Marco Rubio condemns 'weirdo Salt Bae' after Venezuela president Nicolas Maduro dines at his restaurant

Tom Embury-Dennis

Marco Rubio has condemned Turkish celebrity chef "Salt Bae", after it emerged Venezuela's president Nicolas Maduro dined at one of the cook's restaurants.

“I don’t know who this weirdo #Saltbae is, but the guy he is so proud to host is not the President of #Venezuela,” the Republican senator wrote on Twitter. “He is actually the overweight dictator of a nation where 30% of the people eat only once a day & infants are suffering from malnutrition.”

Footage showed Mr Maduro dining on expensive steak at the Istanbul restaurant during a stop-off returning from a visit to China, drawing furore back home where millions struggle to get enough to eat and red meat is a rare luxury.

In one video, Mr Maduro tells fellow diners, "This is a once in a lifetime moment," as Salt Bae, real name Nusret Gokce, dramatically slices steak for them by their table. In another video, Mr Maduro smokes a cigar taken from a personalised box while he and first lady Cilia Flores watch Mr Gokce in action.

“This guy [Nusret Gokce] who admires dictator @NicolasMaduro so much actually owns a steakhouse in, of all places, #Miami,” Mr Rubio continued on Twitter, before providing the restaurant’s address and phone number “in case anyone wanted to call”.

Mr Maduro confirmed the visit in a state broadcast later on Monday. Mr Gokce did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Venezuela's political opposition jumped on the meal as evidence of Mr Maduro's disconnect from the country's crisis, which has caused over 2 million people to emigrate to escape widespread shortages of food and medicine.

Almost two-thirds of Venezuelans surveyed in a university study published in February said they had lost on average 11kg in body weight last year. Nearly nine in 10 were assessed to live in poverty.

"While Venezuelans suffer and die of hunger, Nicolas Maduro and Cilia enjoy one of the priciest restaurants in the world, all with money stolen from the Venezuelan people," tweeted opposition leader Julio Borges, the former head of congress.

On social media, Venezuelans shared mocked-up images showing Mr Gokce doing his trade-mark salt sprinkle pose above a skeletal child.

Mr Maduro said he visited the restaurant for lunch during a two-hour stop in Istanbul.

"Nusret attended to us personally. We were chatting, having a good time with him ... He loves Venezuela, he told me several times," Mr Maduro said.

Mr Maduro had travelled to Beijing in hope of securing fresh funds for his cash-starved socialist government, though he returned only having signed several deals involving Venezuela's energy sector.

Mr Gokce went viral in 2017 after posting videos of himself salting meat with a cobra-like manoeuvre. He has over 15 million Instagram followers and has helped launch Nusr-Et restaurants, which charge several hundred dollars for some cuts of meat, in the Middle East, New York and Miami. He is set to open a branch in London.

Additional reporting by Reuters