A bit rich: flamboyant Turkish chef Salt Bae endures Maduro video backlash

Bethan McKernan
Demonstrators wave the Venezuelan flag outside the Nusr-Et Steakhouse in Miami, Florida. Photograph: Lynne Sladky/AP

A Turkish restaurateur who shot to Instagram fame with a video showcasing his flamboyant way with a steak knife and salt has endured publicity of an altogether different nature this week over footage of him serving Venezuela’s president Nicolás Maduro.

Restaurants owned by Nusret Gökçe – known as Salt Bae for his meme-friendly theatrics – have been targeted by protesters and inundated with one-star reviews over the footage, which emerged after Maduro and his wife Cilia Flores stopped in Istanbul on Monday on their way home from China, where the president was seeking investment to prop up Venezuela’s collapsing economy.

The footage depicted Gökçe performing his signature move – elaborately carving up and seasoning slabs of expensive steak – at Maduro’s table, before the two men puffed on cigars.

The video did not pass unnoticed in Venezuela, where nine in 10 households live on less than $1 a day and 60% of the population lost an average of 11kg (24lb) in weight last year because of the effect of hyperinflation on food prices.

Gökçe was accused of being an “accomplice of a murderous regime”, while the image that sparked the original meme was doctored to show the chef showering starving Venezuelans with salt, accompanied by the hashtag #ShameOnYouSaltBae.

The online review site Yelp was forced to moderate posts about Gökçe’s restaurants after a series of one-star reviews critical of both Salt Bae’s food and perceived political stance.

“Was planning on visiting, however noticed they feed communist dictators in there,” one reviewer wrote. “Overpriced and low morals,” said another.

On Wednesday, the outrage spilled on to the streets, when dozens of protesters draped in Venezuelan flags massed outside the Miami branch of Gökçe’s Nusr-Et steakhouse chain and called on passersby to boycott it.

The backlash was fuelled by Florida’s Republican senator Marco Rubio, whose state is home to increasing numbers of Venezuelans fleeing hardship at home. He wrote on Twitter: “I don’t know who this weirdo #Saltbae is, but the guy he is so proud to host is… the overweight dictator of a nation where 30% of the people eat only once a day & infants are suffering from malnutrition.”

Rubio followed up by posting the Miami restaurant’s address and phone number, encouraging followers to let the chef know what they thought of his guest.

The chef has since deleted all mention of Maduro’s visit from his social media profiles. His restaurant group did not immediately respond to the Guardian’s request for comment.

Maduro told Venezuelan television that he dined at Gokce’s Istanbul restaurant after receiving a personal invitation, and plans to visit again soon. The president, who has already visited Turkey twice this year, is drawing closer to its president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Maduro and Gökçe’s personal relationship also looks set to endure: Maduro has invited the chef to Caracas and demonstrated on television on Wednesday how Salt Bae taught him his signature sprinkling technique.