. Nice knife skills,” reads another. But his meme status translated to big business: Soon he was sprinkling salt for the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Michael Phelps, Simone Biles and Tommy Hilfiger. A slew of negative reviews for his direly expensive chain of steakhouses, Nusr-Et, did nothing to stop its global expansion; today it has locations in Dubai, Miami, Istanbul, Beverly Hills, Mykonos, New York, London and elsewhere. Naturally, he also keeps up appearances on social media, with close to 40 million followers on Instagram. It’s a level of culinary celebrity that defies all reason.
Lately, however, Gökçe seems to have reemerged in the public consciousness as an emperor without clothes. From what I can tell, there are a couple factors at play. One is the rise of TikTok, whose younger user base isn’t impressed with his theatrical schtick, viewing his customers as wealthy saps. A recent video of Salt Bae constructing a dubious dinner tableside for @notorious_foodie, for example, was buried in negative replies: “Paid a whole 1k for that wack dish”; “I swear my 6-year-old makes a plate like that lol [laugh-crying emoji]”; “I don’t understand why people wanna eat elbow salt”; “With a good vet I think the cow will make it” — and so on.
Maybe it’s all the cooking we did for ourselves during coronavirus lockdown, or maybe it’s the simple realization that you don’t need to salt a hunk of meat you already cooked in a salt crust for 10 hours, but Gökçe’s mystique ain’t what it used to be. His niche entertainment value, meanwhile, is increasingly at odds with the vulgar opulence and punishing cost of eating at Nusr-Et. When the London restaurant opened this year, the British press spared no scrutiny of the economics at play. A hiring notice offered hourly wages of £12 plus tips, the same price Salt Bae charges for a cob of corn or side of mashed potatoes. One patron’s check for £37,000, including a £4,800 service charge, made headlines — although who knows what they expected when ordering bottles of Pétrus wine. On this side of the pond, in Miami, diners called the police after being charged $1,000 apiece for a pair of Golden Tomahawk steaks, bone-in wagyu ribeyes encrusted in 24-karat gold leaf. (They claimed to not have ordered the gold version.)
Whichever way you slice it — and the more you watch Gökçe, the more it feels like he either routinely forgets how or is microdosing acid at work — the culture in 2021 has no patience left for a very rich man with idiosyncratic methods of cutting and seasoning. Even when fleecing a guy who clearly has more credit cards than common sense, like the Dick Tracy villain he serves in the video above, we can’t help noting what an ugly heap of beef Salt Bae dishes up after doing his little sword dance. The past four years have been too painful for us to enjoy an Instagram clip where he feeds a squirrel in the park and then presents it with an exorbitant bill.
Could the course of history right itself so that Salt Bae is amusing once again? I’m not counting on it. The veil has dropped, he’s annoying now, and only under the conditions of extreme inequality and a tasteless public can he continue to hold any relevance. What a brutal lesson in our collective role as vectors of content and arbiters of fame, yet a worthy one just the same. Please, be careful who you start calling “bae” — you’re handing them the keys to the kingdom.